Songs and signs — Isaiah 13:15-16 and Genesis 19:6-8

Religion News Service reports:

“If you’re an exvangelical who has been scrolling through TikTok lately, you may have stumbled across a duo singing what sounds suspiciously like evangelical worship music. Until you hear the lyrics. ‘Anyone who is captured will be cut down and run through with a sword,’ they sing in harmony, guitar strums in sync. ‘Their little children will be dashed to death before their eyes.'” [They’re quoting Isaiah 13:15-16 from the Bible.]

I recommend watching the TikTok video. It’s quite well done. And it makes you think.

It reminds me of some Unitarian Universalist teens I knew twenty years ago, long before the days of TikTok. Their eyes had been caught by the fans at sports events who held up signs reading “John 3:16.” This Bible verse is the favorite of traditional Christians: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” It is supposed to entice nonbelievers into becoming Christians.

In response, these Unitarian Universalist teens decided that they were going to make a sign that read “Genesis 19:6-8” and hold it up during a Red Sox game. That’s the Bible passage where a mob besieges Lot’s house, because he’s hiding some angels from God. The mob demands that Lot throw the angels out to them, so they can lynch them. But instead Lots offers to throw his virgin daughters out to the mob to be raped by them. He’d rather sacrifice his daughters than betray the angels.

The Bible is a complex book. It contains some good ethical writing, it has some profound mystical moments, but it also contains passages that are difficult to interpret, and it has icky bits as well. You can’t just pick out the dozen verses you especially enjoy, and ignore the difficult parts and the icky bits.

Elon’s jet

You’ve probably heard about the website Elon’s Jet, which tracks one of Elon Musk’s private jets (he apparently has several; this just happens to be the one he uses most often).

Well, the person running that website just calculated the total carbon emissions of Elon’s jet in the year 2022 — 1,895 tons of CO² emissions. This has been posted on Mastodon, and as you’d expect people are having fun doing some additional math.

One Mastodonian pointed out that Musk’s CO² emissions from jet flight alone in 2022 are about 122 times the total carbon footprint of the average US resident; or about 370 times the total carbon footprint of the average person in the world. Yet another Mastodonian calculated that Musk’s jet produces more carbon emissions in a single day than the average US car produces in a year. And a particularly cynical Mastodonian noted: “I’m sure we can offset most of that CO² if we all collectively drink with cardboard straws.”

I will note in conclusion that Musk banned Elon’s Jet from Twitter, claiming that releasing this information could endanger his children, who sometimes fly on the jet. I would suggest that Musk is doing far more to endanger his children by flying his damn jet, and accelerating climate change.

Blogging

On Mastodon, a number of people have been commenting on John Scalzi’s recent blog post calling for an “Artisanal Web.” Blogger Amod Lele also comments on Scalzi’s post. Let’s go back to hosting our own websites, says Scalzi, and interacting with other people’s websites. In other words, he’s calling for a return to blogging.

(I note that back in 2005, Scalzi said it was pointless to start blogging. Anyone who started a blog in 2005, according to Scalzi, was too late to the party, and no one would read their blog. I didn’t listen to him, started my blog in 2005, and within five years had 50K unique visitors a month, a huge number for a very niche blog. Moral: Don’t listen to the advice of pundits.)

To be honest, I see no future in Scalzi’s call for a mass-movement “Artisanal Web.” Only a small minority of the world’s population is compulsive about reading and writing. And only a small minority of the world’s compulsive readers and writers enjoy setting up their own website to publish their works. Blogging requires compulsive readers and writers who love setting up their own websites and/or finding other people’s websites and leaving comments. Blogging never was a mass movement (back in the oughts, most blogs stumbled along for a few months, then got abandoned), and I don’t think blogging ever will be a mass movement.

So let’s just admire blogging for what it actually is. A few of us who are compulsive writers put our stuff out there, and a few of us who are compulsive readers read that stuff and sometimes comment on it. We have a heck of a lot of fun, and occasionally there’s some really good writing, both in blog posts and in comments. We don’t need an “Artisanal Web” — all we need is some really good writing once in a while.

Having said all this, I’m glad you sometimes stop by to read this blog. You’ll find a list of some other blogs that I enjoy on my blogroll. And if you feel so moved, write about some of your favorite blogs in a comment.

Alt text

“Alt tet”Alt text” is text that you add to images on your website, so that people who are blind or have impaired vision can use their screen reader to tell them what the image is. I’ve been very bad about adding alt text to images on this blog, partly because I was unsure how much detail I should go into.

