Site problems

Our Web host underwent an attack on one of his servers. (For you geek types, the attacker exploited a vulnerability in the cPanel interface, and did enough damage to the systems files that our Web host had to reinstall the operating system and cPanel.) This caused a cascade of other problems, resulting in my Web site and blog being down off and on over the past 24 hours. The Web host is still reinstalling backed-up files, so everything is not yet fixed.

End result: Some posts are now missing. Some of your comments may be missing. I hope all the missing material will reappear soon, but no promises.

After you make the decision, what next?

Replaces post that disappeared during Web host problems.

We were in a meeting talking about how our congregation makes decisions. And engineer told us what happened after they made decisions in her for-profit workplace. She said, “We used to have a saying: Agree and commit; Disagree and commit; or, Get out of the way.”

In congregational life, as in the for-profit world, there’s usually a fourth option: Disagree and sabotage. A decision is made by a duly constituted authority, or through an established democratic process, and a small group of people who disagree with the decision start to sabotage it. And why wouldn’t we behave in this way? That’s the way democracy in America works: once a decision is made, many politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) go out of their way to sabotage the implementation of the decision. Ordinary citizens like us unconsciously follow their example.

But I think our congregations should be countercultural; we should not do democracy the way many U.S. politicians do democracy. We shouldn’t blindly adopt the standard from the engineering world, but it might be a good starting place:

Agree and commit;
Disagree and commit; or
Get out of the way.

Noah? Right…

Replaces a post lost during Web host problems.

[Update, 2021: Sadly, now that Bill Cosby has been called out by the #MeToo movement, I’d no longer show this video to children.]

The subject for today’s lesson in the fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class was Noah. While the lesson plan in the Timeless Themes curriculum was pretty good, I knew immediately that I was going to scrap it — I knew I had to figure out a way to incorporate Bill Cosby’s comedy routine on Noah.

After taking attendance, we started out with some pre-assessment: “What do you know about Noah?” Some of the children knew quite a lot, and told what they knew in some detail and with pretty good accuracy. “So you pretty much know what the Noah story is,” I told them, “now let’s look at a video.”

The children loved the fact that I brought a laptop into class. “My dad has one of those!” “So does my mom, but I think hers is bigger. Do they make a bigger one?” With a group of this size — we had six children today, though sometimes we get ten — I much prefer having the children cluster around a laptop, where they have to deal with each other’s physical proximity, than sit back and stare at a big screen. I brought the video up. “My mom doesn’t let me watch Youtube.” I told the girl that her mom was wise because most of the stuff on Youtube was crap. “Make it full screen!” said several of the children in a chorus.
Continue reading

Why so many Americans think religion is stupid

Middle-class American religion sometimes goes out of its way to provide very comforting interpretations of the Bible. And yes, I include Unitarian Universalists in this sweeping generalization, for reasons I will outline below. However, comforting American middle-class interpretations of the Bible sound forced and it is pretty hard to take them seriously, as Diana Butler Bass suggests in this passage from her 2009 book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story:

At the height of the Liberation Theology movement in the 1980s, my friend Brad lived in Latin America, where he participated in a base community, a kind of radical Biblical study group in an impoverished village. Lay members rotated leadership, each week reading a text, offering an interpretation drawn from their own experience, and trying to relate scriptural stories to their own lives in order to inspire justice and social change.

One week the story was from Matthew 19, in which Jesus commands the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor to find eternal life…. Brad, an American evangelical, had grown up in a middle-class family and attended a good college. “It was fascinating to hear my new friends interpret this passage in such a different context,” Brad said. “They were very poor and they understood it very literally. They were comfortable with Jesus’s rejection of wealth.”

Brad admitted that he felt uncomfortable, however, especially when one person turned to him and asked how “our brothers and sisters in America” interpreted the story. Brad explained that Americans do not read the story literally. Rather, evangelicals take the direction spiritually. “Jesus insists that we give up whatever means the most to us in order to follow him, not necessarily our possessions. The story isn’t about money.”

The group fell silent, and Brad was unsure of what he had said. Finally, one of the leaders asked how they could trust that Brad was really a Christian since it was obvious that he did not “take the Bible seriously.”

As for Unitarian Universalists, we are more likely to spend our time arguing about the validity of standard middle-class American Christianity, which means we don’t have to face up to the really challenging implications of Jesus’s social message, implications that might challenge our comfortable middle-class existences. It is more convenient for our generation of Unitarian Universalists to dismiss Christianity with the argument that the Christianity we see around us, or in which we were raised, is puerile and shallow.

Similarly, what Unitarian Universalists think of as Buddhism too often is an American interpretation that reduces Buddhism to little more than a self-improvement program, one which doesn’t seem to me to have much in common with the challenging philosophy of Siddhartha Gotama.

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.

Metrical hymns on non-traditional topics

Metrical hymns are out of fashion these days in favor of praise songs and pop-influenced worship music. But rhymed metrical hymns are easy to memorize, and they’re actually a really efficient way to give people of all ages a basic introduction to discrete religious subjects. And every metrical hymn provides a theological interpretation of to its subject matter, so it is doubly useful: you get the basic topic, and an interpretation of that topic.

So I’ve been thinking how post-Christian Unitarian Universalists might use metrical hymns to teach post-Christian topics. I’ve been reading about the birth of Buddha in the Jataka-nidana, and I was captured by the story of the Four Omens. This would make a good metrical hymn: it’s a concise story about two paths open to a baby, one path leading to worldly success and another path leading to a life on contemplation. The baby’s father of course hopes for worldly success, but learns that if the boy ever sees a dead person, an ill person, a mendicant monk, or an old person, then the boy will grow up to be, not a king, but the Buddha. What a thought-provoking story!

Anyway, an early draft of such a hymn appears after the jump. Continue reading

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.]

What congregations do well

Sociologist Robert Putnam, known for his sociological study Bowling Alone, and co-author Chaeyoon Lim have an article on the effects of religion on life satisfaction in the December issue of American Sociological Review [ASR]. The full article is hidden behind a paywall, but there’s an abstract of the article available on the ASR Web site:

Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction
Chaeyoon Lim and Robert D. Putnam
Abstract: Although the positive association between religiosity and life satisfaction is well documented, much theoretical and empirical controversy surrounds the question of how religion actually shapes life satisfaction. Using a new panel dataset, this study offers strong evidence for social and participatory mechanisms shaping religion’s impact on life satisfaction. Our findings suggest that religious people are more satisfied with their lives because they regularly attend religious services and build social networks in their congregations. The effect of within-congregation friendship is contingent, however, on the presence of a strong religious identity. We find little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship.

Science News provides a little more detail in an online article today, which you can read here.

The research by Putnam and Lim is an interesting addition to the 2004 research by sociologist Mark Chaves (Congregations in America, Harvard Univ.). Chaves found that although congregations were not very effective at providing social services or engaging in political action, congregations were good at producing “worship events,” religious education, and facilitating artistic activity: “If we ask what congregations do, the answer is that they mainly traffic in ritual, knowledge, and beauty through the cultural activities of worship, education, and the arts….” Now we can add that congregation provide an increased sense of life satisfaction when individuals regularly attend services and build social networks in the congregation.

Why I like church people

  • Church people know the value of face-to-face contact.
  • On average, church people tend to be more courteous, and more interested in others, than the general population.
  • Church people like books.
  • Church people know that showing up is crucially important.

All of the above are also true of synagogue people.