AAR religious literacy guidelines

The American Academy of Religion (AAR) has released a set of “Religious Literacy Guidelines” setting minimum standards for all graduates of two- and four-year colleges in the United States. An excerpt from these guidelines summarizes the minimum knowledge about religion that all college graduates should have:

“‘Religious literacy’ helps us understand ourselves, one another, and the world in which we live. It includes the abilities to:
— Discern accurate and credible knowledge about diverse religious traditions and expressions;
— Recognize the internal diversity within religious traditions;
— Understand how religions have shaped — and are shaped by — the experiences and histories of individuals, communities, nations, and regions;
— Interpret how religious expressions make use of cultural symbols and artistic representations of their times and contexts;
— Distinguish confessional or prescriptive statements made by religions from descriptive or analytical statements…”

It turns out that in 2010, AAR released a set of religious literacy guidelines for K-12 students. The K-12 guidelines are also well worth reading. They include some basic premises from the scholarly discipline of religious studies, premises which AAR considers essential for teaching religious literacy:
— religions are internally diverse;
— religions are dynamic and changing; and
— religions are embedded in culture.

Anyone who has gained basic familiarity with religious studies at any time in the past 20 years will find no surprises in either set of guidelines. For example, even though these guidelines are new to me, I’ve been using the underlying premises for at least a decade, as I develop curriculum on religions. But though there’s nothing new here, by formulating these guidelines, AAR has done us all a favor: now we have checklists that we can use to assess how well curriculums promote religious literacy.

We can also use these guidelines for some rough-and-ready assessment. When I look at these guidelines, I see that for the most part Unitarian Universalist adults do not have solid religious literacy, e.g., many UU adults are unaware of the immense religious diversity within Christianity, many UU adults are not able to discern accurate and credible knowledge about religious traditions, etc. This becomes problematic when adults with a low degree of religious literacy teach religion to children; and this suggests that curriculum development needs to include basic religious literacy knowledge for adults teachers, as well as content for children.

Book to look for

A recent article from Religion News Service highlights the challenges for progressive Christian parents: these parents are looking for children’s books “that represent diversity — including race and gendered language used to describe God. And they want resources that stress social justice.”

This is a very similar problem to that facing Unitarian Universalist parents (and UU religious educators): how to find children’s books about religion that aren’t riddled with conservative religious thinking. Maybe you want to improve a UU child’s religious literacy by introducing them to stories from the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures — oops, too bad, nearly all the children’s books of Bible stories are heteronormative, binary gendered, patriarchal, with pronounced Euro-centric and white biases. It’s like queer theology, feminist and womanist theology, black liberation theology, etc., never existed.

The Religion News Service article reports on one interesting book that’s due out soon, “Holy Troublemakers and Unconventional Saints.” This book for middle grades was funded through Kickstarter, and will have stories about Maryam Molkara, Bayard Rustin, and Rabbi Regina Jonas, among other stories of “women, LGBTQ people, people of color, indigenous people, and others often written out of religious narratives.” Sounds pretty awesome; I’m looking forward to seeing it when it’s published.

Learning from the Gadfly Papers controversy

I have been following, at a distance, the controversy about the publication and distribution of The Gadfly Papers, a book of essays critical of the UUA’s antiracism approach, written and self-published by Todd Eklof, the minister at the Spokane, Wash., Unitarian Universalist church. Eklof distributed the books at General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); GA was held in Spokane this year.

As someone who didn’t go to GA, and as someone who doesn’t trust social media for reliable information, it wasn’t easy to figure out what went on. So far, UUWorld.org, usually an excellent source of information about GA, has not reported on what happened; instead, in their media round-up column, they pointed to an article from the local newspaper.

That local newspaper, the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., published an article on June 25 titled “Unitarian Universalist minister in Spokane stirs controversy for calling church too politically correct.” The article gives a basic outline of the story. Unfortunately, while they interviewed Eklof, they didn’t interview anyone opposing him, relying instead on public statements issued on social media platforms. (The simple, non-conspiracy-theory, explanation is that the reporter was under deadline pressure, interviewed the local guy, and relied on public statements to fill out the opposing side.)

