Monthly Archives: April 2006

P. R. for religion

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s an article profiling Larry Ross, who is described as “arguably the top public relations man for Christian clients in America.” Some of his famous clients include Billy Graham and Rick Warren (author of the best-seller The Purpose Driven Life). Ross has also worked on P. R. campaigns for the “Left Behind” series of movies, and for Mel Gibson’s “Passion of Christ.”

A workaholic who puts in over 100 hours a week at times, Ross has some interesting insights into using public relations to promote religion:

Ross characterizes part of his job as finding the sweet spot where faith and the culture intersect, because religion on its own often isn’t enough, as he sees it, to generate mainstream press. He offers his handling of [bestselling author] T. D. Jakes as an example. Today Jakes is the pastor of the Potter’s House in South Dallas, one of the fastest-growing churches in the country, with 30,000 members; he is also behind the “Woman, Thou Art Loosened” novel, film and gatherings, and he created the Metroplex Economic Development Corporation, which sponsors homeownership conferences and organizes training sessions for would-be entrepreneurs. After listening to hours and hours of the pastor’s sermons, Ross realized that what might appeal to a broader audience were Jakes’s efforts to economically empower African-American youth — Jakes was a business story, in other words. Not lon after that, Jakes landed a Page 1 profile in the Wall Street Journal. It was the preacher’s first major national exposure.

Are you religious liberals out there taking notes? Are you out there looking for “the sweet spot where faith and the culture intersect, because religion on its own [may not] generate mainstream press”? Now go read the article; it will give you some fine ideas to think about.

Jesus in Jerusalem, part 2

I’ve been working on a series of stories for liberal religious kids, and here’s another story from this work-in-progress. This is very much a Unitarian version of the Easter story (betraying my own religious background; I was born a Unitarian, just before merger), in which there is no thought that Jesus might be God; this, as you will see, changes the story from the traditional version. In the book, this will follow a story about the events of Palm Sunday (“Jesus in Jerusalem, part 1,” not yet complete). Note that this is still a rough draft.

Jesus in Jerusalem, part 2

Copyright (c) 2006 Dan Harper

On that first day in Jerusalem, Jesus did little more than look around in the great Temple of Jerusalem; the Temple that was the holiest place for Jesus and for all other Jews. Jesus couldn’t help but see that around the edges of the Temple there were people selling everything from goats to pigeons, and other people who would change money for you, for a fee. Besides that, Jesus saw all kinds of people coming and going, taking shortcuts by going through the Temple, carrying all kinds of gear and equipment and baskets. But on that first day, he and his followers just watched all this, and then left.

The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple. He walked in, chased out the people selling things, and upset the tables of the moneychangers. Needless to say, he created quite a commotion! and a crowd gathered around to see what this stranger, this traveling rabbi, was up to. Once the dust had settled, Jesus turned to the gathered crowd, and quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Isaiah where God says, “My Temple shall be known as a place of prayer for all nations.” Jesus said it was time that the Temple went back to being a place of prayer. How could you pray when there were people buying and selling things right next to you? How could you pray with all those pigeons cooing?

His followers and many other people thought Jesus did the right thing in chasing the pigeon-dealers, the moneylenders, and the other salespeople out of the Temple. But the way he did it managed to annoy the powerful people who ran the Temple. It made them look bad. They didn’t like that.

In the next few days, Jesus taught and preached all through Jerusalem. He quoted from the Hebrew scriptures, the book of Leviticus where it says, “You are to love your neighbor as yourself.” He encouraged people to be genuinely religious, to help the weak and the poor. Jesus also got into heated discussions with some of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, and he was so good at arguing that once again, he made those powerful people look bad. Once again, they didn’t like that.

Meanwhile, other things were brewing in Jerusalem. The Romans governed Jerusalem, and they became concerned about Jesus. They realized that when Jesus rode into the city, he was welcomed by a crowd of people who treated him as if he were one of the long-lost kings of Israel. That made the Romans worry. Was Jesus planning some kind of secret religious rebellion? How many followers did he have? What was he really up to, anyway?

Jesus continued his teaching and preaching from Sunday until Thursday evening, when Passover began. Since Jesus and his disciples were all good observant Jews, after sundown on Thursday they celebrated a Passover Seder together. They had the wine, the matzoh, the bitter herbs, all the standard things you have at a Seder.

After the Seder, even though it was after dark Jesus and his followers went to a garden to sit for a while. All his followers fell asleep, but Jesus himself was restless and depressed and stayed awake. He had a strong sense that the Romans or the powerful religious leaders were going to try to arrest him for stirring up trouble, for agitating the people of Jerusalem. He didn’t regret anything he had said or done, for after all what he had said was the truth; but he was restless. He didn’t know how or when he might be arrested, but he was pretty sure it would happen sometime soon.

As it happened, Jesus was arrested just a few hours after the Seder while he sat in the garden, while his followers were still sleeping. Jesus was put on trial that same night, and he was executed the next day. The Romans put him to death using a common but very unpleasant type of execution known as crucifixion. He died on Friday, when the sun was about to go down.

