Monthly Archives: July 2007

My stupid alter ego, Dan, is still away visiting his aunt and uncle. Another glorious day of ranting and raving on this otherwise tedious and uninteresting blog! And here’s what’s on the mind of Mr. Crankypants today….

What’s with all the overly loud music these days? You know what I mean. Like the New Bedford Whaling Musuem sponsoring monthly gatherings called After Hours, with the stated purpose “to socialize with old friends and meet new ones,” except the music is so loud you can’t socialize. Mr. Crankypants went to “After Hours” a few months ago, and tried to have a conversation with an old friend, but the music was so loud we gave up trying to yell at each other over it. Then an attractive young woman started eyeing Mr. Crankypants, and wandered over to say something, but alas whatever she had to say was completely unintelligible due to the loud music. Mr. Crankypants’s Significant Other said that the pretty young woman wasn’t eyeing anyone, she just had indigestion, and all she was saying was, “Got any antacid?” Which just proves the point — the music was so loud that Significant Other couldn’t hear anything at all.

It’s not just the Whaling Museum, of course. There’s the restaurant up the street that has live music on Mondays and Thursdays. It’s pretty good music, but there is no way you can carry on conversation over your dinner, unless you ask to be seated in the very back room, and even then you have to shout.

At least that restaurant has good music. Down the street from Mr. Crankypants’s apartment is another restaurant that has bad outdoor music on summer evenings. This particular restaurant aims at attracting the over-55 crowd, so the music is a banal mix of insipid 1950’s rock-n-roll and arthritic easy-listening hits (originated by dinosaurs like Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan), sung by middle-aged crooners with potbellies accompanied by karaoke machines. They crank up the volume so loud that Mr. Crankypants can hear the middle-aged crooners two blocks away. When you go down to look at the restaurant, you see a few lost souls huddled at the tables farthest away from the speakers, their hair blowing back from the volume. There’s no way anyone could be carrying on a conversation over that music. Clearly, it’s the sort of restaurant you go to when you don’t want to talk with your date, or when you have to take your unpleasant relatives out to dinner — you surely don’t go there for the high quality of the music.

The Baby Boomers started this trend of overly loud music. They ruined their ears when they were young by listening to too much loud music. Now that they’ve gone deaf, they keep turning up the volume. Which will make everyone in the succeeding generations deaf. It’s probably a good time to invest in companies that make amplifiers and speakers, for theirs is going to be a growth industry.

Dan, my stupid alter ego, is away visiting his aunt and uncle. Which means Mr. Crankypants has unfettered access to this blog for the next two days. Woo, hoo!

And there is something very much on Mr. Crankypants’s mind. Theories have been flying around the Unitarian Universalist blogosphere, accusing the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) of conspiring to muzzle various small, uninfluential groups. You see, recently the UUA Board changed the rules such that nearly all of the dozens of so-called Independent Affiliates of the UUA would no longer be Independent Affiliates. These groups suddenly found themselves un-affiliated, and the pundits said that the Real Target was — pick whichever group you happened to support, but which has lost its Independent Affiliate status under the UUA Board’s new rules. “Oh, the Horror of It All!” say the UU bloggers.

Mr. Crankypants would like to point out two things regarding the Independent Affiliates Imbroglio.

First, in spite of what the conspiracy theorists say, the UUA Board cannot be accused of conspiracy. Conspiracy requires a high level of organization, administrative follow-through, and general nastiness. The UUA Board is not known for being particularly well-organized, the efforts of Moderator Gini Courter notwithstanding. The administrative follow-through on too many Board initiatives has been lackluster. And on the general spectrum of nastiness, UUA Board members are closer to the Care Bears than to Niccolo Macchiavelli.

Second, it’s not like this is a surprise. This rule change has been in the works for four years. Even Mr. Crankypants, who as a general rule abhors and avoids UUA politics, knew this was coming. In fact, last year Mr. Crankypants looked at the proposed new rule, and figured out how to create a new Independent Affiliate, Unitarian Universalists for Care Bears (UUCB), that would easily meet the new rules, by building coalitions with our largest congregations to send free Care Bears videos to needy children in Transylvania and in the Khasi Hills of India, to help spread the word about Unitarian Universalism to those who are already Unitarian Universalists. Mr. Crankypants even figured out how to soften up certain key Board members so they’d vote in favor of UUCB’s affiliate status, by sending them “Care Bear” packages filled with seven pounds of the finest Fair Trade chocolate, just before the vote. Of course, Mr. Crankypants is way too ethical to use such manipulative tactics. (Instead, he called up another group, which shall remain nameless, told them his ideas, meekly accepted it when they called him “shamelessly unethical” over the telephone… and sure enough they were one of the first groups to receive Independent Affiliate status a few months later. Coincidence? Not hardly!)

