Monday, November 30, 2009

Rebutting the "War on Christmas" meme

We went to DairyStateMom's church yesterday, which I always find bracing. For the First Sunday in Advent, the senior pastor introduced what will be a series of sermons on the 4 canticles that punctuate Luke's narrative of the birth of Jesus.

She also took time to admonish (in a gentle and humorous but nonetheless firm manner that is her hallmark) those in the congregation who wanted Christmas carols in the liturgy before December 24. And in the same vein, she addressed the overweaning commercialism that surrounds the holiday, and made the cogent point that Christmas is not found in those commercial venues, but in the church.

Which strikes me as the ultimate rebuttal to the phony claims of a "war on Christmas." As The Rev. John Buchanan at 4th Presbyterian in Chicago said in a sermon some years ago (and I'm liberally paraphrasing), the commercial adoption of "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," besides being sensitive to the multicultural and multi-faith world we live in, renders to God the things that are God's: Intentionally or not, it respects the religious dimension of Christmas by not trying to appropriate it.

Update: The Rev. Victoria Weinstein, a/k/a PeaceBang, preached on Christmas commercialism this weekend, too. I like what she had to say.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More like this, please

In the New York Times of November 23: Three Clergymen, Three Faiths, One Friendship

What distinguishes the “amigos,” who live in Seattle but make presentations around the country, is a unique approach to what they call “the spirituality of interfaith relations.” At the church in Nashville, the three clergymen, dressed in dark blazers, stood up one by one and declared what they most valued as the core teachings of their tradition The minister said “unconditional love.” The sheik said “compassion.” And the rabbi said “oneness.”

The room then grew quiet as each stood and recited what he regarded as the “untruths” in his own faith. The minister said that one “untruth” for him was that “Christianity is the only way to God.” The rabbi said for him it was the notion of Jews as “the chosen people.” And the sheik said for him it was the “sword verses” in the Koran, like “kill the unbeliever.”

h/t to DairyStateMom for the link.

And Happy Thanksgiving to all

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Prayer Cards online

Broad Street Ministry is a Presbyterian-connected, progressively oriented, alternative church community in Philadelphia. I recently learned of it tangential to an article I'm working on.

At the community's weekly bible study, participants can submit prayer cards that are read as part of the service. Then they are posted online with identifying information redacted so that the world can participate in praying with the supplicants. To read it is a moving experience, cracking open the heart to see inside the lives and faiths of a diverse group of people.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Santa stories

This blog post at Free Range Kids, and the comments it generated, reminded me of a few largely-unrelated-to-each-other Santa Claus tales, offered here in no particular order.

1. About 20 years ago I had a boss (younger than I was, even then) who was an Evangelical Christian. Three details that I recall in particular. One, as a young father, he and his wife had occasion to take his child one Sunday to be christened. What I remember specifically is they didn't call it baptism, but a "dedication" -- which was intriguing to me, because, of course, that's what we UU's typically call it. (I was myself not yet a father, but had already witnessed several beautiful dedication ceremonies at my UU church.) Now I knew better than to assume he was "just like me" because of that -- I fairly quickly inferred that his non-denominational church was a practitioner of adult baptism, as is common among many Evangelicals. Still I was intrigued by the commonality, however superficial. A second detail was his disapproval of Halloween as a holiday -- something I had not at that point come across among Evangelicals. But the third detail (and really the point here) is that he and his wife made a point of not telling their children about Santa Claus. His reasoning actually made sense to me. He felt that telling kids about a mythical supernatural being, knowing that sooner or later they would learn the truth of its non-existence, would simply set them up to lose faith in God in a similar fashion later. By not pretending in the existence in Santa, he felt, they were not creating the sort of cognitive dissonance or breach of trust between child and parent that could prompt later skepticism in the existence of God.

2. In a somewhat similar vein, I had a high school English teacher who also wouldn't tell his children about Santa. He had a very different reason, however. He described growing up in relative poverty. When he was in 8th Grade (I'm pretty certain about this detail), his family got for Christmas an expensive television. He was absolutely certain that there was no way his family could have afforded that, so his only explanation, even at that late age in his life, was that it was from Santa and that Santa, therefore, was real. Eventually he learned the truth (and just how they were able to get this expensive TV, I don't think he ever told us); he was so ashamed at his credulity that he decided it was wrong to perpetuate the Santa myth with his own kids, and so he didn't.

3. And now to the story I thought of first when I read the FRK post. Some years ago, my church had an intern minister. One Sunday in early December she preached a sermon in which she made direct reference to the shedding of the Santa myth. It was mostly in passing, in the service of a larger point that, quite frankly, I've forgotten. Fast forward to the end of the service. Out in the vestibule, as people are getting ready to leave, I see friends consoling one of their children, who might have been as old as a 4th grader at the time. He was sobbing. Later, I learned why: he had skipped Sunday school that morning and sat upstairs with his parents -- and not until he heard the sermon did he realize that Santa was, indeed, an imaginary being. To say that he was completely flummoxed by the experience is an understatement. (I believe that the intern who had been inadvertently responsible for his disillusionment was taking part in the effort to console him.) Now, I want to point out that the parents involved did not hold it against the intern minister in the least for having accidentally shattered the myth (nor, I think, would I have, nor did anyone that I know of). But, more to the point, they acknowledged that they didn't even realize that their son still believed it literally at that age.