Because the Jewish sabbath started right at sundown, and Jewish law of the time did not allow you to bury anyone on the Sabbath day, Jesus’ friends couldn’t bury him right away. There were no funeral homes back in those days, so Jesus’ friends put his body in a tomb, a sort of cave cut into the side of a hill, where the body would be safe until after the Sabbath was over.

First thing Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends went to the tomb to get the body ready for burial. But to their great surprise, the body was gone, and there was a man there in white robes who talked to them about Jesus!

This whole story happened two thousand years ago, so we’ll never know quite what happened. But what might have happened is that some of Jesus’ other friends had already come along buried the body. Jesus’s followers must have been disorganized and confused that morning, and though they all were upset Jesus was dead, they also worried that one or more of them might be arrested, too, and even put to death. The burial must have taken place in secret, and probably not all the followers got told when and where the burial was.

So by the time some of Jesus’ followers had gotten to the tomb, others had already buried his body. Some of Jesus’ followers began saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, and after that several people even claimed to have spoken with him. All of his friends were so sad, and missed him so much, that they wanted to believe that he was alive again.

But you could say that Jesus did live on through his teaching. What he taught about the power of love has changed the world. He taught that we should love all people as we love ourselves; and if you can really live your life that way, you’ll find that your world will be changed, too.

April on Pope’s Island

After a six-month’s absence, a dozen or so of the recreational boats have returned to their summer slips in the Pope’s Island Marina.

Gray and faintly yellow clouds move over me, a few drops of rain. I stand, waiting and watching, and sure enough, a faint end of a rainbow after the clouds move past. Humid spring air diffuses the bright sun low over the city, and everything shimmers faintly, and things far away from me are bluish, blue-er, blue-and-gray. The huge clouds looming and moving in a sky so big it’s almost hard to look up.

Fourteen gulls watch, from a safe distance, as three people eat a picnic on one of the concrete benches looking out at the marina. I can smell the food as I walk closer. One gray-and-white gull rushes two immature gulls, driving them away with outstretched wings. The other gulls watch the people intently; they haven’t seen a picnic in a while.

A lone man in a faded orange sweatshirt stands on the rocks below the bridge, snaps a fishing rod over his head, casts into the clear water of the harbor, and jerkily reels in his plug. He doesn’t bother to look at me as I walk above him.

Away up in the inner harbor, the silhouette of one last loon who has not flown north yet. It dives under the surface of the water bright with the white gold light of setting sun, a liquid reflection that hurts my eyes. I never see it come back up again.

Signs of spring

Laundry night: I load up the car with the duffel bag full of dirty clothes and head out to the my favorite laundromat, the one with an attendant. The big TV in the corner is on, with some inane show about celebrities, so once the wash is going I run out to do some shopping. A light rains starts while I’m in the store. Back to put the clothes in the dryer; now the TV has a game show, so I sit in the car and begin reading Ned Rorem’s memoir, Knowing When To Stop. I decide I like his grim but refreshing words:

Life has no meaning. We’ve concocted the universe as we’ve concocted God. (Anna Noailles: “If God existed, I’d be the first to know.”) Our sense of the past and our sense of encroaching death are aberrations unshared by the more perfect “lower” animals. On some level everyone concurs — pedants, poets, politicians, and priests. The days of wine and rose are not long, but neither are they short; they simply aren’t. Hardly a new notion, but with me the meaninglessness [of life] was clear from the start….

I disagree with some of the details of what Rorem says, but not the underlying substance. Life is meaningless, and that is probably why I am a Red Sox fan. Baseball season has begun once again, and Johnny Damon has been traded to the New York Yankees; seeing Damon cleanshaven and with short hair is just unnecessary, an additional bit of evidence that life has no meaning.

When I head back in to fold my now-dry clothes, the ballgame is on. Curt Schilling is pitching, holding off an attack by the Seattle Mariners in the fifth. He’s got quite a gut, Schilling does; baseball is the sport of all different body types. A split-finger fastball makes the last out: another reason that I know this is an imperfect meaningless world is that I have yet to be able to see the difference between the pitches when I’m watching a game. Except once when I was given tickets to an April ballgame in Fenway Park and Tim Wakefield was pitching; believe me, I could see that he was pitching knuckleballs. It rained that April ballgame of years ago, just as it’s raining tonight.

Back in the car, I find the game on WSAR out of Fall River. “Are those ambience microphones waterproof? They’ve got waterproof covers? I see. Schilling’s back on the mound…” I can follow the game better on the radio, I can imagine that I’m in Fenway Park. Fenway, where hopes springs eternal in April, only to fade in September or maybe mid-October; except, impossibly, in October of 2004.

The rain is steady, it really hasn’t increased in density…. but it’s still coming down, the pitch, a swing and a miss! The Red Sox waste another double. After eight, two-to-one Boston….

But Schilling went eight innings with only three hits. Just one more inning to go…two quick outs…a base hit by Ichiro Suzuki…and then….