Really though, Mr. Crankypants is glad the UUA Board has gotten rid of so many independent affiliates. See, it used to be that every single one of the Independent Affiliates got to have their very own workshop at General Assembly, the annual denominational meeting. Over the past decade Mr. Crankypants sat through far too many tedious, pointless, badly-presented General Assembly workshops sponsored by various independent affiliates. The Unitarian Universalists for Care Bears would show the new video they plan to distribute to impoverished children in Romania and India. The Unitarian Universalist Harry Potter Support Group would have a workshop on “Why the First Harry Potter Movie Sucks.” The Unitarian Universalists in Favor of Lots of Independent Affiliates would have a workshop on “How To Get Cheap Ads in UU World Magazine, Free Listings in the UUA Directory, and Your Own General Assembly Workshop for Just Fifty Dollars a Year.” If Mr. Crankypants wants to waste his time going to pointless workshops, he would rather attend science fiction conventions, thank you very much.

But now, praise Loki, all those many interminably boring workshops have been swept away. Doubtless they will eventually be replaced with many more interminably boring workshops sponsored by the UUA, but still. You get the point. Mr. Crankypants is glad the UUA Board has changed the Independent Affiliate rules.

Book excitement


On a quiet side street in Somerville, Mass., two pre-adolescent girls were slowly pushing themselves along on their scooters. They were deep in conversation, ignoring the middle-aged woman walking just behind them (their mother?) — not ignoring the woman, but so engrossed in their conversation they weren’t aware of her. I barely caught the murmuring of their voices, but as they passed me I heard one of them say, “…but then in the sixth book, he….” Of course:– they were talking about Harry Potter.


I was browsing in a used bookstore in Central Square, Cambridge. Two twenty-something clerks were chatting with each other.

“Did you hear that yesterday, some guy with a bullhorn was standing in Harvard Square shouting spoilers to everyone who walked by?”

“That’s just –” and the tone of her voice tells reveals how despicable she thinks it is. “People should be allowed to read the seventh book on their own.”

“I heard someone grabbed the bullhorn away from him or something.”



J—-, who is headed off to college next fall, came to church. During social hour he was in a corner reading a large book. “The last book?” I asked him.

“No, I’m rereading the sixth book first,” he said. He had gotten his copy of the final Harry Potter book at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday from Baker Books, an independent bookseller near New Bedford. He arrived at about ten, and was first in line. He said Baker Books was extremely well organized — the books were pre-ordered and pre-paid, the staff talked to everyone in line and checked them off on their master list, and when 12:01 came, everyone filed in and just picked up their book. “It was over really quickly,” he said. “But I heard the Barnes and Noble in the mall wasn’t well organized, and it took forever.” We agreed that independent bookstores are the best.

Saving Star Island

Star Island, a religious conference center off the coast of New Hampshire, got shut down in late June for violations of the electrical code. They have just announced that they now have permission to reopen as of today, for personal retreats: press release here.

At the same time, Star Island Corporation has clearly taken a big financial hit — they have been closed for nearly half their season already, and it’s hard to imagine how they will recover that lost revenue. An independent group called “Save Our Star” has begun organizing fundraisers to help out, and you can see their Website here.

Star Island Conference Center provides a real service to liberal religion, by hosting conferences that allow laypeople and clergy to deepen their religious lives, develop leadership skills, and celebrate liberal religious values. Let’s hope they can get back on a sound financial footing — and if you know anyone who could write them a six-figure check, you might want to pass that name along to them.

“Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God”

by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007

When the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died a month or so ago, I decided to add some of his writing to my summer reading list. The fourth volume of his selected essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4, contains the essay “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God,” and this essay seemed like a good place for a minister like to me start reading.

If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to the question, “Does God exist?” Rorty will not only disappoint you, he will also tell you (fairly gently) that it’s a bad question. There are better questions to ask, and these better questions have to do with what Rorty calls “cultural politics.”

So what is “cultural politics”? Citing philosopher Robert Brandom, Rorty says that the social world is prior to anything else. There isn’t some larger authority out to which we can appeal to set norms for society. This in turn means that societies, and the people who live in societies, cannot make appeals to God, or Truth, or Reality that trump all other appeals or claims. Your God, or Truth, or Reality can’t be considered an ultimate norm, any more than my God or Truth or Reality. Cultural politics, says Rorty, “is the least norm-governed human activity. It is the site of generational revolt, and thus the growing point of culture.” If you want a good example of how things grow in cultural politics, think about the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Plessy vs. Ferguson on the one hand, and Brown vs. Board of Education on the other hand. Forget appeals to some transcendent Justice — we’re stuck with “the ontological priority of the social” (really a misnomer, since there is no ontology) — i.e., society, the social world, comes before anything else.

This being the case, rather than ask, “Does God exist?”, it would be better to ask, as Rorty phrases the question, “Do we want to weave one or more of the various religious traditions (with their accompanying pantheons) together with our deliberation over moral dilemmas, our deepest hopes, and our need to be rescued from despair?” Another way to make the same point is to say that, instead of having some kind of public religion ( “All U.S. citizens shall believe in the God of the Christian scriptures, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Conference”), it would be better to have only private religion that stays out of the public sphere.

