Category Archives: Religious education

Noah? Right…

Replaces a post lost during Web host problems.

[Update, 2021: Sadly, now that Bill Cosby has been called out by the #MeToo movement, I’d no longer show this video to children.]

The subject for today’s lesson in the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class was Noah. While the lesson plan in the Timeless Themes curriculum was pretty good, I knew immediately that I was going to scrap it — I knew I had to figure out a way to incorporate Bill Cosby’s comedy routine on Noah.

After taking attendance, we started out with some pre-assessment: “What do you know about Noah?” Some of the children knew quite a lot, and told what they knew in some detail and with pretty good accuracy. “So you pretty much know what the Noah story is,” I told them, “now let’s look at a video.”

The children loved the fact that I brought a laptop into class. “My dad has one of those!” “So does my mom, but I think hers is bigger. Do they make a bigger one?” With a group of this size — we had six children today, though sometimes we get ten — I much prefer having the children cluster around a laptop, where they have to deal with each other’s physical proximity, than sit back and stare at a big screen. I brought the video up. “My mom doesn’t let me watch Youtube.” I told the girl that her mom was wise because most of the stuff on Youtube was crap. “Make it full screen!” said several of the children in a chorus.
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Metrical hymns on non-traditional topics

Metrical hymns are out of fashion these days in favor of praise songs and pop-influenced worship music. But rhymed metrical hymns are easy to memorize, and they’re actually a really efficient way to give people of all ages a basic introduction to discrete religious subjects. And every metrical hymn provides a theological interpretation of to its subject matter, so it is doubly useful: you get the basic topic, and an interpretation of that topic.

So I’ve been thinking how post-Christian Unitarian Universalists might use metrical hymns to teach post-Christian topics. I’ve been reading about the birth of Buddha in the Jataka-nidana, and I was captured by the story of the Four Omens. This would make a good metrical hymn: it’s a concise story about two paths open to a baby, one path leading to worldly success and another path leading to a life on contemplation. The baby’s father of course hopes for worldly success, but learns that if the boy ever sees a dead person, an ill person, a mendicant monk, or an old person, then the boy will grow up to be, not a king, but the Buddha. What a thought-provoking story!

Anyway, an early draft of such a hymn appears after the jump. Continue reading

Yet another post on a topic of perennial concern

Kari Kopnick over at the blog Chalice Spark is concerned about Directors of Religious Education (DREs) who are resigning from Unitarian Universalist congregations due to burn out and poor working conditions, and she offers some very practical tips for retaining DREs — pay for professional expenses, give adequate time off, provide sabbaticals, etc. The sad truth is that most Unitarian Universalist congregations provide inadequate pay and tiny professional expenses budgets for their DREs, they provide punitive rather than supportive supervision, congregations expect more hours of work than they pay for, and they believe that it’s cheaper to hire a new DRE every three or four years than to provide sabbaticals.

Every year, I get a call or two from a DRE who is resigning from her job because of the way her congregation is treating her (I use the feminine pronoun because about 95% of all DREs are women, and yes part of the reason DREs are treated poorly is because the work is seen as women’s work and is therefore devalued). If your congregation’s DRE tenders her resignation this year, you might wish to challenge your minister and lay leaders to take an honest look at working conditions and compensation.

And thank you, Kari, for raising this issue.

P.S. Every time I write a post about how DREs are treated poorly, I get an email message or two from an angry lay leader or minister who thinks I’m talking in public about what’s going on in their congregation. If you think I’m specifically referring to your congregation’s treatment of your DRE, I’m not. However, you may wish to examine your conscience to figure out why you’re feeling guilty about this issue.

Puppets for a Jataka tale

This past Sunday, I read the version of Duddubha Jataka tale (no. 322) in From Long Ago and Many Lands by Sophia Fahs, for which Fahs supplied the title “The Nervous Little Rabbit.” We made simple puppets — drawings on cardboard which we cut out and mounted on popsicle sticks. One seven-year-old boy chose to make a puppet of “hundreds of rabbits”:

If you look at this puppet from the point of view of developmental psychology, you can look for ways in which this boy sees the world somewhat differently from adults; you’ll also look for how his fine muscle coordination is developing, etc. If you look at this puppet from the point of view of an artist, you might think this is a compelling design with satisfying organic shapes arranged in a pattern that implies movement. I’m most likely to look at this puppet from a teacher’s point of view and remember how involved the children were when we read the story again and had the puppets act the story out. The resulting puppet show wasn’t much to watch, but the children were drawn into the mythic world they helped co-create — even the fifth grader who read the story, and who was a little ambivalent about hanging out with younger children, got drawn in.

Spirituality development in youth

This morning, I was a guest in an online course on youth ministry, taught by Megan Dowdell and Betty-Jeane Rueters-Ward, and offered through Starr King School for the Ministry. Megan and Betty-Jeane invited Lane Campbell and me to participate in a conference call, and answer a few questions about spiritual development for teenagers. I took notes on what I said, and below you’ll find my re-creation of my answers to Megan’s questions on spiritual development.

Question 1: How is spiritual development for youth different than for adults or children?

My answer: If we’re going to answer this question within the context of a religious community, I want to begin with theology. We have to go back to theological anthropology, and ask ourselves: What is the nature of human beings?

