(an interview with Jake Frankel of “Authority Magazine”)
As part of my series about “How to write a book that sparks a movement” I had the pleasure of interviewing Arthur Yavelberg
A teacher and school administrator for close to 40 years, Arthur Yavelberg has dedicated his career to making complicated issues accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. Where many academicians seem to delight in abstruse jargon that confuses more than it explains, his goal has always been to present information in a manner that helps the student draw independent conclusions.
Besides his professional career in education, Arthur has also had the opportunity to see wonderful spiritual sites in both Europe and Asia. To be able to interact with so many devotees–to actually participate in their rituals and celebrations—has been an experience which he believes has been mysteriously divinely orchestrated…as all the events of our lives ultimately are.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” of how you grew up?
I grew up as an only child. My father, a career Air Force man, was a devout atheist. My mother, born in Mexico, was a very superstitious woman who believed in all kinds of mysterious energies—dreams whose numerical symbols could predict the winners of dog races in Miami, the power of the “evil eye,” the abilities of good luck charms and amulets and the like. While both were Jewish by birth, there were none of the typical Jewish observances in our household. As my father was stationed overseas every two years, I was around my mother and her sisters much more. Nevertheless, as I attended public schools, I became much more of a pragmatic “American” in disposition than Mexican.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story?
Not a book, but there were tv/movie characters that had a big impact on me. I saw “King of Kings” when I was a kid and was very impressed—by Jesus’s manner and even the music, which I can still hear. Apparently that was the first movie made in the U.S. in which one could actually see the face of an actor playing Jesus. That that actor was Jeffrey Hunter, later to be Captain Christopher Pike in the original “Star Trek” pilot, was a bit bizarre as the Vulcan logician of that series, Spock, became another role model for me. Then there was Kwai Chang Caine of the “Kung Fu” tv show in which a Taoist monk was forced to live in exile in the American Wild West. How he managed to practice his Taoist values in that setting absolutely captivated me. So, some might argue that, especially with a regularly absent father, the Holy Spirit or the Tao or Brahman was mysteriously guiding me to spiritual considerations—as the Hindus say, “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek.”–but I was clearly open to the possibility that there were other dimensions than seemed apparent to a typical kid.
What was the moment or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
I was a teacher and school administrator for 40 some years, so I was always involved in making ideas accessible to a variety of students. However, to actually sit down and write the book was a consequence of the Covid pandemic. Even though I am an only child, I am not so much of a narcissist as to believe this entire world-wide pandemic was the Divine’s way of getting me to write “A Theology for the Rest of Us.” Nevertheless, that was the context in which I sat down to write.
What impact did you hope to make when you wrote this book?
As a teacher, especially in middle schools, I always wanted to help students think for themselves. I never asked questions like “When was Abraham Lincoln President?” It was always “Do you think Abraham Lincoln was a good President?” or, even better, “Do you think George Washington would have thought Abraham Lincoln was a good President?” In other words, the point was to get students to make value judgments on the basis of information. Most students were not used to that approach. They were used to teachers “talking at them”–and resenting it. So, when it came to writing this book, I wanted readers to have access to information and then consider their own values in coming to their own conclusions. It is extraordinary—and rather sad, really—that so many adults feel intimidated by spiritual questions and, therefore, feel they need to accept what some authority has to say about topics that are intensely personal.
Did the actual results align with your expectations? Can you explain?
Yes. I hear constant feedback to the effect that readers have felt empowered by the approach I use in the book; that, for the first time for many, they did not feel like someone was telling them what to believe, whether it made sense to them or not. Come to think of it, the negative comments I hear—that what I am writing is blasphemous and causing people to stray away from the Truth—whatever that Truth happens to be for whomever is doing the criticizing—is the flip side of the same point. When the Bible says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.,” note that it doesn’t say “You shall love his or her God” but YOUR God with YOUR heart. In other words, the Commandment is to form a personal relationship with God and not simply to repeat verbatim what someone else is saying about God.
What moment let you know that your book had started a movement? Please share a story.
I don’t know that “started a movement” fits. Most “movements” are about people starting to follow some leader who wants something to happen according to his or her beliefs. If anything, by wanting people to come to their own conclusions—by giving them permission to do so—it’s more like an “anti-movement.” And, yes, there are those who would argue that that, in fact, makes me the “anti-Christ.”
What kinds of things did you hear right away from readers? What are the most frequent things you hear from readers about your book now? Are they the same? Different?