To me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, all this makes good sense. I usually do not choose to play the language game that asks whether God exists or not. Continue reading

The Keeper of Sheep

by Fernando Pessoa. Bilingual edition (English/Portuguese), trans. Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown.Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1985.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th C., the greatest Portuguese poet in 400 years, and indeed one of the great modernist poets of Western literature. Because he wrote in Portuguese, there aren’t many translations of his work and most English speakers have never heard of him — even though, curiously, Pessoa himself was fully bilingual in English and Portuguese and even wrote some early poems in English. Actually, he was trilingual, and also published poetry in French.

Pessoa wrote his poetry in several voices, and even published his poetry under different names — not pseudonyms, but rather heteronyms:

Having accustomed myself to have no beliefs and no opinions, lest my aesthetic feeling should be weakened, I grew soon to have no personality at all except an expressive one. I grew to be a mere apt machine for the expression of moods with became so intense that they grew into personalities and made my very soul the mere shell of their casual appearance…. p. xvi

One of his heteronyms was named Alberto Caeiro, the heteronymic author of the book The Keeper of Sheep, who “exists solely in what he sees, in the diversity of nature, and not in his mind reflecting the outer world” (p. xvii). Take, for example, this poem:

The moonlight behind the tall branches
The poets all say is more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches

But for me, who do not know what I think,–
What the moonlight behind the tall branches
Is, beyond its being
The moonlight behind the tall branches
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches.

This is not to say that Caeiro/Pessoa is a mystic, asserting some direct connection with a divine reality inaccessible to most. Continue reading

Writing with 5th and 6th graders

My older sister, Jean, teaches writing at Indiana University East. She also works with elementary school children in the Richmond, Indiana, public schools. After reading my recent post on activities I did with 5th and 6th graders at a Unitarian Universalist summer camp, Jean decided to post a great writing exercise suitable for 5th and 6th graders in a Sunday school setting (or a school setting, for that matter).

You’ll find Jean’s activity here.

Two good links

  1. Carol and I aren’t married, so I call her mother my mother-out-law. And my mother-out-law sent me a link to an incredible online resource, the Cooperative Digital Resources Initiative (CDRI). What is CDRI? — “CDRI has assembled an impressive digital image collection that features woodcuts, coins, maps, postcards, sermons, and other ephemera.” For example, here’s a postcard of First Universalist in New Bedford (First Universalist merged with First Unitarian in 1930, and the old church is now an art gallery).
  2. Everett Hoagland, former poet laureate of New Bedford, turned me on to a great news story about the Presidential Scholars who, when they met George Bush, presented him with a petition asking him to cease illegal renditions, and to remove his signing statement to the McCain anti-torture bill. One student’s account of the event is here, and Amy Goodman’s interview with two of the students is here. Apparently, Mr. Bush was a bit nonplussed when presented with the students’ petition. Regardless of their political position, I am glad to hear that our educational system is indeed educating young people for democracy by teaching them how to genuinely engage with our elected leaders. Gives me hope for the future.

Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher

This past year at First Unitarian in New Bedford, we gave the book Hide and Seek with God to every Sunday school family with children aged 5 to 8. Hide and Seek with God has twenty or so stories that present the concept of God from a variety of vantage points — feminist vantage points, non-Western vantage points, earth-centered vantage points, as well as various Western Christian (usually heretical Christian) vantage points. Having this book in the home proved to be very helpful to families, as they figure out how to engage in nuanced talk about religion with their children while immersed in a culture that doesn’t value nuanced talk about religion.

In looking for a new book to send home with families for this year, I came across Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher, written by Lynn Tuttle Gunney, and published by Skinner House, the Unitarian Universalist denominational publishing house. It may turn out to be the book we send home this year.

As the subtitle implies, Gunney emphasizes the life and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s crucifixion and death take up only two pages out of the first twenty-two pages. Most of the text on those twenty-two pages simply tells the story of Jesus’s life, interspersed with examples of his teachings. We get two parables:– the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the lost sheep. We get some other teachings:– a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, and of course the Golden Rule.

On page 23, we get a short summary of how different people interpret Jesus’s death, in the form of: “Some people say… [but] Some people say….” When reading this book for the intended age group, parents (and Sunday school teachers) will want to be ready to say say, “We believe that…” — and then either pick one of the options in the book, or present yet another option. Children aged 4-8 tend to be concrete thinkers, and they don’t particularly want to hear adults hemming and hawing about theological abstractions.

The prose is clear, uncluttered, and straightforward — perfect for children in preschool and up. In fact, the prose is good enough that I would feel comfortable using excerpts from this book in a worship service. The illustrations are fine, particularly for younger children.

The book is good enough that I will show it to our new Director of Religious Education, and if she approves we will find the money to send it out to every Sunday school family with children aged 4-8. My only complaint is that the book is pretty short, too short to satisfy a family for a whole year.