Well, someone on Mastodon pointed out this guide to writing alt text on the UX Collective website: “How to write an image description.” The author, Alex Chen, suggests a model format he calls “object-action-context.”

Then Chen provides examples of alt text using his object-action-context model. He goes into details like how long alt text descriptions should be (it varies depending on the image). He also points out that any image description is better than none at all.

Chen has inspired me to add alt text to all images on my websites, and (more importantly) on our congregation’s website.

Marketing for congregations

When I arrived at First Parish in Cohasset in August, I started watching for newcomers. Of course, I didn’t know most of the people, but each Sunday I would ask the long-time members if there were any newcomers.

We had no newcomers in August. One in September. None in October. Then two so far in November.

As a former salesperson, when I see so few newcomers I immediately assume that there’s no marketing going on. That’s what marketing does — it reaches people who are new to your business (and a small nonprofit organization like a congregation is a business). The primary form of marketing for most Unitarian Universalist congregations is a website. So I decided to take a look at the First Parish website. I found that since the COVID pandemic had started, there had been very little new material added to the website (no surprise there, people were busy doing other things). The administrator and I started adding content to the website at least weekly, beginning in October. Sure enough, we got a couple of newcomers stopping by in November.

I’d like to believe the tiny uptick in newcomers is a result of our markting efforts. Of course I know this is the worst kind of evidence — it’s all anecdotal, there’s no way of proving a causal relationship, etc., etc. I know that I could simply be deluded by confirmation bias here — I see something that confirms what I already believe, and continue to believe what I believe.

But I still think marketing works. If your website is your only form of marketing, then paying attention to your website should yield dividends.

Recent web browsing

Some links from my recent web browsing:

Are We Allies?

Foluke Ifejola Adebisi has an excellent blog post on “the concept of allyship against injustice.” In other words, what does it mean to be a “white ally,” or any other kind of ally? Adebisi makes an intersting disctintion between allyship as being, and allyship as doing:

“I think what is important is that we move away from thinking of allyship as something we are, but instead think of it as something we do, each time we do something. Each time we want to contribute to a particular struggle for justice, we must decide what must be done in the moment, irrespective of what we have done before or what type of person we think we are.”

I came away from this blog post thinking that if I hear someone saying they are an ally, this may not mean much. I’m going to watch what they do instead of listen to what they say they are.

Jew or Judean?

Marginalia hosts a scholarly debate on how to translate ioudaioi in texts from the last centuries BCE and the first few centuries CE. Does it mean Jew or Judean? While this may seem like a big argument over a trivial detail, the scholars involved claim the stakes are higher than you’d think.

For example, if you translate ioudaioi in the Gospel of John as “Jew,” then that could reinforce one of the foundations of Christian anti-Semitism. The ioudaioi, the Jews, killed Jesus. Whereas if you translate ioudaioi as “Judean,” someone from the land of Judea, maybe you can undermine that foundation of anti-Semitism.

But other scholars argue that in some texts, ioudaioi is better translated into modern English as “Jew,” sometimes as “Judean.” It all depends on the context. And we don’t want to inject anachronisms into translations.

Another point comes up: Is it anachronistic to talk about Judaism as a religion in this era? Was Judaism more of an ethnic identity than a religion? (In a related story, Haaretz reports on archaelogist Yonatan Adler’s new book that advances the claim that the archaelogical record does not show evidence for Jusdaism as a religion before the 2nd century BCE.)

Dare You Fight?

Editor Neal caren is creating an online collection of W. E. B. DuBois’s articles for The Crisis. These articles were written between 1914 and 1934, and many have not been collected previously.

DuBois’s essays are fascinating to read. His articles for The Crisis sounds radical even by today’s standards.

Invasion

Australian librarian Hugh Rundle writes about the exodus of people from Twitter to Mastodon. He titles his blog post “Home invasion: Mastodon’s Eternal September begins.” As a Mastodon user of fairly long standing, he describes how he has experienced the influx of Twitterers:

“It’s not entirely the Twitter people’s fault. They’ve been taught to behave in certain ways. To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote themselves. To perform. All of that sort of thing is anathema to most of the people who were on Mastodon a week ago…. To the Mastodon locals it feels like a busload of Kontiki tourists just arrived, blundering around yelling at each other and complaining that they don’t know how to order room service.”