If you want to see some of those public statements, UUWorld.org provides links to statements from Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUM), and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Assoc. (UUMA) People of Color and Indigenous Chapter, and an “Open letter from white Unitarian Universalist ministers,” as well as a letter from the Board presidents of the Liberal Religious Educators Association. Elswewhere, I found a statement from the Allies for Racial Equity, and most recently a UUMA letter formally censuring Eklof.

What about the book itself? Well, I refuse to buy a copy: Eklof self-published the book on Amazon, and I won’t buy books from Amazon because they reduce the already meager incomes of working authors. I haven’t talked to anyone who has actually read the entire book. And most of the online reviews of the book that I have found simply state that it represents a white supremacist point of view, but don’t offer critiques of the actual arguments of the book.

However, Scott Wells did read the entire book, and posted a two-part review of the book on his blog: part one and part two. Scott reports: “It might surprise non-readers that he [Eklof] has ideas for dismantling racism, and to continue to work on not being racist. … You might think them hogwash (or wonderful) but they’re there. ” However, says Scott,”some terms Eklof uses, such as political correctness  and safetyism, are used by other authors to dismiss or belittle critics,” meaning that Eklof’s sugestions for anti-racism probably aren’t going to be heard. The book also offers at least one solution that I can only characterize as bizarre: in one essay, Eklof proposes splitting the UUA back into separate Unitarian and Universalist denominations, which Scott sums up as “Swiftian fancy, or simply romantic misreading” of Unitarian and Universalist history. Scott does not seem to care much for the book; if I were to pick one statement from his review to sum up the book, it would be this: “This is a work of controversy.”

After Scott’s dismissive review, I concluded I won’t spend my limited free time reading this “work of controversy.” And if I haven’t read the book, I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. But I do feel qualified to comment on the controversy surrounding the book, from my perspective as a religious educator.

Progressive religious educators like me spend a lot of time thinking about how to move people to a place of greater understanding; how to get people to change their perspective; and how to get people to act in more humane ways. While a confrontational approach utilizing a “work of controversy” might work in a few educational situations, if the goal is to move people towards greater understanding and more humane action, then there are many situations where a confrontational approach will not be effective. One such situation is when you, as the educator, are talking about racism and anti-racism and the U.S. today, and your auditors include people who have been rubbed raw by racism; in that situation, a confrontational approach is less likely to lead to greater understanding or more humane action, and more likely merely to piss people off. Thus, speaking as an educator, passing out a “work of controversy” on the subject of racism seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time.

So where do we go from here? As a religious educator, I’d say it’s fairly obvious we in the U.S. all need to deepen our understanding of how racism has affected us, and continues to affect us. And I believe we would all like to figure out a more humane way to act with one another. The Gadfly Papers has proved yet again that controversy is not a particularly useful anti-racism strategy here in the U.S. — but that doesn’t mean we should give up.

Still speaking from an educator’s perspective, I would suggest that race is such a difficult topic here in the U.S. that we are going to need a wide range of strategies to address it; no one strategy is going to work for everyone and in every situation. But how do we judge what is a good strategy? I would propose a pragmatic criterion: if an educational strategy reduces systemic racism in a measurable way, then it is a good educational strategy. For example, for a religious educator working within a majority-white local congregation, if an anti-racist educational strategy leads to an increased proportion of non-white people in the congregation without a decline in absolute numbers of white people (beyond the usual losses to death or moving away), that strategy has succeeded quite well indeed.

Speaking from my own experiences in several local congregations, I believe that educational strategies based on behaviorist models (where we modify external behaviors) are generally more successful than therapeutic models (where we attempt to influence the way people feel). Similarly, educational strategies based on progressivist models (where we work together to confront or reduce racism in the wider world) generally work better than models based on logic or rhetoric (where we try to get people to think differently about racism). While I am not good at creating educational strategies at the denominational level, I suspect the same will hold true there; in which case, books about racism, or blog posts about racism, or social media chatter about racism, are not going to be particularly effective, except where they show us how to change behaviors and increase external action.

Planting a Pear Tree

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a story about selfishness, and it also gives an insight into the supposed magical powers of Daoist priests. Source: Pu Songling, trans. Herbert A. Giles, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (London: Thomas De La Rue & Co., 1880).

One day in the marketplace, a man from the countryside was selling pears he had grown. These pears were unusually sweet with a fine flavor, and so the countryman asked a high price for them.

