Friday, October 30, 2009

Twice-a-year Churchgoers: Guest post from DairyStateMom

PeaceBang, on hiatus from her regular blog, has been scratching her blogging itch on FaceBook. One post there yesterday particularly struck DairyStateMom (who was the original PeaceBang reader and fan in our house). She responded briefly at FB, and then we talked about it some last night and this morning.

A later comment from PB
I always make a heartfelt invitation on Christmas Eve for people to join us at other times. And I really do feel it. I also feel for the people whose lives are obviously so harried that they yearn for community but honestly don't know how to go about becoming part of one. But I am just SO TIRED of meeting people at various events who seem to take some pride in informing me why they don't go to church (they're too enlightened, etc.) but "we love what you do at Christmas - it's so pretty." Someday I'm just going to speak my mind to them.
(emphasis added) helped us understand her original comment more sympathetically, but DSM felt moved to articulate her reaction to the overall thread, and I am posting her thoughts here:

First, let me be really clear: I’m COMPLETELY sympathetic with the emotions PB is expressing in her later posts, which gave a much friendlier picture of where she was coming from than her original (as she admitted “not very nice”) remark.

It’s just awful when another is eager to criticize one’s own hard work or one’s community, particularly when they’re equally eager to be morally or intellectually superior to oneself. (“I don’t come to church regularly because I’m just too rigorous a thinker for any such community.” Oh, please. Let me slap your head; perhaps you won’t be quite so rigorous then.). And I can’t help thinking that PB is probably much kinder when she meets and talks with these folks than her initial FB remarks were.

Further, it seems to me that good manners for the visitor suggest that timing, as always, is everything. Standing in the post-Christmas service greeting line with a hundred other people behind you is probably not the best moment in the world to tell a minister that you felt really annoyed when he said X or Y or Z in the sermon. Visitor: if you want your words taken seriously, why not ask for a little of the minister’s appointment time in a week or so, when things have calmed down a little bit?

All that said, let me make a case for the need (or anyway the inevitability) of such visitors, and the corresponding need to treat them in an welcoming a fashion as possible, despite their high annoyance factor. (Or as annoying and difficult people were called in at least one congregation I belonged to in the past, the EGRs, for Extra Grace Required.)

It seems to me as a thoughtful (I hope!!) churchgoer that clerics almost constantly struggle with a certain tension.

First, they are called to create a community, which needs to include some amount of challenge and risk for its members, or it winds up in a much-too-comfortable place that helps no one’s spiritual growth.

Simultaneously, they are called to welcome the stranger, who may not now or ever be ready for the challenges of a community, or at least not the one the minister serves right then.

Could anything be tougher?! On the one hand, one can take for granted that one’s audience understands certain conventions, gets the inside joke, will have heard the echo of last month’s series of sermons in today’s sermon, and so forth. On the other hand, none of those things are true. Pace Charlie Brown, AUGH!

And yet.

Dizzy Dean, when asked by his play-by-play man to praise an outfielder for a spectacular catch, said “That’s his job!” And so it is here. It’s the job of the minister to be the spur to her own community while maintaining a sense of welcome and tolerance for the new and grumpy and annoying. It’s the job of the minister to meet people where they are, wherever that happens to be.

All visitors, but especially the C&Es (Christmas & Easters, or Santa-Bunnies, if you will), bring fresh eyes to a church’s service, and if all people are God’s children (or are inherently worthy and dignified), then surely even the most annoying visitor has special eyes with which to see what others might not. Any fresh perspective -- even from someone who’s only too eager to tell you where you screwed up -- is helpful.

And may a non-UU gently point out that UUs pride themselves -- rightfully so! -- on meeting all people where they are in their journey? How better to do that than to be much gentler than people might rightly expect or imagine. How much more necessary when one remembers that some people come to UU churches having been deeply wounded by experiences in another denomination. Such experiences might well include having their own perspective dissed or ignored; so again, what a great opportunity to show them how blissfully different this church is.

Annoying people are also another branch of diversity. Diversity in congregations is taken as A Good Thing. But why?

Because the more different kinds of people who are there means that there is at least the potential for more points of view, more ways of thinking, more ways of expressing, more ways of living, more ways of loving.

Because then each of us sees clearly that Our Way Is Not The Only Way.

Because then all of us have more chances to hear God's voice among all those voices, because we never know in whose mouth God will put the words that we need to hear just then.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mainline Christians vs. Biblical Literalists

 Chalicechick ponders the shared literalism of atheist Christopher Hitches and evangelical pastor Douglas Wilson and wonders why Wilson is so moored to a literal understanding of Jesus. Go read the whole post, then come back for my thoughts, which expand on a comment I've left there.

[*humming to myself*]

Ok, glad to see you back.

CC gets to my biggest beef with the New Atheists: that they tend to be as literalist about the Bible as the fundamentalists/conservative evangelicals. Then they either impute that literalism to liberal and mainline Christians -- or else (as Sam Harris does) castigate the mainliners for not speaking out more strongly against the fundamentalists.