Although I’m most emphatically not a Twitter user (I left Twitter in 2014, not in 2022), I am a new Mastodon user. I hope the Mastodon users don’t see me as behaving badly….

Mastodon

I’ve been looking for a better social media outlet for a while now. I stopped using Twitter years ago because it got too nasty. I’ve stayed on Facebook mostly because I have a lot of friends from Sacred Harp singing there — but Facebook is mostly an ugly place, and I don’t like the way they steal all our data. Several years ago, I tried Diaspora, an open source decentralized social media project, and while I liked the software architecture, there wasn’t enough content to interest me.

Over the past few months, I’ve been hearing about Mastodon, another open source de-centralized social media project. I checked it out, but it felt like too much work, so I let it drop. Then yesterday I logged onto Facebook to check on a Sacred Harp singing, and the Facebook algorithm placed some unpleasant content where I had to see it. Time to take another look at Mastodon.

And yesterday, it turned out, was the day when there was a huge migration of academics and others from Twitter to Mastodon.

Screen grab from Mastodon showing graph of uptick of people joining Mastodon yesterday

Many local Mastodon servers (known as “instances”) were overwhelmed, and stopped accepting new accounts. But I finally found an instance I liked, which was open, and set up an account.

Wow.

So. Much. Better. Than. FB or Twitter.

Mastodon does not have some creepy opaque algorithm controlling what you get to see. If you want to see every post (called “toots” on Mastodon), you see them in chronological order. If you want to see every toot on your local instance, same thing. If you want to read just the toots from the people you’re following, you get to see them all, in chronological order.

There are lots of interesting people on Mastodon. I found quite a few academics. A robust community of amateur radio operators. Lots of science fiction fans. Tons of political junkies. Most major news outlets are now doing something on Mastodon.

Screen grab of my Mastodon home page, today at about 10:30 a.m.

It would be nice to see more Unitarian Universalists on Mastodon. I think it could be a better match for our values than the big commercial social media companies. If you set up an account, Mastodon relies heavily on hashtags, and the Unitarian Universalist hashtag appears to be #UU — include that in your profile so the rest of us can find you.

Admittedly, Mastodon is not for everyone. While it’s relatively easy to use, there is definitely more of a learning curve than with the commercial social media outlets. Nor is it a replacement for Twitter or Facebook — it is different from both. But for me (so far), it’s much better than the cesspools of Facebook or Twitter.

Robot tells the story of the Rich Young Man

A decade ago, a small software company called XtraNormal allowed you to make free animated videos online. You’d choose a character, input some text, pick a few gestures, and the software would do the rest, posting the final video on Youtube.

I thought this was a great idea. I started out with a video of a robot telling the story from the Gospel of Thomas, ch. 97, the parable of the empty jar. Then I did a video of a robot telling the story of the rich young man from the Gospel of Mark, ch. 10. By the time I thought about it again, XtraNormal had stopped giving away their services, and had converted everything to Windows-only software. I wouldn’t have minded buying their software, but I’d be damned if I’d buy a Windows machine just to run their software. So I only made those two videos.

I never posted the second video on my blog, so here it is, ten years late:

(Note that I moved this video, and the first video, from Youtube to Vimeo. During the move, I improved the audio a little, and tightened up the editing a bit.)

Behind the scenes

Since 2020, I’ve been filming stories-for-all-ages in a puppet studio I put together in the nursery at the Palo Alto church. We’re about to resume infant and toddler care, so it’s only a matter of time before I have to remove the puppet studio from the nursery. But I managed to take some behind-the-scenes photos of puppets and puppeteers in action while filming a few last videos.

When we’re filming, the puppeteers mostly watch the action on the computer screen. Sometimes looking at the screen is disorienting and we have to look up at the puppets. We tape the script to the back of the puppet stage at our eye level. Puppets who are not in the current scene lie on the table next to us (you can see Possum in the lower left corner of the photo.)

Puppeteer view

This is what the camera sees when the zoom is set to the widest angle:

Camera view

A wider view, from behind the camera. We sometimes have up to seven lights aimed at the stage. Props are laid out on the table to the left of the puppet stage. When not needed in the current scene, the puppets stay in cloth bags, and you can see Rolf’s head poking out of the dark blue bag in the lower right corner of the photo.