A Daoist priest, dressed in a ragged old blue cloak, stopped at the barrow in which the countryman had displayed these lovely pears.

A Daoist priest. (Adapted from a public domain image from The Dragon, Image, and Demon by Hampden C. DuBose, New York: Armstrong & Son, 1887)

“May I have one of your pears?” he said.

The countryman said to him, “Get away from my barrow, so that paying customers may buy my pears.” For the countryman knew that the priest expected him to give him one for nothing. But when the priest did not move, the countryman began to curse and swear at him.

The priest said, “You have several hundred pears on your barrow. I ask for a single pear, the loss of which you would not feel. Why then, sir, do you get angry?”

Several people who were standing around told the countryman to give the priest a pear that was bruised, or which had some sort of blemish, a pear that he could not sell anyway. If he would only do that, then the priest would go away. But the countryman was stubborn, and he refused to give the Daoist priest anything at all.

The beadle of the town, who was charged with keeping the peace and maintaining order, came over to see what was going on. This beadle saw that things were getting out of hand, so he purchased a pear from the countryman, and presented it to the Daoist priest.

The priest bowed low to the beadle, thanking him for the pear. Then the priest turned to the crowd who had gathered round, and said, “Those of us who are Daoist priests have left our homes and given up all wealth. So when we see selfish behavior, it is hard for us to understand it. Now as it happens, I have some pears with a very fine flavor, and unselfishly I would like to share them with you.”

Someone in the crowd called out, “But if you have pears of your own, why didn’t you just eat one of them? Why did you have to have one of the countryman’s pears?”

“Because,” said the priest, “I wanted one of these seeds to grow my pears from.” So saying, he ate up the pear that the beadle had given him. When he had finished eating, he took one of the seeds, unstrapped a pick from his back, and bent down to make a hole in the ground, four inches deep, with the pick. Then he dropped the seed into this hole, and filled it in with earth. Turning back to the crowd, he said, “Could someone bring me a little hot water, please, with which to water the seed?”

One among the crowd who loved a joke went into a neighboring shop and fetched him back some boiling water.

The priest poured the boiling water over the place where he had made the hole. Everyone watched closely, for though it seemed like a joke, Daoist priests were supposed to have knowledge of alchemy and magic and the mystical arts.

Suddenly the people in the crowd saw green sprouts shooting up out of the ground, growing gradually larger and larger until they became a tree. This pear tree — for it was, indeed, a pear tree — quickly grew in the spot, and sprouted green leaves, and then put forth white flowers. Bees were heard buzzing among the flowers, then the petals dropped, and before long the tiny hard green fruits had grown and ripened into fine, large, sweet-smelling pears which hung heavy on every branch.

The priest picked these fine pears and handed them around to everyone in the crowd. When at last everyone had a pear, and all the pears had been picked from the tree, the priest turned and with his pick he hacked away at the tree until, after a long time, he cut it down. Picking up the tree and throwing it over his shoulder, leaves and all, he walked quietly away.

Now this whole time, the countryman had been standing in the crowd, straining his neck to see what was going on, and forgetting all about his own business. When the priest walked away, he turned back to his barrow and discovered that every one of his pears was now gone. He then knew that the pears that old fellow had been giving away were really his own pears. And when the countryman looked more closely at his barrow, he saw that one of its handles was missing, for it had been newly cut off.

Boiling with anger, the countryman set off after the Daoist priest. But as he turned the corner where the priest had disappeared, there was the lost wheel-barrow handle lying next to a wall. It was, in fact, the very pear tree that the priest had cut down.

But there were no traces of the priest — much to the amusement of the crowd in the market-place, who watched the countryman’s rage as they finished eating their sweet, juicy pears.

Spider steals Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from Central Africa. I like this story because of the differences between Nzambi Mpungu and the Christian Jehovah, and the different reasons Spider and Prometheus have for stealing the heavenly fire. The character of Spider is probably related to Anansi the Spider of West Africa myth, and probably to other African tricksters such as Tortoise of Yoruba myth. This story is adapted from Richard Edward Dennett, Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort (French Congo), London: Folk-lore Society, 1898, pp. 74-76 and 131-135.

