Monthly Archives: February 2007

Bon mots on reading and writing

On Friday and Saturday, I attended Boskone 44, the 44th annual convention of the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). This was not one of those conventions filled with people dressed up like Star Trek characters — NESFA conventions tend to focus on books, and the people who attend tend to love readings and writing, and you’re more likely to hear about decoding and deconstructionism than about Klingons. Herewith my notes from some of the panel discussion I attended:

Religion in Fantasy

Authors Judith Berman, Debra Doyle, Walter H. Hunt, and Jane Yolen began by discussing the question, “Is it too simplistic to say that C. S. Lewis’s and J. R. R. Tolkein’s fantasy promotes Christianity, while Philip Pullman’s subverts it?” The panel questioned whether Tolkien’s books can even be considered Christian. Jane Yolen, who is Jewish, summed it up when she asked, “Tell me what’s Christian about them.” The overall arc of the story is perhaps more reminiscent of Norse mythology.

As for Philip Pullman, the panel could not agree on what religious viewpoint he might have, if any. Only half joking, Judith Berman said, “Maybe he’s a crypto-Swendenborgian.” All four authors agreed that C. S. Lewis used more non-Christian elements (fauns, talking animals, etc.), than explicitly Christian elements. Berman, who first read Lewis’s “Narnia” books at age 13, talked about the “anger” she felt when she first realized that the books were supposed to be Christian apology in disguise. Debra Doyle, however, said that her 4th-grade self was fascinated to realize that an author could use such allegory in a book — it was the first time she had gotten an allegory in a book.

The best remark of the hour came from Jane Yolen. Yolen brought up the fact that as a Jew, she has written Christmas books. She said that when she was on a book tour, a child once said to her, “I thought you were Jewish. How could you write Christmas books?” To which Yolen replied: “Well, I’ve written murder mysteries, too.”

What Can’t You Read?

The question behind this panel discussion was simple: what classic books do you feel you should read, but every time you sit down to read them, you’re gravely disappointed? Fred Lerner, a librarian and bibliographer, admitted that for years he was unable to get through Joyce’s Ulysses. Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, who’s an editor at Tor Books and who said that he cultivates a short attention span to get through slush piles, remarked of the best-selling book Dune, “I can’t get more than three chapters into it before my brain turns to concrete.” (Personally, that’s the way I feel about Ulysses.)

Nielsen-Hayden also asserted that “reading is like a trance state, neurologically, physically, mentally,” and that anything that an author does to break that trance state can make a book unreadable for a particular reader. Then Lerner took the discussion off into a fascinating tangent on decoding — a reader has to be sufficiently adept at decoding in order to get into a trance state. Lerner quoted critic and author Samuel Delaney, who has said that reading science fiction requires a very specific subset of decoding skills. The panelists speculated that those who enjoy reading science fiction have to be introduced to the genre by their early teens to become adept at that subset of decoding skills. (This prompts me to speculate that this phenomenon might apply to other genres of writing.)

The Religious Life of Techies

…where “techies” are those who work in some high technology field, e.g., computer science. A couple of bon mots during this panel discussion from Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit who is also an astronomer employed by the Vatican:

A techie working in Silicon Valley supposedly said to Consolmagno, “You know, with religion, you’re not selling truth, you’re selling tech support.”

When asked by a member of the audience how he could reconcile his work in astronomy with having to accept the creation story in Genesis, Consolmagno replied that taking Genesis literally was a “Protestant heresy.” To which another member of the audience added, “These people say that God is omnipotent and all-powerful — except when it comes to knowing how to use allegory and metaphor.”