View from behind the camera

I’ll miss the puppeteer studio when it’s gone. But I won’t miss sweating in that small room on hot days, with the doors closed to keep outside sound out. I won’t miss having to reshoot a scene because a helicopter went overhead, or someone started talking on their phone right outside the door, or the cello class started up unexpectedly, ruining the sound. I won’t miss having a carefully-constructed set suddenly decide to fall over in the middle of filming. I won’t miss spending fifteen minutes trying to level the camera, only to find that somehow, mysteriously, the stage has gone out of level. I won’t miss shooting video on a tight deadline with little margin for error. But… I will miss bringing Sharpie and Possum and the other characters to life.

Webpage with links to all videos, plus “Meet the Stuffies”

The problem with Diffen

Someone in our congregation pointed me to diffen.com, which says it will et you “Compare anything.” Want to compare the first generation Apple TV remote with the second generation version? Diffen has got you covered. My informant said that Diffen also has a religion category, so of course I had to check it out.

Diffen’s comparisons of religion would have gone well back in the 1960s, when we were beginning to understand that there was a great big world out there but we still unquestioningly accepted a world view centered on Europe and the United States. (A less polite way of saying this is that Diffen is about fifty years behind the current state of religious studies scholarship.) Yet Diffen’s understanding of religion is probably similar to that of the majority of Americans and Europeans. In other words, Diffen probably represents an accurate picture of pop culture notions of religion.

Let’s take one of their comparisons between two religions and pick it apart. Let’s click on Cao Dai vs. Confucianism.

“Place of origin” seems pretty straightforward, right? Clearly, Cao Dai originated in Vietnam, and Confucianism originated in China. Well, sort of. It might be more accurate to say that Cao Dai began in French Indochina; yes, that’s Vietnam, but Cao Dai emerged partly in response to colonial oppression. As for Confucianism arising in China, there was no nation known as “China” when Confucianism began, and indeed the teachings of Kongzi (“Master Kong,” i.e. Confucius) were often a direct response to the political situation of the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou empire. Imperial China arose several hundred years after Kongzi lived, during the Qin dynasty.

Emphasizing the historical nature of religion is not mere nitpicking. One of the key goals of religious literacy, according to the American Academy of Religion, is helping people understand that religions change over time. With its simplistic category of “Place of origin,” Diffen removes historical nuance and may even lull you into thinking that religion is some timeless thing outside of history.

Later we come to “Use of statues and pictures.” Maybe Diffen thinks its intended audience isn’t smart enough to understand a term like “material culture.” But to me this feels like another instance of Western bias. We Westerners are still concerned with the split between Protestants and Catholics. We still think it’s important to know if a religion uses a lot of statues and pictures, because we want to know if that religion is more like Catholicism or Protestantism. But a more fruitful, and more nuanced, line of inquiry is to ask about the material culture of a religion. What physical objects are important to the religion? How are physical objects used by the religion?

You see attempts at nuance as you go down the list of comparisons between Cao Dai and Confucianism. There’s an item asking for a comparison of “Concept of Deity,” and under Confucianism it says, “Most [adherents] believe in One God, but this is not necessary since Confucianism is not a religion but a belief system about social ordering.” Whoever wrote this at least understands that Confucianism doesn’t fit well into the Western category of religion; whoever wrote this also understands that there’s at least some internal diversity within Confucianism. But once again Confucianism is reduced to some kind of simplistic East Asian Christianity. The underlying problem here is Diffen assuming that the way you must compare religions is to compare the “Concept of Deity” — given their Western bias, they obviously assume that all religions must have a concept of a deity. And indeed, a little further down the list, Diffen asks for a comparison of “Concept of God.” Because if it’s a religion, it must have a God (capitalized and singular).

I’m trying to be kind to Diffen. But — wow, I thought Wikipedia’s articles on religion have problems, but Diffen is unbelievably bad.

I don’t think the problem lies in Diffen, though. I think the problem lies in the religious illiteracy of Western culture. Most college graduates haven’t reached the basic, low-level standards for religious literacy established by the American Academy of Religion (more about those standards here). Many Americans are actually proud of being religiously illiterate: many American Christians think all they have to know is their Bible, and many American atheists and nones think religion should be ignored. Americans have a sense of cultural superiority and insularity that allow them to ignore the rest of the world. If you’re a white American, you can say: Why should I bother with Black culture, I’m not Black. If you’re a Christian, you can say: Why should I bother about Jewish culture, I’m not Jewish. If you’re an atheist or a none, you can say: Why should I bother about religious culture, I’m not religious.

Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, Diffen plays right into this sense of cultural superiority and insularity. Diffen might be great for comparing two different Apple TV remotes, but it’s not up to the task of comparing religious traditions.