Category Archives: Arts & culture

What about a metrical hymn for Hanukkah? Nah…

The story of Hanukkah comes from the Talmud and the Mishnah, although there are references to a very similar story in the Apocrypha. 2 Maccabees mentions a Hanukkah-like festival in a passage beginning:

Therefore whereas we are now purposed to keep the purification of the temple upon the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu [Kislev], we thought it necessary to certify you thereof, that ye also might keep it, as the feast of the tabernacles, and of the fire, which was given us when Neemias offered sacrifice, after that he had builded the temple and the altar. [2 Maccabees 1.18, KJV]

There’s another, more interesting, description of a Hanukkah-like purification of the Temple at 2 Maccabees 10.1-8. I love this story; besides which, the successful fight against the tyrant who prevented the Jews from practicing their own religion has a certain poignancy today when it is dangerous for Christians to practice their religion in some parts of the world, dangerous for Muslims to practice their religion in many Western countries, and still dangerous for Jews to be Jews in many places in the world.

I’d love to have the talent to take the gorgeous prose of the King James Version of 2 Maccabees 10, and turn it into a metrical rhyming version of this story. I’ve been working on this, and have several partial verses, like “When Maccabeus and his band / De dum de dum de dum / De dum invader’s heavy hand…”; and “…public square, / De dum de dum, and then destroyed / The cursed idols there.” I’ve also got one whole verse:

They cleansed the temple, kindled fire,
    Gave thanks that they were free;
And asked the Lord to keep them safe
    From barbarous tyranny.

Or maybe it should be “blasphemous tyranny” — the passage at hand offers both possibilities.

Of course, if I ever did manage to write such a hymn, it would be unusable in any Unitarian Universalist congregation:— the term “Lord” (which is the way the translators indicate “Adonai,” as opposed to “God” for “Elohim”) would not be acceptable; it would be a hymn by a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist interpreting an apocryphal Christian text which we ordinarily ignore and which doesn’t really tell a Jewish story which means it’s probably cultural misappropriation; and it would be filtered through my liberation theology but Unitarian Universalists don’t really like songs and hymns that talk about freedom unless they’re African American songs or unless we’re talking about freedom to think what you want as opposed to literal freedom from bondage and oppression.

This is my main failing as a hymnodist. It’s bad enough that I can’t write good rhymed metrical verse, but it’s much worse that the hymns I want to write are hymns no one would ever want to sing.

Bah, humbug

‘Tis the season to hate Christmas, and your pal Mr. Crankypants is right out there in front of the crowd of Christmas-haters. The two different stories you can read in Matthew and Luke are just fine (though it does irk Mr. C. that Christmas-lovers continually get their angels mixed up with their magi, and their basic Christmas holiday mixed up with their Epiphany holiday). The consumerist Christmas, on the other hand, has no redeeming value, unless you’re a retailer with a heart of black ink.

Into the Christmas consumerist fray steps a brave economist, Professor Joel Waldfogel of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. In his book Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Give Presents for the Holidays, Waldfogel “looks at decades of retail spending data to make the case that buying gifts destroys wealth and happiness — and in many cases it would be better to not buy presents for the holidays at all. So put down that credit card and think before you use money you don’t have to buy things that recipients don’t really want.”

Now, repeat after Mr. Crankypants: “Bah! humbug! Christmas humbug!”

Thanks to Carol for the tip!

Stupid Thanksgiving jokes

Q: How do you make a turkey float?
A: One turkey, two scoops of ice cream, and root beer.

Q: Why did the turkey cross the road?
A: It was the chicken’s day off.

Q: Why did the Unitarian Universalist turkey cross the road?
A: To support the other turkey on its spiritual path.

Q: How many Unitarian Universalists does it take to stuff a turkey?
A: One, but you have to push really hard to get him into the turkey.

I was supposed to have Thanksgiving with my Unitarian Universalist relatives, but I couldn’t take it. I left early. I didn’t mind having to join the Committee for the Implementation of Roasted Foodstuffs. I didn’t mind deciding not to have turkey so we could protest the poor working conditions of poultry workers. But after five hours of sitting in a circle trying to reach consensus on how to make stuffing for the turkey we weren’t going to have, I gave up and went to MacDonalds.

Told you they were stupid jokes.

100 years later

Today, I went on the Powell’s Books Web site and ordered Mark Twain’s Autobiography, published on November 15, 100 years after Twain’s death. Coincidentally, today Dick D. from the Palo Alto church sent me this passage which he found in Twain’s Autobiography:

The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould — that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died — have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.