First you must understand who Nzambi Mpungu is. He is the father of all things, and lives a happy life above the sky, where he has a many wives and beautiful children. He spends very little time thinking about us people here on earth, and since he is a good being there is no use in offering him worship or sacrifices. True, there are lesser gods and goddesses who can hurt us people here on earth, and to them we might offer worship and sacrefice, but Nzambi Mpungu will not mind, for he is not in the least jealous.

Now you may question whether Nzambi Mpungu actually exists. But there is a man still living, near the town of Loango, who says that one day, when it was thundering and lightning and raining very heavily, and when all the people in his village, being afraid, had hidden themselves in their houses, he alone was walking about. Suddenly, and at the moment of an extraordinarily vivid flash of lightning, after a very loud peal of thunder, he was seized and carried through space until he reached the roof of heaven, when it opened and allowed him to pass through to where Nzambi Mpungu lives. There the man met Nzambi Mpungu, who cooked some food for him, and then showed the man his great plantations and rivers full of fish. Then Nzambu Mpungu left the man, telling him to help himself whenever he felt hungry. The man stayed there two or three weeks, and never had he had so much good food to eat. At last Nzambi Mpungu came to him again, and asked the man whether he would like to remain there always, or whether he would like to return to the earth. The man said that he missed his friends, and would like to return to them, and Nzambi Mpungu sent him back to his family. So you see, Nzambi Mpungu does indeed live above the sky.

Nzambi, on the other hand, is Mother Earth. Some say she is Nzambi Mpungu’s first child. She is the great princess, a mighty ruler who governs all on earth. She has the spirit of rain, lightning, and thunder for her own use. She is a stern judge, and a fearsome ruler.

Now we can begin the story of how Spider almost married Nzambi’s daughter.

For Nzambi had a most delightful daughter whom anyone would have wanted to marry. But Nzambi swore that no earthly being should marry her daughter, unless they could bring her the heavenly fire from Nzambi Mpungu, who kept it somewhere in the heavens above the blue roof of sky.

The people all wondered who could ever bring the heavenly fire down to earth.

Then Spider said, “I will bring the heavenly fire to earth, but I will need help.”

“We will gladly help you,” said all the people, “if you will reward us for our help.”

So Spider climbed up to the blue roof of heaven, and dropped down again to the earth, leaving a strong silken thread firmly hanging from the roof to the earth below. Then he called to Tortoise, Woodpecker, Rat, and Sandfly, and bade them climb up the thread to the blue roof of sky.

When they got there, Woodpecker pecked a hole through the roof, and through this hole they all entered into the realm of Nzambi Mpungu, who, as it happens, was very badly dressed. Nzambi Mpungu received them courteously, and asked them what they wanted up there.

“O Nzambi Mpungu of the heavens above, great father of all the world,” they said, “we have come to fetch some of your heavenly fire, to bring it down to Nzambi who rules upon earth.”

“Wait here then,” said Nzambi Mpungu, “while I go to my people and tell them of the message you bring.” But Sandfly followed Nzambi Mpungu without being seen, and heard all that was said. While Sandfly was gone, the others talked among themselves, wondering if it were possible that someone who went around so badly dressed could be so powerful.

At last Nzambi Mpungu returned to them. “My friend,” he said to Spider, “how can I know that you have really come from the ruler of the earth, and that you are not impostors?”

“Nay,” said Spider and all the others, “put us to some test so we may prove our sincerity to you.”

“I will,” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Go down to this Earth of yours, and bring me a bundle of bamboos, so I can make myself a shed.”

Tortoise climbed all the way down to Earth, leaving the others where they were, and soon returned with the bamboo.

Nzambi Mpungu then said to Rat, “Get beneath this bundle of bamboo, and I will set fire to it. If you escape I shall surely know that Nzambi sent you.”

Rat did as he was told, and hid under the bundle of bamboo. Nzambi Mpungu set fire to the bamboo, and lo! when it was entirely consumed, Rat came from amidst the ashes completely unharmed.

“Ah!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “You are indeed sent from Nzambi on Earth. I will go and consult my people again.”

Spider, Rat, Woodpecker, and Tortoise sent Sandfly after him once again, bidding him to keep well out of sight, to hear all that was said, and if possible to find out where the lightning was kept. Sandfly soon returned and told them all that he had heard and seen.

When Nzambi Mpungu came back a little later, he said, “Yes, I will give you the heavenly fire you ask for. But only if you can tell me where it is kept.”