But if anyone is going to speak up for metaphorical understandings of Jesus, it's not gonna be Douglas Wilson. He's very much in the conservative wing of Christian thinking. A far more provocative -- and effective, I contend -- pairing would have been to put Hitchens up against someone like John Buchanan, editor of the Christian Century and pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago (DairyStateMom's old church).

You'd run into another problem there, though. Mainline Christians do seem to be loath to call out Evangelicals on a lot of the doctrinal stuff. Sam Harris is strictly speaking accurate on this charge. There are probably many reasons why that is. What follows is based more on my speculation than detailed investigation, with all the potential risks thereto. That said...

One probable reason is that the folks in their pews represent a broad spectrum of understanding about various pieces of doctrine. Take a mainline Christian preacher who didn't literally believe in the virgin birth: why would she or he want (in a sermon, say) to insult those parishioners who do? Why even need to go there? If the preacher is going to make parishioners uncomfortable, better to do so about something here and now that matters -- like speaking up for gay equality (as Buchanan has done). And similarly, when communicating with the wider world, I suspect many mainline pastors feel that it's unseemly -- and ultimately un-Christian, that is, uncompassionate -- to insult fellow Christians around such doctrinal matters.

In a similar vein, when Marcus Borg writes about non-orthodox understandings of God and Christ, his audience probably isn't made up of fundamentalists. It's more likely to consist of people who grew up in the church but became estranged from a belief system that came to seem irrational to them, yet still find a need and desire to connect with God and Jesus in some way.

On on the other hand, if there aren't many, or even any, literalists in our aforementioned hypothetical pastor's congregation, why spend any time tearing down the literalists then, either? That's not what parishioners need to hear, after all. Far better to point out the way Jesus welcomed even the outcasts, and what that calls us to do today.

A while back, I do recall the senior pastor at DairyStateMom's current church preaching very pointedly about the errors of Joel Osteen's approach to the Bible. But her critique was its self-centeredness, not its literalism. Personally, I think the point she made was the more important one.

For some mainliners, the literalist mindset may actually be fairly far out of their current everyday experience, and therefore something they don't feel a need to confront at all. I got a sense of this when I asked another pastor at DSM's church how kids deal with the topic of evolution. (I asked in part because their vacation Bible school focused on creation, and the whole evolution thing is a personal hobby horse for me, the son of an anthropologist.) Her response: It's never really come up, and perhaps that's because "we don't embrace a literal interpretation of scripture..." The primary message was that everyone is in God's image, and therefore is worthy of love and caring.

I do wish sometimes that mainline Christians would be more willing to directly confront and critique the more negative and even destructive interpretations of Christian doctrine held by some of their evangelical bretheren and sisteren. I know many Christians who despair at the way fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals have appropriated the term "Christianity" to the exclusion of more progressive Christians. (Interestingly, when I did some Googling on that, the first example to come up India. But the person seeking the confrontation appears to be a journalist, not a cleric.) In the end, though, I can understand why they don't. As DairyStateMom puts it, it may feel a little too much like airing dirty laundry in public -- about matters that for them just aren't that important.

Not dead yet?

A student (not mine) writes why reading ink on paper is better than reading a screen. Now if we can just get them to pay for the experience.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Apocolypse Now?

The item below arrived in the mail over the weekend. We thought it was a Jehovah's Witnesses tract at first.

Turns out it was from the Wilson Quarterly.

....The Wilson Quarterly?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

R.I.P. Jerry Bracey

In one of my freelancing hats I provide editing services to a network of education policy scholars writing on various aspects of education reform. One of them was Jerry Bracey, who, I've just been informed, passed away the night before last.

I met Jerry once and had the pleasure -- and it was a pleasure -- of working with his copy many times. Few could see through the cant and disingenuousness of so much of what passes for scholarship on education matters as he did, or write about it with such vigor and clarity. If I were to summarize the bulk of his work that I got to see, it would come down to this: Jerry standing on street corner, megaphone in hand, calmly pointing out to anyone who was willing to listen, "The Emperor has no clothes!" -- and providing the evidence to prove it.

The person who informed me of Jerry's passing writes about him far more eloquently than I could, and I print his thoughts with his permission:
The thought I keep having about Jerry is how his integrity and brilliance so often shown through, even overshadowing his irascibility -- or maybe it was that integrity and brilliance that created the irascibility. His contributions to those of us who worked with him -- including the two-dozen items he authored for us (he was finishing one up this week) -- were great. But his larger body of work was even greater -- consistently dedicated to statements of unvarnished truths and a dominant feature on the educational landscape for decades.

A couple days ago, John Thompson, on the "This Week In Education" blog speculated about paying pundits for their performance: "Pay them only for what they get right, or for judgments based on strong evidence."

His first thought was this:

"But if we evaluate on cold hard accuracy, the top bonuses would go to Gerald Bracey, and think of how blunt Bracey would be after receiving the full recognition he deserves."