As Dick said, plus ça change….

Welcome to the club, Christians

In an article in Christianity Today titled “The Leavers,” author Drew Dyck informs the fairly conservative Christian readers of that periodical that young Christians are leaving religion behind:

At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace, released last month. They reported that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”

There has been a corresponding drop in church involvement. According to Rainer Research, approximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29….

This is not a new trend for us Unitarian Universalists — at a rough estimate, only 15% of the people raised as Unitarian Universalists stay with it as adults. Welcome to the club, conservative Christians! (Oh, and by the way, could you please send the folks who leave your churches our way? — some of our best Unitarian Universalists are people who were born into conservative Christian churches, and left as young adults.)

A song

“Here we walk in the verdant groves…” — all afternoon I’d been humming a Shaker song, attributed to the Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire; I couldn’t get the tune out of my head. Suddenly I realized why the tune seemed so familiar: the first phrase was exactly the same as the first phrase of the theme song to the old television show “Gilligan’s Island”: “Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…” Even though the Shakers sang it first, that spoiled the song and made me want to stop singing it. But I couldn’t, and now hours later the tune is still running round and round in my head — “Sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…, Here we walk in the verdant groves…” — and I just can’t get rid of it. Maybe if I write about it, I can get it out of my head and make you start humming it instead.

Making your list and checking it twice

Church consultant Mike Durrall has proposed an interesting idea. Why not figure out how much money you’re going to spend on Christmas presents this year, and budget that same amount of money to give to your congregation’s social justice programs? Wouldn’t that be a great present to give to your congregation, and to the wider world?

This makes sense to me from a religious perspective. Christmas has not been completely secularized, and from my Unitarian Universalist perspective the Christmas story does have some interesting religious themes: the hospitality of the stable, and the lack of hospitality at the inn; and the magi giving expensive gifts to a family that is not particularly well off. And thinking about this gives me a specific idea of how we could donate money for social justice uses to our congregations at Christmas.

The minister’s discretionary fund in most congregations is used (at least in part) to provide confidential financial aid to people who need money right now. If, for example, a young couple were traveling and suddenly discovered that they had no money to rent a room at the Best Western Bethlehem, they could stop at the Bethlehem Unitarian Universalist Society and get money from the minister’s discretionary fund. However, in the present state of the economy, most minister’s discretionary funds have been sadly depleted. Often that money goes to members and friends of the congregation who are financially desperate, some of whom may have no other place to turn.

Why couldn’t we all budget some Christmas money to give to the minister’s discretionary fund of our local congregations? We can take a tax deduction, people who need it will receive confidential help, and we’ll feel good about giving one of the best Christmas presents ever. What do you think? Would a minister’s discretionary fund be a reasonable destination for this kind of Christmas giving?

P.S.: It occurs to me that if you don’t belong to a local congregation, or are a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, or if your local congregation doesn’t have a minister’s discretionary fund, you could give money to CLF’s prison ministry (PDF flier on how to sponsor a prisoner) as a sort of equivalent idea.

Baseball, Calvinism, and me

I am not watching the Giants game right now. I should be, but there’s no real point.

You see, if you grew up outside Boston as I did, baseball is all mixed up with Calvinism. I don’t have to watch today’s game, because the winner of this World Series was determined at the beginning of time, and nothing the players or fans do today can affect the final outcome. Just as Calvinists knew who the saints were (they were the ones who went to church), we know who the saints are in baseball (they wear pinstripe suits). However, a few baseball teams with long-haried weirdos — like this year’s Giants, and like the 2004 Red Sox — may occasionally win the Series because God likes to keep us mortals guessing.

So I am not going to watch today’s game. I mean, why bother watching if the outcome is predetermined?

Signs in Washington

The coverage of Jon Stewart’s sanity rally in Washington, D.C., has been decidedly spotty thus far. Thinking they were only providing some journalistic color, USA Today managed to touch on the real reason any of us reads coverage about such rallies: “The audience came prepared to play along. Many brought signs to underscore the message of reasonableness, or just to be funny.” And then USA Today actually quoted three signs:

I’m somewhat irritated about extreme outrage.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — and spiders.
Stand united against signs.

The New York Times, in order to prove they are more serious than USA Today, deigned to report on only two signs:

Shrinks for sanity.
I can see the real America from my house.

The Washington Post, trying to be just as serious as the New York Times, reported just two signs, except one of the signs was two-sided so they actually reported on three signs, proving they are not as serious as the Times: Continue reading