Spider said, “Give me then, O Nzambi Mpungu, one of the five cases that you keep in the hen-house.”

“Truly, you have answered me correctly, O Spider!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Take this case, and give it to your Nzambi.”

Tortoise carried the heavy case containing the heavenly fire down to the earth. When they got to Nzambi’s house, Spider presented the fire from heaven to her. True to her word, Nzambi agreed to let Spider marry her delightful daughter.

But Woodpecker grumbled, saying, “Surely your daughter is mine, for I was the one who pecked the hole through the roof, without which the others never could have entered the kingdom of the Nzambi Mpungu.”

“No, she is mine,” said Rat. “For I risked my life among the burning bamboo.”

“Nay, O Nzambi, she is mine,” said Sandfly. “For without my help the others would never have found out where the fire was kept.”

And Tortoise complained that he was the one who had to return to Earth to fetch the bamboo, and then had to carry the heavy case down to Earth, so of course the daughter should be married to him.

After listening to them all, Nzambi said: “Nay, Spider was the one who planned how to bring me the heavenly fire, and he has indeed brought it. By rights, my daughter should be married to him. But I know you others will make her life miserable if I allow her to marry Spider. Since she cannot marry all of you, I will not allow her to marry any of you. But I will give you her value” — for the people Nzambi ruled customarily gave presents when one of their children married.

Nzambi then paid fifty bolts of cloth each to Tortoise, Rat, Woodpecker, Sandfly, and Spider.

As for the daughter, she never married, and had to wait on Nzambi for the rest of her days.

Nzambi Mpungu as imagined by an African artist of perhaps a hundred years ago. This artist was a follower of the Kongo religion. The Kongo religion is related to several religions in the Americas including Haitian Vodoun and Brazilian Candomblé. Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, original photo CC-BY-SA 3.0 Ji-Elle.

The Pool of Enchantment, or the Riddle Contest

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from the Mahabharata. Adapted from The Indian Story Book: Containing Tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and Other Early Sources, by Richard Wilson (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914).

One day, near the end of their long exile in the forest, King Yudhisthira and his four brothers were searching for a mysterious deer which had stolen the wooden blocks which a Brahmin needed so he could light the sacred fire. The king and his brothers wandered deeper and deeper into the forest trying to find the deer. They grew more and more thirsty, but they were unable to find water. At last they all sat down, exhausted, beneath a tall tree.

“If we do not find water soon, we shall surely die,” said Yudhisthira He turned to his brother Nakula. “Brother,” he said, “climb the tree for us and see if you can spot water nearby.”

Nakula quickly climbed the tree, and in a few moments called down, “I see trees which only grow near running water, and there I hear the sound of cranes, birds which love the water.”

“Take your quiver,” said Yudhisthira. “Go fill it with water, and bring it back to quench our thirst.”

Nakula set out, and quickly found a small stream which widened into a pool of clear water with a crane standing on the far side.

A Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone). Public domain image.

Nakula knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink. Suddenly a stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Nakula was so thirsty he ignored the Voice, and drank eagerly from the cool water. In a few moments he lay dead at the edge of the pool.

The other four brothers waited patiently Nakula’s return. At last Yudhisthira said, “Where can our brother be? Go, Sahadeva, find your brother, and return with a quiver full of water.”

Sahadeva walked off through the forest. Soon he found Nakula lying dead at the edge of the pool. But he was so thirsty that he did not stop, but knelt down at the pool to drink.

The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

But Sahadeva had already drunk from the water, and lay dead at the edge of the pool.


Once again the remaining brothers waited patiently. At last Yudhisthira spoke to his brother Arjuna, the mighty archer. “Go, Arjuna,” he said, “find our brothers, and return to us with a quiver full of water.”

Arjuna slung his bow over his shoulder, and with his sword at his side walked to the pool. When he saw his brothers lying dead among the reeds, he fitted an arrow to his bow while his keen eyes pierced the darkness of the forest searching for the enemy who had killed them. Seeing neither human nor wild beast, at last he knelt down at the edge of the pool to drink.

The stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Prince Arjuna looked about him. “Come out,” he cried, “and fight with me.” He shot arrows in all directions, but the Voice only laughed at him, and repeated its command.

