Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • On Suffering: An Exchange with Lynn Nielsen on Buddhism and Christianity

    • Posted on Jun 15, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    My old friend and colleague Lynn Nielsen, who died of multiple myeloma in late April, took lunch with me every month or so for a good decade.  He was a Christian, a serious one.   I'm closer to Buddhism, and certainly far removed from his beliefs. 

    Nevertheless, we remained good friends, and spent many a happy hour over lunch pondering all sorts of issues from politics to religion--and never once getting upset about anything.  That's what made our friendship so special; it was based on mutual respect and appreciation.  

    On January 17, Saturday, we lunched as usual at Famous Dave's, drank our requisite two glasses of wine, and talked about the idea of suffering.  I put forth the idea that Buddhism dealt with human suffering in more depth and detail than Christianity--showing its followers how to live in a world that contains so much suffering, on so many levels.  I asserted that Christianity was less effective in helping its adherents deal with suffering.   

    Lynn didn't agree, but didn't say all that much until the next week, when he wrote a reply, to which I replied, and he replied again.  

    I just reread our triple exchange and thought I'd share it here, along with the last photo I took of him before he died.   

    FROM LYNN:  JAN 20 2015


    Good thought-provoking discussion last Saturday regarding suffering within the context of Christianity and Buddhism.  You asked for some kind of summary regarding my view of this question--what place does suffering hold in Judeo/Christian theology and practice.  

    As I thought more about this I came up with a series of familiar events or stories from the Bible (both OT and NT) that illustrate how suffering is central to the message of the Bible:

    • Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden for disobedience--Genesis 1-3
    • The world was destroyed while Noah and his family survived--Genesis
    • Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac only to have the Angel of the Lord intervene at the last minute--Genesis 12
    • Joseph was kidnapped and taken for dead only to become a Christ figure saving his family and friends from famine--Genesis 40-50
    • The Hebrews were held as slaves in Egypt for 400 years--Exodus 
    • The narrative of Job is entirely about why good people suffer--The book of Job
    • The Psalms are filled with pleas for deliverance from suffering
    • Central to the the Prophetic books are the two captivities (Assyrian and Persian) that destroyed much of the Jewish culture and traditions
    o Jesus came to suffer and die for the sins of the world.
    o Christians are called to suffer (though few of us really do very often).
    o Being a Christian is counter-cultural and thereby invites some suffering depending on the environment.  Identifying as a Christian in Iran clearly invites more suffering than identifying as a Christian in Nashville TN.  
    o Jesus was crucified for supporting counter-cultural concepts and beliefs.
    o Even after his death and resurrection, his followers were subject to the worst kind of persecution and social rejection.    
    None of this level of Biblical suffering should be confused with the kind of "suffering" that has lately become popular among right-wing, Fox-news-watchers.  For example, Duck Dynasty members do not get a pass because they reject homosexuals.  Christian business owners who refuse to serve homosexual clients and other marginalized populations do not receive the blessing of God even though many profit from these negative attitudes.  After all, bashing "fags" in America can be loads of fun.     

    Just my perspective,

    My reply on 1-25-15

    Hi--thanks for your reflection on suffering--have been pondering it off and on lately.  Thought I'd offer a few thoughts, just random and immediate.  

    The myths that Christianity sets forth are designed, from my perspective, to allay suffering, and work for its adherents pretty well. It offers the premises that suffering comes from a fall, and that God (who seems to think like a petty tyrant in the OT) in his anger at mankind's disobeying Him, cast mankind from paradise.  

    In that casting out, we suffered abandonment and must constantly seek to find ways back to God.  For Jews, this is an ongoing challenge and 
    problem, since there is no other answer than the seeking. 

    For Christians, who following the teachings of that greatest of all Jews, there's another answer:  Believe in Christ and all suffering is relieved--no need to do much more than that--and the joy lies in living forever in paradise with Him.    Not a bad deal.  

    That's the story, anyway, and if you can buy it, life's sufferings get considerably smaller.   It's called Faith, of course, aligned with Grace. 

    Now, for those of us who can't buy the story--just too obviously mythical in the sense of "false," there are other paths to relieving and understanding 
    suffering. I have found Buddhism is helpful especially in its emphasis on mindfulness and awareness--deep awareness of our true nature, which comes 
    during meditation, especially after long practice.  

    It involves recognition of our common "Buddha nature,' that we are all part of the same whole, that we all seek larger awareness of our loving nature, and suffering comes from our attachment to, well, everything.  Attachments are nothing more than illusions of permanance, and our need for permanence pervades our lives.