Another microphone rant

Just finished talking to my dad, and we wound up talking about one of our favorite subjects — the best way to use a microphone. Back in November, I posted a list of microphone tips and techniques, but tonight dad and I came up with a couple of new ones that I thought I’d share with you:

  • When you are using a clip-on or “Lavelier” microphone, do not bump the microphone, and it would be best not to clap (or at least clap with your hands well away from the mic, like over your head) — for if you bump or clap, you will deafen your audience.
  • If the sound tech tells you where and how to stand so that the microphone can pick up your voice, stand there — for if you do not, chances are no one will hear you.
  • One way to improve sound quality in your congregation is to train all those use a microphone during the worship service at least once a year. (We ministers can set an example here by agreeing to participate in such training — after all, every one of us, no matter how experienced, can continually improve her/his microphone technique.)

I’ll add one last little item. Please remember that the sound tech is probably your friend. S/he wants to make sure you are heard as much as you do (because s/he knows that if you are not heard most people will blame her/him, not you). Many sound techs are geeks and may not have the smoothly polished manners that you have, but it is wise to listen to them with an open mind because they really want the same thing you do — they want you to be heard. And if you believe that the sound tech in your congregation is not your friend, you have two viable choices: (a) get a new sound tech that you can trust, or (b) take voice lessons so that you don’t really need a microphone to begin with.

Earlier post on microphone tips: Link.

Fashion faux-pas

Peacebang, the minister who writes the blog Beauty Tips for Ministers, sent an email message to me yesterday. Apparently she is being interviewed by a Major Daily Newspaper, and she gently and politely asked me if I’d mind if she held me up as an example of How Not To Dress. They might even include a photograph of me as a Bad Example. I told her I wouldn’t mind a bit, under the condition that they mention that I’m the minister at First Unitarian in New Bedford — as the great Universalist P. T. Barnum once said, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

The only down side is that Peacebang is going to point out exactly those things that Carol has been trying to get me to change for years now, so this article could make things a little difficult on the home front (I have visions of Carol doing the I-Told-You-So dance). But it will be worth it. We will post it on the First Unitarian Web site: “Come to First Unitarian and see Dan Harper, the minister criticized for his poor personal appearance in a Major Daily Newspaper! You will marvel at the fashion atrocities you will see!”

If the story actually gets published, I’ll provide a link to it. In the mean time, to demonstrate my geekiness I’m off to Boskone, the annual convention of the New England Science Fiction Association. I doubt I’ll have a chance to post tomorrow, so see you on Sunday.

Movement and drums and Sunday school

This past Sunday, I got a chance to teach in our tiny Sunday school. Just one girl showed up, A—; my co-teacher was A—‘s grandmother.

We have been using the curriculum “Stories about God” by Mary Ann Moore, a curriculum which exposes children in the primary grades to a wide range of God-concepts. Moore is especially interested in feminist theology and non-orthodox God-concepts. On Sunday we did the session on “God as Mother of Us All.”

In this session, Moore has the children do a creative movement exercise. Creative movement is not one of my strong suits. Over the years, I’ve led a fair number of creative movement exercises with children, and even with teens and adults, but I’ve never been satisfied with my efforts. Suddenly I was not looking forward to teaching Sunday school.

But then I remembered that the old “Haunting House” Sunday school curriculum came with a little booklet by Barbara Kres Beach on doing creative movement with kids, and I remembered that in that booklet was an idea that might help me out. I dug out my bootleg copy of “Haunting House,” and found the photograph I remembered: a picture of children in a sunlit room doing creative movement exercises, with a woman in the background holding a frame drum and a drumstick. Kres Beach suggests: Use a drum to set the pace and tone when you do creative movement with kids. Ah, ha! — all of a sudden I was ready to try creative movement.

By chance, I own a bodhran (an Irish frame drum), and I brought it in on Sunday. The creative movement exercise starts out with the children lying on the floor, breathing peacefully and quietly — I made circles on the drumhead with the beater, a soft and meditative shh-shh-shh sound. Everyone stands up and takes a big step! — a tap on the drum, and A— and her grandma were on their feet, stepping forward and reaching to the sky! I did a slow beat on the drum when that was called for, and a faster, wilder beat when that was called for. At last we finished up back on the floor, with me making the soft shh-shh-shh sound with the beater again.

It was magical. The simple addition of a drumbeat made it so. A— had a blast (so did her grandmother, and so did I!).

