Category Archives: Arts & culture

65,000th time

Some tired Beatles song was playing on the television. I think it was a program on the local public television station. Carol let out a pointedly critical remark to the effect that she could not understand why anyone would want to hear that tired old Beatles song for the sixty-fifth thousandth time.* I agreed with her. The first time I heard that recording of the Beatles chanting about some sergeant named “Pepper” I thought the song was a mildly entertaining song; not one of their best, but good enough. The one thousandth time I heard that same recording of that same song (it was probably in a shopping center, for the Beatles have become the soundtrack of consumerism) I still thought the song wasn’t bad, but I was tired of hearing that same performance over and over and over again. Too much repetition will make anything seem dreadful, and by the sixty-fifth thousandth time I had heard that same recording of that same damned song, I hated it. With jazz and classical and folk music, it is considered a virtue to re-interpret a song or a musical composition in a new and fresh way; but with rock and rap and pop music, we are supposed to make the song sound exactly like the hit recording of it. Thus when you have to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a Sunday service, all the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are trying to sing like John Lennon’s hit recording of that song. It’s really boring.

* This is an indirect quote because Carol told me I am no longer permitted to quote her directly, adding, “You always misquote me.”

There was no innkeeper, and he wasn’t inhospitable

Anyone who knows the Christmas story knows about the inhospitable innkeeper who wouldn’t allow poor pregnant Mary to stay in the only inn in town. Unfortunately, that’s not what the story originally said in the ancient Greek, according to Stephen Carlson of Duke University in The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Καταλυμα in Luke 2.7, New Testament Studies 56 (2010), pp. 326-342.

This apparently is a scholarly argument that has been going on for centuries, and at least one Renaissance scholar was reprimanded by the Inquisition for daring to show that “καταλυμα” in this context does not mean “inn.” Carlson summarizes his thesis as follows:

Putting these exegetical conclusions together, the entire clause should be rendered as ‘because they did not have space in their accommodations’ or ‘because they did not have room in their place to stay’. This clause means that Jesus had to be born and laid in a manger because the place where Joseph and Mary were staying did not have space for him. Luke’s point is not so much any inhospitality extended to Joseph and Mary but rather that their place to stay was too small to accommodate even a newborn.

Rats, there goes this Sunday’s Christmas pageant.

Fight terrorism: go to church

Worried about all those extremists out there trying to blow things up? We already know that TSA is fairly ineffectual. So what can a citizen do? Strengthen your local congregation:

“Externally, voluntary associations, from churches and professional societies to Elks clubs and reading groups, allow individuals to express their interests and demands on government and to protect themselves from abuses of power by their political leaders…. Internally, associations and less formal networks of civic engagement instill in their members habits of cooperation and public-spiritedness…. Prophylactically, community bonds keep individuals from falling prey to extremist groups that target isolated and untethered individuals. Studies of political psychology over the last forty have suggested that ‘people divorced from community, occupation, and association are first and foremost among the supporters of extremism’.” [Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 338.]

OK, so saying that going to church fights terrorism is an exaggeration. But it is not an exaggeration to say that civic disengagement — lack of participation in all kinds of voluntary associations and democratic institutions — is correlated with terrorism. The more we can drag people away from their television and computer screens, and into social institutions, the more secure we will be.

Viral youth video

So you’ve probably already seen the Youtube video where two cats are playing pattycake, and a couple of guys provide voice-overs (“Patty cake, patty cake… Dude, what was that? You bit me!…” etc.). I mean, it’s already had over 4 million views, and since you’re one of the hip people you were probably one of the first ten thousand who saw it.

What interests me about this video are the opening and closing credits: very briefly, six words appear on the screen: “Exodus First Baptist Sr. High Ministry.” Nothing more. No proselytizing, no heavy-handed message. This is what mainline Protestants historically have done best (and sociologically speaking, Unitarian Universalists look exactly like mainline Protestants): we sponsor cultural production that is not explicitly religious.

You mean you haven’t seen the video yet? Hey, I didn’t see it until today when Carol sent me the link. Dude, you have to see this….

[Alas, the video is no longer online.]

Aloha Xmas

Ms. M and Oz let us know that they were going to hear slack-key guitarist Patrick Landeza play Hawai’ian Christmas music at the San Leandro Public Library, and would we like to meet them there? I found out that Herb Ohta Jr. would be playing too — Herb Ohta Jr., son of Ohta-san himself and one of the best ‘ukulelists alive! — and told Carol that we had to go.

We arrived in time to eat the Hawai’ian dinner plate (rice, chicken teriyaki, macaroni salad, but no spam). The hall was filling up, and it was a nice crowd — older people, middle-aged people, young parents, kids. Haoles were definitely a minority. By the time Ms. M and Oz showed up, there were some two hundred people in the hall and we could not find seats together.

Carol entered us in the raffle, and before the music started Patrick Landeza raffled off several items. A young girl got a bag for wine bottles. Next to be raffled off was a little bag with a bright floral pattern, obviously perfect for a young girl. Landeza joked that it was a “man purse,” then started laughing when he pulled out the name: “It’s going to a man: Dan Harper!” I went up and claimed my little floral purse. And against all odds, Carol also won something in the raffle: a little Hawai’ian wreath for a Christmas tree ornament.