    Of course nothing is permanent--everything is in a constant state of flux, 
    and there's nothing to be done but live in the present, aware of the constant shifting going on everywhere at all times.  Underneath all that, of course, is our own awareness, the clarity that comes from realizing that our awareness does remain, recognizing that our thought-streams, while real to us, are not really true--merely illusions that we can choose to follow or not.  As Gandhi put it:  

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    That rings true to me—


    Lynn’s reply: 1-27-15  

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the response to my response.  I don't see Christianity and Buddhism to be competitors for the religious mind of modern thinkers to the extent you might.  The entire mystical wing of the Catholic Church for example, is built on very parallel premises.  As far back as Hildegarde of Bingen (and before) Christian mystics supported the concepts put forward by Ghandhi:

    Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
    Your thoughts become your words, 
    Your words become your actions, 
    Your actions become your habits, 
    Your habits become your values, 
    Your values become your destiny.”

    This is expressed somewhat in Romans 5:1-5 where Paul writes:
    Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

    Concerning the issue of "stories" from the Bible, most modern Biblical scholars readily accept the concept that stories carry multiple  purposes and often the question of "myth or not-myth" simply gets in the way of the message the story is designed to tell.  Deciding what is drawn from historical fact and what is simply mythological will in the end be an individual belief.  But simply because a particular part of a story reflects the "paranormal" does not mean it is categorically and "obviously mythological."  

    I have had almost no experience with paranormal phenomena but the little I have had strongly suggests there is indeed a "something other" that is beyond and bigger than me. 

    --Lynn Nielsen, Easter Sunday, 2015; two weeks before he died.   

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Religiosity
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Tribute to an Old Friend

    • Posted on May 03, 2015 by Scott Cawelti
    Here is this morning's Courier column on Lynn Nielsen, who died Monday, April 20.  He is widely and deeply missed.  I took this photo on Easter Sunday, fifteen days before he died.  

    My old lunch buddy, fellow bar musician, church organist, UNI colleague, Danish chef, spiritual seeker, neighborhood activist, world traveler, and creative spirit left us for good on April 20th. 

     Lynn Nielsen left a large and sad band of mourners who will grieve his absence while feeling grateful for all he gave.   

     Over the last decade or so, Lynn and I had become close friends. I loved his passion for improving his neighborhood, his deep engagement with UNI as a professor and mentor, his musicianship as a jazz pianist and church organist, his quest for travel, especially to Paris, where he arranged to play massive cathedral pipe organs, and his openness to discussing religion and spirituality no matter where it led.    

     During our many lunches, we toasted friendship and discussed the state of everything. I treasured our conversations.     

     Otherworldly matters came up over worldly lunches with wine—the French touch.  We explored spiritual issues after a column I wrote on “Promise Keepers,” a Christian men’s movement that I had pointedly criticized, and which he supported. 

     He wanted to discuss his commitment to the group.  I readily agreed to meet, since he was articulate and funny.  Humor goes a long ways toward dissolving differences. 

     Soon we enjoyed common ground.  Our mutual passions—music, books, and teaching—gave us plenty to hash over.  We also realized that we shared questions about not just our own beliefs, but all beliefs.  

     “We all want the same things,” he’d say, wondering why people sink into pointless and endless squabbles.   

     I had been a born-again Christian as a teenager, gave it up, and gradually discovered Buddhism through years of meditation and workshops.  Lynn had been a lifelong Lutheran who discovered it wasn’t the only religion that made sense.  He knew history, and how many religions were based on legend and myth, widely believed through sheer repetition.   

     He held his beliefs dear, and I respected him for that.   

     As we agreed, the opposite of faith is certainty, not doubt.  Humility is a central trait of all genuine spiritual seekers, and involves degrees of questioning and doubt.  

     Lynn never insisted that his was the one and only truth. Nor did I.  Along with music, that kept us friends.  He always, and I mean always, sent extended comments on my columns, and I learned from his observations and criticisms.  He humbled me more than once.  

     Lynn struggled with people who excluded and judged others based on their beliefs—that was not what Christ stood for.  

     He believed that Christianity should stand for compassion, generosity, and gratitude, as do all world religions at their core. 

     However, as Gandhi put it, “I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ.”  I used that quote as a bumper sticker, and he loved that.   

     Of course Gandhi didn’t mean all Christians, and certainly not Lynn Nielsen.  
    Lynn walked the walk, being more like Christ—without a trace of religiosity or pride—than many Christians I’ve known. 

     He was a Pope Francis Christian, not a Jerry Falwell Christian.    

     Though he never preached, he often mentored, and several men from a Bible study group he led testified at a friends gathering that his insights and challenges led them to deeper understandings of Christianity.  They expressed profound thanks for his guidance and leadership. 

     Besides, he threw great parties, or “lovefests,” as he called them.  He created tables full of Danish dishes, pastries, desserts, all accompanied by plenty of well-chosen wines. He loved diversity, and invited friends, neighbors, colleagues, students—anyone who would enjoy lovefesting.    
    And before dinner, we always sang  “Amazing Grace.”  
    How sweet was that sound.  

     We’re all bereft.   


    Posted in
    • Personalities
    • Religiosity
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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