Within my own religious upbringing — my family has been Unitarian for generations, and we’re now Unitarian Universalists — I always heard a lot about Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw a divine spark within every human being, no matter what age. If the nature of human beings is that they have have some divine spark within them, then we are probably going to say that this divine spark doesn’t develop at all. I’d pretty much agree with Emerson on this point, although I’d probably argue with him about the nature of the divine spark. So I’m not convinced there’s much spiritual difference across ages; certainly, from the standpoint of theological anthropology, there’s no real difference between teenagers and adults. Continue reading

Religious literacy quiz for religious liberals

You’ve heard about the Pew Forum’s “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey”, where U.S. atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons correctly answered an average of 20-21 out of 32 questions, while U.S. Catholics and Protestants answered 15-16 out of 32 questions correctly. I wonder how Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals would rate on religious knowledge. After looking at the 32-question quiz online (you’ll find a summary version of the quiz at the end of this post, without answers), my guess is that we would rate between Mormons and Protestants.

I love quizzes like this, and I’ve been thinking about developing a similar quiz that would test the religious knowledge of both adults and teenagers who have attended Unitarian Universalist religious education programs. What religious knowledge (facts) should all religious liberals have? Back in June I posted a quiz on Unitarian Universalist religious knowledge and facts. Now here’s my attempt at a multiple choice quiz to test the religious knowledge that religious liberals should find important and useful.

A. Bible knowledge

1. Which of the following are characters in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament? Moses — Isaiah — John — Abraham — Esther.
2. Which of the following are characters in the Christian scriptures, or New Testament: Jesus — Paul — Judas Maccabbee — Peter — Mary.
3. How many books are there in the Bible? 39 — 65 — 81 — Different Bibles have different numbers of books.
4. The final book of the Christian scriptures (New Testament) is “Revelations.” True — False.
5. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace their religions back to Abraham in the Bible. True — False.

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Democracy in action, through singing

This paragraph, from an essay about 18th century American church song, reminded me why I have a visceral dislike of certain kinds of music prevalent in liberal religious congregations today:

“When it was composed, this music [American 18th century four-part church song] was experienced rather than heard because it was not written for an audience’s appreciation or to tickle an ear — it was written to be experienced in performance by performers. How it ‘sounded’ to a non-participant was of very little importance. This is no novel concept; it is one of the essential pre-conditions of genuine church song. Clearly, a basic function of congregational music within the service should be to participate actively in worship through music. This active participation in worship is, of course, one of the foundation-stones of Protestantism, a democratization of religion that was one of the great achievements of the Reformation. If congregational song is to fulfill this function, it is obvious that no performer-audience relationship is possible; all members of the congregation must participate actively in the process of making music. Thus, congregation music must make its impact felt not through the hearing experience, as with choir music, but through the performing experience. …” [“The American Tradition of Church Song,” in Music and Musicians in Early America: Aspects of the History of Music in Early America and the History of Early American Music, Irving Lowens (New York: Norton, 1964), p. 283.]

The paradigmatic composer of this American music was William Billings (link to some sound files of Billing’s music performed both by professional choirs and amateurs). Billings wrote songs that can be sung by average people with average voices, yet they are musically interesting enough to hold the attention of sophisticated musicians. The songs are written in four-part harmony where each part has enough melodic interest to keep all singers interested and involved. The songs are unaccompanied, and are in that sense truly democratic — there is no paid accompanist, no soloist who is more important than the other singers; just as in political democracy, everyone has to participate in this music to make it work. And as is true of a robust democracy, education is an integral part of the process; Billings was one many New England singing-school masters who taught young people how to sing in four-part harmony. We’re talking about truly democratic music.

This is why I have a visceral dislike of praise bands: the sole reason for the existence of praise bands is to drown us out so that we don’t really have to participate, or so other can ignore us if we sound bad; that is profoundly anti-democratic. This is why I don’t care for song leaders who use a microphone in church to make sure their solo harmony part is heard above the unwashed masses who sing in unison; their purpose is not to get everyone singing together, their purpose is to have the masses singing so they can perform a solo over it; again, this is not democratic in the sense Lowens uses the word in the paragraph above.

I wish I had an easy solution to the problem, but I don’t. The solution to the problem simple, but not easy — the solution is to take the time to teach people how to sing, just like the solution to the problem of not enough volunteers in our congregations is to teach people how to do lay leadership. In a culture that values consumption over self-cultivation, education is a tough sell, unless it is education that directly improves your earning potential so that you can increase your consumption. As long as we have people coming into our congregations expecting to consume religion (rather than co-create it), I guess we’re going to have problems with congregational singing.

We talk about Chang Kung, kindness, and the Golden Rule

At about 11:15, five children and two teachers left the worship service in the Main Hall and gathered in Room 4/5 here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto to begin a new Sunday school year together. Two of the children were returning from last year’s 11:00 Sunday school class for grades 1-6. The other three children were in class for the first time: two of them were new to our church, and all three had older siblings attending the meeting of the senior high youth group which meets at 11:00.

As soon as we sat down around the table, I took attendance. My friends Dorit and Lisa were back, both looking older and taller. The newcomers were the twins Ian and Edie, both of whom just moved here from Rhode Island, and Bert, who used to come at 9:30. [All names and identifying details are disguised to protect the privacy of the children.] Lucy, my co-teacher, who teaches high school for a profession, sat directly across from me. I lit the flaming chalice, and read some opening words. The class is open to any child in grades 1 through 6, and in case there were older children, I had chosen somewhat challenging opening words, and put them on a handout (PDF file of the handout). Here are the opening words: Continue reading