We're going to tremendously miss that person and that voice.

I can think of no more fitting epitaph.

Via the above link (John Thompson on Alexander Russo), a sampling of Bracey's recent work at HuffPost.

Thoughtful words, and a conundrum

Boston Unitarian has an interesting and thoughtful meditation today. (h/t: PeaceBang's Facebook page)

On a tangent, it brought to mind a curious paradox that my own church's minister related in his sermon this past Sunday. (Perhaps this is old news to others, but it was a new one on me.):

Question: What is the only* religious denomination whose name specifically refers to religious doctrine? (Not practice [Baptist], not governance [Presbyterian or Episcopalian], not historical roots [Lutheran or Roman Catholic]...)

Answer: Unitarian Universalism, which is arguably the most non-doctrinal, at least of western religions...

*If you wish, feel free to temper "only"...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Should stupidity disqualify an advice columnist?

That's the question DairyStateMom asks regarding the campaign by some bloggers to get DoubleX advice columnist Lucinda Rosenfeld fired from her job for telling a letter writer... oh it's too long for me to summarize, just read it yourself.

Says DSM:
Should an advice columnist (or any opinion columnist) be removed for giving, well, bad advice? I don't think there's any question at all that the columnist gave a moronic response to the letter writer (taking Broadsheet's summary as accurate). Is that really the issue though? Do we fire columnists for stupidity?

Well, I guess some people think we should...

"Crush" Videos: The Religious Dimension

You laugh? Jeremy Biles is both thoughtful and serious.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sorting out the frustration among Obama's supporters...

...and mapping a way forward: "We got what we wanted".

I think Barack Obama was elected because the American electorate was captivated by his willingness to engage his opponents in dialog and debate. What a breath of fresh air!...

We got what we wanted. But he can't compromise when only one side is debating. Time to raise our voice.

Abraham and Isaac

In college, after I'd walked away from the Episcopal Church for the most part, but before I discovered Unitarian Universalism, I became quite absorbed in the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. I wrote an essay about it for my Advanced Exposition writing class, using the story as as a metaphor for fanaticism that puts an abstract cause above more immediate moral obligations. (The professor gave me a B, but suggested I rewrite it for a higher grade, taking into account Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which I did.) For a subsequent playwriting class I wrote a one-act about the story, ending it with Abraham cursing God, even after Isaac has been saved, for what he sees as God's mercurial nature.

So, of course, I found these these recent items especially interesting to read...

Friday, October 9, 2009

In this together

On the NY Times web site, a column from Roger Cohen of the International Herald Tribune succinctly frames the mindsets in favor of--and opposing--health care reform:

Whatever may be right, something is rotten in American medicine. It should be fixed. But fixing it requires the acknowledgment that, when it comes to health, we’re all in this together. Pooling the risk between everybody is the most efficient way to forge a healthier society.

Europeans have no problem with this moral commitment. But Americans hear “pooled risk” and think, “Hey, somebody’s freeloading on my hard work.”

I am witness to the fact that Americans can embrace a "we're all in this together" philosophy and that such an approach can help lower the cost and spread the availability of health care. More than two decades ago I covered health and medicine in Rochester, New York. At the time Rochester had an impressive system that helped hold down health care costs, achieve better outcomes, and broaden the reach of health insurance across the population. I covered this system on an ongoing basis for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle and later wrote about it for the Washington Monthly.

It was a complex system that centered on hospitals agreeing to accept essentially a yearly cap on their revenues, which was the focus of my Washington Monthly story. But another part of what made it work is that employers and insurers agreed to "community rating" -- which meant that the entire population, rather than each workplace or other sub-group, was considered one "risk pool." This raised the cost of insurance for the lowest-risk groups (the young and wealthy), but lowered it for those at highest risk, and contributed overall to a better quality of life where health care was concerned.

I haven't been back to Rochester in many years and I've heard second-hand this progressive system is no longer in place. (That's an unfortunate contrast to predictions people made when I wrote about it that it would become a national model.) I'm not sure why it was dissolved, and I do plan to look into that question some time, but based on how it was working when I was there, all I can say is, more's the pity.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Shameless nepotistic promotion

DairyStateDad comes from a religiously eclectic family. We grew up in the Episcopal church with close ties to the Quakers. As adults, the three of us have found different paths. I'm a Unitarian Universalist; one of my two older sisters converted to Judaism, while the other has been a pillar of the Quakers, a/k/a the Religious Society of Friends, for virtually all of her adult life. She is also one of the mostly deeply spiritual people I've ever known.

And today she holds forth on a topic dear to her heart and mine as she makes an appearance on a blog that interprets Quaker beliefs and practice for a broader audience.

Why biblical translation matters

A thoughtful essay on the subject, by a Baptist (and Southern Baptist, at that!) minister, published by the Chicago Divinity School's twice-weekly "Sightings" newsletter.