Then it was time for the story, and A— was ready to settle right down and listen. “Stories about God” is a good curriculum, and the story built on the creative movement exercise. I felt that A— really understood the God-concept I was trying to get across, and the simple addition of a drumbeat meant allowed me to pull it off.

Housemate memories

A cold dark snowy evening, trapped at home alone. Time dragging. Bored, my mind started drifting and for some reason I started thinking about housemates. My thoughts went something like this: Carol and I met when we were housemates. We met Ms. M. when she moved in as a new housemate. Too bad our current apartment does not permit sublets…. And then some of the more extraordinary memories of housemates started bubbling up, like the Dead Mouse Incident….

One morning, I came downstairs to eat breakfast, half-asleep as usual. J— greeted me by saying, “Did you do that?” Did I do what? “Put the mouse in the dog’s water dish.” I hadn’t done it, and we both went over to the dog’s water dish to look at the poor dead mouse floating there. We both giggled silently.

You have to understand, we had not been getting along with N——, the dog’s owner, in large part because she just wasn’t caring for the dog. Being a black Lab, the dog liked to roll in smelly things, and when we complained about the smell N—– would bathe the dog in the tub, leaving dog hair and other gunk plastered over tub and tiles; so J— and I had to wash the dog ourselves under the outdoor shower. The dog had worms and would leave long streaks of excrement on the carpet; N—– would clean the carpet but wouldn’t take the dog to the vet to get de-wormed. Worst of all, N—– would go for days at a time without walking the dog, which made the poor animal more and more neurotic and less and less likable.

To return to the story: N—– came bounding down the stairs, accompanied by the dog, both of them as cheerful as usual. We did not warn her what was in the dog’s water dish. N—– walked over to put food in the other dog dish and screamed when she saw the mouse. “Did you do that?” she screamed at us. We both denied having drowned the mouse.

Our relationships had deteriorated to the point where I doubt she believed us. And though I’m not proud of it, I went off to work in an unusually good mood that morning. N—– moved out a few months later, and come to think of it that’s when Carol moved in. Ten years later, Carol called me in to see something on television, a story about an animal psychologist, and sure enough there was N—– on television with a new dog, another black Lab, going to visit the animal psychologist. I’ve now forgotten what sort of psychological problem the dog suffered from.

Memories of other housemates come flooding back. There was W—, the woman who refused to turn on the radiators in her room because she didn’t like the hissing sound, and who lit dozens of candles in an effort to keep warm (unfortunately, we had to kick her out because we were afraid she was going to start a fire). And S—, who was in the process of discovering she was gay while she lived with us. And D—, who was dealing (gracefully) with the memories of being raped by her father when she was pubescent. And L—, who had the same name as a prominent Boston gangster, and claimed that he once got a phone call from someone saying, “Is this L—? We took care of it.” And the time when J—‘s father died. And R— of the invisible dirt, and J— and E— the M.I.T. students, and others.

It’s easy to tell the stories of the bizarre and notable events, but it’s harder to explain how enjoyable it has been to have housemates, to just sit around the dinner table or on the front porch talking about everything under the sun. People from whom you can borrow music, people with whom you can throw parties, people who can teach you how to bake bread or cook macrobiotic food. Some of those housemates became good friends, like Ms. M., who became our housemate again for one delightful year when we lived in Oakland.

Someday, Carol will get around to making her idea for an eco-village into reality, and then we’ll have housemates once again….

New Web site on congregational finances

“Steward’s Prophet” is a new Web site run by Rev. Karen McArthur. Karen, who is affiliated with the United Church of Christ, has a strong background in congregational finances and administration (I’d say she knows more about these topics than anyone else I know). She has been doing interim ministry for a while, but has now decided to go out on her own as a financial consultant to congregations.

Her Web site is still brand-new, but she says she plans to add new material monthly. If you’re interested in congregational finances, it’s worth bookmarking. Link.