I do have a fond, wistful recollection of when DairyStateKid#1 first figured out that Santa might not be real (at about the age of 7 or so), and diffidently brought that up with his mother* and me. It was a very sweet moment. If I remember rightly, he actually expressed a bit of sadness about it all and decided to willfully believe a little longer because of that, even though he knew "the truth." DSK#2, meanwhile, I think pretended to believe to a much older age, and we all dutifully played along. I see no big problem in the Santa myth myself, obviously. I suppose if I wanted to rationalize it intellectually I'd say something like, well, it is an opportunity to help teach about how myths and stories come about, represent deeper truths, or blah blah blah. But mostly, it's just harmless fun, as far as I'm concerned.

Besides, I always rather liked what a friend used to tell his kids about believing in Santa: "You know what happens when kids stop believing in Santa? Their parents have to buy them presents!"

*not DairyStateMom, for regular readers...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On hate crimes, comic strips, and offending the reader

For most of my life, I probably was a reflexive supporter of the notion of prosecuting certain acts as "hate crimes" and of extending the umbrella of hate crime legislation to protect more and more marginalized groups.

Over the years, I've come to conclude that the attempt to define and prosecute hate crimes is misguided. I says this somewhat reluctantly, because I do believe the desire to recognize and prosecute hate crimes comes from a basically honorable motivation.

The blogger Andrew Sullivan first got me thinking about this differently (the link is to a representative comment by him on the subject), and just recently Paul Oakley's take on the issue was for me compelling enough to clarify my own thinking once and for all.

Now comes word that, in response to pickets, the paper Newsday is apologizing for, and wishing it hadn't published, a cartoon mocking the notion of hate crimes.

The timing, I'll admit, was unfortunate. Just a week before the cartoon ran was the one-year anniversary of the death of an Ecuadorean immigrant at the hands of teenagers who stabbed him to death. And the paper's coverage of immigration issues became a lightning rod for protesters. I'm unable to judge the paper on that specific subject, but I do know that Newsday has a long and basically good reputation for serious community and investigative journalism, although its ownership has changed recently.

But the fact is, the cartoon in question (an episode of Mallard Fillmore) makes a point, although perhaps not as deftly as one would want. And I say this as a non-fan of Mallard Fillmore who was quite happy when one of our local papers dropped the strip a few years ago.

The strip (description courtesy of Richard Prince, quoting a Newsday report on the controversy)
depicted a larger dinosaur chasing a small one. The bigger one says, 'I'm not chasing you because you're a pachycephalosaurus. . . . I'm chasing you because you're delicious.' The smaller dinosaur responds, 'Oh, thank goodness. I was worried that this might be a hate crime.'

Dead is dead. Beaten is beaten. Maimed is maimed. Raped is raped. Doesn't it make sense to punish people based on the consequences of their actions, rather than the thoughts in their heads? If a mugger kills me for my wallet, or kills my friend because he's gay, does the reason for the killing really warrant a different kind of sentence?

Now I'm not against labeling an act, where appropriate, as a hate crime--but I see that basically as a sociological exercise. I just have trouble seeing how that's relevant from the strict standpoint of criminal justice.

One other thing disturbs me about the Newsday episode.

"We expect the cartoons we publish, many of which are nationally syndicated, to amuse, stir and entertain, but never to offend," a spokewoman for the newspaper said in a statement.

Hmmm... Regardless of my own opinion on hate crimes -- is never to offend really the standard that the paper expects to reach? That seems to set the bar so high that all that would pass is pablum.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Rewriting nursery rhymes

Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free Range Kids" and proprietor of the blog of the same name, runs a weekly humorous contest in The Week. Her two careers converged recently when she
"was fed up with that pre-school TV show in England that had tinkered with the ending of Humpty Dumpty [and] changed the ending to, “All the kings horses and all the kings men/Made Humpty happy again.”
The result: A contest asking readers "to come up with another nursery rhyme with a new ending suited for today’s supersensitive, easily traumatized kids."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Profit in paranoia

Parents are perhaps more frightened for their children than in any generation in memory--to the point of irrationality. Why? Media sensationalism and a collapse of critical thinking play a role. But as Deep Throat told Woodward, Follow the Money: There's profit in paranoia. My friend Lenore Skenazy is a voice for sanity.

If you read nothing else about the Fort Hood tragedy... this.

Money quote:
Nothing excuses what Major Hasan did. Nothing. And, we cannot allow those who peddle hatred and fear to distract us from looking at the full complexity of why this terrible tragedy happened. If we do not look deeply into what drove him to kill so many people, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by what is on the surface, then we have not lived up to the price that has already been paid.

But really, read the whole thing.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Introductions to Unitarian Universalism

A friend who is "an agnostic or atheist" but looking for a spiritual connection has decided to look into a local Unitarian Universalist church "because anything else would seem like a fraud." She asks for suggestions on which of the many books about Unitarian Universalism might give her some further introduction and insight. Of course I've suggested "A Chosen Faith" by Buehrens and Church, but I thought I'd ask my 2-1/2 readers and any passers by if they have suggestions as well. What book/s would you recommend to someone who would like to learn more about this faith? Post in the comments, please.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sad about Maine

We had had a glimmer of hope that the people of Maine might, indeed, become the first state to ratify marriage equality at the ballot box. It was not to be.

I do have faith, though, that somewhere, sooner or later, it will happen.

Where we live, our fellow residents fairly soundly passed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage three years ago.

Since then, though, we've been seeing billboards like these pop up around the area.

They touch me every time I see them.

And I think that's what it's going to take: More and more people finding out that people who live near them and interact in their lives just happen to be gay. Over time, I hope they'll come to see that the rights and privileges all of us get who are fortunate enough to be able to marry the partner of our dreams belong to those whose partners, and dreams, are different from their own.