The music was perfect Christmas music — what could be better than traditional Hawai’ian songs at Christmas time? What could be better than hearing a master like Herb Ohta Jr. play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the ‘ukulele? What could be better than hearing “Silent Night” sung in Hawai’ian, and interpreted by a hula dancer? And to top it all off, I got my man purse signed by Patrick Landeza and Herb Ohta Jr.:

A new look at reducing poverty

As a religious person, my primary political goal is reducing poverty. With that as my main criterion for judging U.S. political parties, I generally consider both the Democratic party and the Republican party failures. While Democrats are somewhat willing to provide expensive programs to alleviate poverty, these days they seem unwilling to address the basic structural problems within the United States that lead to poverty. While many individual Republicans are very devoted to reducing poverty, not least because many Republicans are devoted Christians for whom reducing poverty is a requirement of their religion, as a whole the party still seems mired in trickle-down economics, which is really a form of Social Darwinism: let the rich thrive, and the poor may eat the leavings from their tables.

Given that both Democrats and Republicans pay at least lip service to the goal of reducing poverty, why have they both been so ineffectual on this issue? Probably because both parties have gotten important things wrong. Ron Sider, in a review of Lew Daly’s new book God’s Economy: Faith-Based Initiatives and the Caring State in the Christian Century magazine, says this about George W. Bush’s faith-based initiative, which has also been embraced by Barack Obama:

Bush was right in rejecting the dominant Reagan-Republican push to abandon governmental responsibility to alleviate poverty. (Liberal critics who said that government abdication of responsibility was the real goal [of Bush’s initiative] were wrong.) Bush was also right to embrace a much wider role for nongovernmental, including religious, organizations in the delivery of government-funded anti-poverty programs. (Liberal critics who charged that is was discriminatory to protect the freedom of religious organizations, especially their freedom to hire staff who share their faith commitments, were wrong.) Tragically, Bush failed to provide enough funding to combat poverty and failed to how an unrestrained market economy threatens families and communities just as much as an all-powerful government does. (Liberal critics were on target here.)

This is an interesting argument, and I’m going to have to read Daly’s book. Perhaps there is a way to make Bush’s and Obama’s faith-based initiative work. However, I remain skeptical of the faith-based initiative for at least four reasons. Continue reading

Scrooge fail

This evening, Carol and I went out to dinner at our favorite cheap Chinese sushi place. I kind of prefer going to Asian restaurants in December, because there’s a pretty good chance that I won’t see any holiday decorations, nor hear any holiday music. My hopes were fulfilled: no holiday decorations, no Christmas carols for background music. But the woman next to us was talking about making latkes. And then we went out after dinner and heard holiday music coming from the street: “Later on, we’ll conspire / As we dream by the fire / To face unafraid the plans that we’ve made….” It was the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in downtown San Mateo. There was a firetruck. There were lots of families with children. There was a countdown, and Santa climbed up the ladder of the fire truck and flipped the switch to turn on the Christmas tree lights. An amateur choir sang “Silent Night,” accompanied by someone strumming a guitar. The kids were singing, but it wasn’t just kids singing because Carol said she saw one middle-aged woman standing by herself and singing along. I guess I might have hummed along a little bit; it was all kind of nice.

More bah humbug from Mr. C.

Mr. Crankypants is tired of these Christmas lies that we are feeding to children. So it’s time to tell the truth. No, Virginia, there is no —

—wait, what’s that sound? Who’s that over in the corner? What’s— It sounds like the pitter-patter of little feet—

—oh my God! The elves! The elv—

Just in time…

Against all my better judgment, I’m presenting the following hymn, a metrical rendering of 2 Maccabees 10.1-7 in the KJV — just in time for sunset of the first night of Hanukkah. You can sing it to any Common Meter tune, although it goes well with Consolation (no. 53 in Singing the Living Tradition).

I tried to keep my interpretation of the KJV text to a minimum. So before you ask, yes, the original text mentions boughs, branches, and palms, and the fact that they remembered their last feast which they spent hiding out in the mountains. It’s easy to forget how weird some of these Bible stories are. I did add the references to freedom and to tyranny, though I feel they are implicit in the story; ditto the reference to the curséd idols.

1. When Maccabeus and his band
Did free Jerusalem,
When they did cast the tyrant out,
‘Twas God who guided them.

1. Good Maccabeus and his band:
They freed Jerusalem.
They cast the wicked tyrant out,
For God was guiding them.

2. The altars which the heathen built
Out in the public square,
They pulled them down, and then destroyed
The curséd idols there.

3. They cleansed the temple, kindled flame,
Gave thanks they now were free.
They then besought God keep them safe
From barb’rous tyranny.

4. They celebrated eight glad days,
Rememb’ring their last feast,
Which they had held in mountain dens
Where they had lived like beasts.

5. Therefore they bore fair branches forth,
Green boughs, and also palms.
They praised the strength that set them free:
To God they raised their psalms.