…and the throw is to first, and this one is over…. Jonathan Papelbon gets the save! A two-to-one victory for the Sox!

Hey, maybe there is hope, maybe life does have meaning after all.

Ballou online

A couple of days ago, I was complaining about not being able to find Hosea Ballou’s A Treatise on Atonement online. So I have started typing out the text of the third edition of the Treatise; and I have put the first chapter, and portions of the last chapter, online here.

You see, I discovered that typing in Hosea Ballou’s words proved to be meditative. As I type, I can almost hear the cadences of his speech; for Ballou is no scholar, nor is he a polished writer, but he writes in the manner in which rural New England preachers must have spoken two centuries ago. As I type, I can feel some inkling of his passion for the doctrine of universal salvation; and as he demolishes the arguments of an imaginary opponent, I can feel some of his pity for the old Calvinists who thought most of humanity would be damned to an eternity of torment in hell.

And somehow, it feels like an important thing to do. I was preaching in another church this year, and I just happened to mention that I am a Universalist who believes that no one will be damned. After the sermon, a woman came up to chat with me. She said she was from another denomination where she was taught that she would very likely go to hell; but she knew in her heart that a God of love wouldn’t send everyone to hell. She wanted to know more about Universalism. Since there are no Universalist books in print on the subject, I referred her to If God Is Love, a book by Gulley and Mulholland, two evangelical Quaker pastors. We Unitarian Universalists are inheritors of the Universalist name, and we think we have moved beyond the necessity of disproving Calvinist doctrines of hell and damnation. Yet there are many people out there for whom Universalism is still a saving message. It seems to me it remains our responsibility to make available the doctrine of universal salvation to those who need to hear it. I suppose it would be best to write a popular book like Gulley and Mulholland; since that is not something I’m able to do, at least I can put Ballou’s Treatise online.

It will probably take me a year or more to complete this project. If you’d like to help type, let me know via email (address on menu at left). I’ll mail you photocopies of pages for you to type, and then you send the electronic text back to me.

Another stupid Unitarian Universalist joke

So I heard this stupid joke about Unitarian Universalists, which, stupid as it may be, I can’t resist passing along to you.

So these two Unitarian Universalists die, and next thing they know they find themselves standing in line in front of these large pearlescent gates. Somewhat to their surprise, they’re actually waiting in line to talk with St. Peter. When their turn finally comes, St. Pete asks them what religion they used to be, and they say, “Unitarian Universalists.”

“Hmm, Unitarian Universalists,” replies St. Pete. “Well, even though you’re heretics, because you did so much social justice work on earth, you can go into heaven.”

The two Unitarian Universalists look at each other, and one of them says, “You mean you actually send people to hell?”

“Oh yes,” says St. Peter.

So they step out of line, and start picketing the gates of heaven, carrying signs that read, “St. Peter Unfair to the Damned!” and “Give the Damned a Second Chance!”

Probably they started chanting “One two three four/ Stay away from heaven’s door!/ Five six seven eight/ We are going to close hell’s gates!” — and handing out leaflets depicting St. Peter with a big red “X” over his face — but the joke doesn’t say one way or the other. And stop complaining — I told you it was a stupid joke.

Ballou and Easter

So I’m preparing this Sunday’s sermon, in which I’m going to start with Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement and explore the implications of Ballou’s Universalism for our understanding of Easter. I left my copy of the Treatise at the office, it’s too late to go get it, and I figure I’ll just find the text on the Web.

I try Project Gutenberg, but they only have some essays by Ballou and a link to a Wikipedia entry. No links at Wikipedia. I search using Google and Clusty — nothing.

This lack of Ballou’s Treatise strikes me as a serious hole in the World Wide Web. It’s arguably the most important English-language text on Universalism. Anyone out there with the time and expertise to scan, edit, and post this text to the Web?

Update: Astute reader M. found part of chapter 3 of the Treatise here.

Update: A follow-up entry on Ballou’s Treatise here.

Spring watch

Out to Pope’s Island on Sunday for a walk. I saw very few ducks and waterfowl on the harbor. Two months ago, I could stand on Pope’s Island and see hundreds of ducks, loons, and geese; Sunday I saw just two pairs of Bufflehead and one pair of Common Goldeneye; all the rest have left for the season, heading north to wherever they breed.

We always talk about what we gain in spring — flowers, green leaves, warmth — but spring means the end of things too. It’s a poignant moment for me when the trees fully leaf out, and suddenly you can no longer see things you saw all winter. Every year when this happens I can’t help thinking to myself, I can’t wait until the leaves fall off the trees again so I can regain that sense of wide open space.

But spring has been on hold for the past couple of weeks. It’s gotten cool again, with the light snow last Wednesday, and temperatures below freezing the last few nights. The flowers that began to bloom in those warm days two weeks ago are still in bloom; the banks of forsythia bushes along Route 18 are still just barely washed with a haze of a few yellow flowers. I love these cold nights and cool days when spring pauses in its rush towards summer.