I hear that people are thrilled to have the opportunity to understand spiritual concepts at their level and excited—and a little scared—to be put in the position of making spiritual decisions for themselves.
What is the most moving or fulfilling experience you’ve had as a result of writing this book? Can you share a story?
I was giving one talk when someone asked me about The Trinity, especially since he had left the Church years before because it made no sense to him. I said, “Well, I’m not a Catholic, but The Trinity may not be as irrational as you may think. For example, there is this ‘stuff’ that, at room temperature, is a liquid but, when heated, becomes a vapor and, when frozen, becomes a solid—H20 or water. It’s the same ‘stuff,’ but takes different forms in different settings. Similarly, I am standing before you—I am a writer, but I am also a father and a son and a Phillies’ fanatic and who knows what else depending on the context. That’s not irrational. That’s true of all of us—well, not the ‘Phillies fanatic’ part, but the point is the same: with The Trinity, the Divine may take different forms and act in different ways depending on the context.” I laughed and went on to the next question. The next week that man came up to me and said that, for the first time in so many years, he had attended Mass and it was a completely different spiritual experience for him. It wasn’t because he thought he had sinned by not going to Mass or that he was now doing the right thing. Rather, it was the first time he was doing something religious without feeling like he was fighting against something inside himself that refused to just accept what didn’t make sense. It just doesn’t get better than that for someone like me.
Have you experienced anything negative? Do you feel there are drawbacks to writing a book that starts such colossal conversation and change?
It depends on what you call “negative.” People have certainly criticized me for giving people permission to make decisions for themselves and that, by doing so, I am causing them to sin. But I don’t believe I am causing anyone to do anything. I am presenting information and explaining what makes sense to me—and letting them draw their own conclusions. So, no, there are no drawbacks—unless you count that business about spending all of eternity burning in Hell. Other than that, no.
Can you articulate why you think books in particular have the power to create movements, revolutions, and true change?
There is a reason why despots throughout history have made a point of burning books. Frankly, today’s “cancel culture” is the same thing on a smaller scale. You can kill people. You can’t kill an idea. Books are about ideas and there is nothing more dangerous to a despot than people learning there are alternative ideas to consider. Furthermore, books allow generations to talk to each other throughout history. People can learn from other people’s mistakes as well as their own. They can also see that, despite all kinds of odds, revolutions do start, have started, and can succeed. No change can take place in any field or in any location without starting with an idea—an idea that gets circulated through books.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a bestselling writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
The only habit I have is to tell my perception of the truth as simply as possible. As a teacher, correcting essays was something I did all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked students—and teachers and other administrators and any number of professionals looking for writing advice–”Just tell me, in your own words, what are you trying to say?” People believe that successful writing has to be “sophisticated” and use a lot of big words. People forget that the point of language is to communicate. When they stop trying to project some literary “style” and just say what they mean, that’s when communication can take place.
What challenge or failure did you learn the most from in your writing career? Can you share the lesson(s) that you learned?
I don’t think in terms of “failure,” but I do think in terms of “development” and “progress.” “It took all of it to get you where you are today so you can get to where you need to go tomorrow.”
Many aspiring authors would love to make an impact similar to what you have done. What are the 5 things writers need to know if they want to spark a movement with a book? (please include a story or example for each)
I think the premise is mistaken. No one—no writer or anyone else—should do anything with the goal of “starting a movement.” People should tell their truth as best they can. If it catches on, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine, too. In “The Plague,” Albert Camus writes of a doctor who is terribly frustrated that he cannot find a cure for the deadly Bubonic Plague (“Black Death”) that is killing so many people in his village in the Middle Ages. Short story even shorter: the doctor ultimately realizes that he is looking for a cure not only to find a cure, but because he is a doctor. In Zen, that’s called “following your nature.” The results are irrelevant.
The world, of course, needs progress in many areas. What movement do you hope someone (or you!) starts next? Can you explain why that is so important?
I wish people could begin to give themselves permission to be truly independent thinkers. Most people are like typical adolescents: ‘I want to be unique….just like everyone else.” That attitude has led to all kinds of cults and autocracies and general misery: whether as societies or as individuals repressing their true natures. That message of personal freedom is so common in so many religious traditions throughout history—whether it is Jesus in the Bible or the Buddha in Asia and so many others. But what happens? You get Christians telling other people what it means to be “Christian” and Buddhists arguing about what it means to be truly “awake.” It would be funny if the stakes were not so high.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I have a webpage, arthuryavelberg.com, and a FaceBook group page open to the public dedicated to the book, “A Theology for the Rest of Us.”