The ice on the harbor probably reached its greatest extent sometime yesterday. By the time I went out for a walk, the ice reached from the Maritime Terminal on the New Bedford side of the harbor to Fish Island; of course there was no ice over the deep channel between Fish Island and Pope’s Island; but from Pope’s Island the ice extended straight north to the point that lies just below the highway, and south to Crow Island to the boatyards and docks on the Fairhaven side. Gulls by the hundreds perched on the ice between Pope’s and Crow Islands, all facing into the sun.

I walked down to the hurricane barrier. An ice shelf extended from the hurricane barrier up to Fairhaven Shipyard, and bits of rotten sea ice floated on the ocean side. But by then the temperatures had climbed into the mid-thirties, and when I got back up to Pope’s Island, the ice no longer extended to Crow Island; scaup and Bufflehead swam where just an hour earlier the gulls had been perching on ice.

Even though today was ten or fifteen degrees colder than yesterday, even though the clouds moved in and blocked the sun, even though a cold raw breeze backed around from the north to the east, the ice had receded even farther when I went out walking this afternoon. I stopped on the swing span bridge to look at the extent of the ice down the Fairhaven side of the harbor. What caught my eye, though, was not the ice but a pair of Long-tailed Ducks swimming just below the bridge. I was impressed at how long they could remain underwater. I timed them on one dive, and they were underwater for fifty-five seconds. My sense was they could remain underwater even longer than that, but it was too cold and raw to stand there and time them again — cold and raw, as if snow or cold rain was moving in — so I walked on.

An independent bookstore

I love Central Square in Cambridge: the co-op supermarket, the street life, the Cantab Lounge, and especially the independent bookstores: Seven Stars with its excellent selection of scriptures of the world’s religions (used and new), Rodney’s with its remainders and its used poetry books, and Pandemonium with the most comprehensive selection of science fiction and fantasy in the Boston area….

…and as it happens, Pandemonium is in financial trouble. They moved from Harvard Square to Central Square — 4 Pleasant Street, to be exact, around the corner from the Cantab — but the move took much longer than expected, and they have cash-flow problems. But you can help….

…Tyler, who owns the store, is selling t-shirts. You can pre-order a very cool t-shirt here: link. And so what if you don’t live in the Boston area! — here’s your chance to buy a cool t-shirt and save an independent bookstore. I already ordered mine. Buy a t-shirt, save an independent bookstore!

Tyler is posting updates on the store situation on his LiveJournal page: link. If you want to place your t-shirt order in person, visit the store or you can see Tyler at Boskone this weekend. Even though his predicament has been posted on BoingBoing, he’s still facing an uphill battle — help out if you can.

Possibilities for post-Christian worship, appendix

Reading — words and language — are central to post-Christian being. A course of readings could be used to tie together common worship, small group work, and private devotions; as well as provide a link between common worship and curriculum for young people’s religious education. Call this course of readings a “lectionary.”


The “lectionary” year is divided roughly into four seasons: December-February, March-May, June-August, September-November. Assuming not all post-Christians live in the northern hemisphere, or in locations with four defined meteorological seasons, these “seasons” are not assigned names. A post-Christian perspective does not assume one set of readings will fit all post-Christian congregations in all locations, no matter what the surrounding culture might be, so there must always be some flexibility in which readings are used by a given congregation.

The “lectionary” year starts in December: Christmas season as the time when post-Christians tend to remember their Christian past with the most fondness. Readings for December-February explore Christian scriptures, and Hebrew scriptures as filtered through the Christian tradition (i.e., not from a strictly Jewish perspective which would require some familiarity with the Talmud). In March-May, the readings are drawn from non-Western religious traditions.

June-August has two options: more Bible readings for congregations which value their Christian heritage; and readings in social justice. September-November covers readings from the immediate heritage of the congregation (denominational or otherwise), as well as material pertaining to indigenous religious traditions connected to the congregation’s location. Note that for June-November, a special effort can be made to find readings by women.

Rough outline for a three-year cycle:

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