But Arjuna ignored the Voice, knelt and drank, and soon lay dead at the edge of the pool.


Yudhisthira waited patiently, but when Arjuna did not return, the king turned to Bhima. “Go,” he said, “find our brothers, and return with them and a quiver full of water.”

Bhima silently rose, walked to the pool, and found his brothers lying dead. “What evil demon has killed my brothers,” he thought to himself, looking around. But he was so thirsty he knelt to drink.

Again the stern Voice spoke: “Do not drink, O Prince, until you have answered my questions.”

Bhima had not heard the Voice, and so he lay dead next to his brothers.


Yudhisthira waited for a time, then went himself to find water.

When he came to the pool, he stood for a moment looking at it. He saw clear water shining in the sunlight, lotus flowers floating in the water, and a crane stalking along the edge of the pool. And there were his four brothers lying dead at the edge of the pool.

Even though he was terribly weak and thirsty, he stopped and spoke aloud the name of each of his brothers, and told of the great deeds each had done. He spoke out loud his sorrow for the death of each one.

“This must be the work of some evil spirit,” he thought to himself. “Their bodies show no wounds, nor is there any sign of human footprints. The water is clear and fresh, and I can see no signs that they have been poisoned. But I am so thirsty, I will kneel down to drink.”

Yudhisthira and the crane (public domain image)

As King Yudhisthira knelt down, the Voice took the shape of a Baka, or crane, a gray bird with long legs and a red head. The Baka spoke to him in a stern voice, saying:

“Do not drink, O King, until you have answered my questions.”

“Who are you?” said Yudhisthira boldly. “Tell me what you want.”

“I am not a bird,” said the Baka, “but a Yaksha!” And Yudhisthira saw the vague outlines of a huge being above crane, towering above the lofty trees, glowing like an evening cloud.

“It seems I must obey, and not drink before I answer your questions,” said the king. “Ask me what you will, and I will use what wisdom I have to answer you.”

So the questioning began:


The Yaksha said: “Who makes the Sun rise? Who moves the Sun around the sky? Who makes the Sun set? What is the true nature of the Sun?”

The King replied: “The god Brahma makes the sun rise. The gods and goddesses move the Sun around the sky. The Dharma sets the Sun. Truth is the true nature of the Sun.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is heavier than the earth? What is higher than the heavens? What is faster than the wind? What is there more of than there are blades of grass?”

The King replied: “The love of parents is both heavier than earth and higher than the heavens. A person’s thoughts are faster than the wind. There are more sorrows than there are blades of grass.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is it, that when you cast is aside, makes you lovable? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you happy? What is it, that when you cast it aside, makes you wealthy?”

The King replied: “When you cast aside pride, you become lovable. When you cast aside greed, you become happy. When you cast aside desire, you become wealthy.”

The Yaksha asked: “What is the most difficult enemy to conquer? What disease lasts as long as life itself? What sort of person is most noble? What sort of person is most wicked?”

The King replied: “Anger is the most difficult enemy to conquer. Greed is the disease that can last as long as life. The person who desires the well-being of all creatures is most noble. The person who has no mercy is most wicked.”


The questions went on and on, but Yudhisthira was able to answer them all, wisely and well.

At last the Yaksah stopped asking questions, and revealed its true nature: the Yaksha was none other than Yama-Dharma, the god of death, and the father of Yudhisthira.

Yama-Dharma said, “It was I who took on the shape of a deer and stole the wooden blocks so the Brahmin could not light the sacred fire.

“Now you may drink of this fair water, Yudhisthira! And you may choose which of your four brothers shall be returned to life.”

“Let Nakula live,” said Yudhisthira.

“Why not Bhima or Arjuna or Sahadeva?” said Yama-Dharma.

“My brother Nakula is the son of Madri,” said the King, “while Arjuna, Bhima, Sahadeva and I are the sons of Kunthi. If Nakula returns to life, then both my mothers, both Madri and Kunthi, will have a living child. Therefore, let Nakula live.”

Then Yama-Dharma spoke kindly as he faded away. “Truly you are called ‘The Just,” he said. “Noblest of kings and wisest of all persons, for your wisdom and your love and your sense of justice, I shall return all of your brothers to life.”


More riddles — Here are two dozen more of the riddles that Yama-Dharma asked of Yudhisthira:

1. How may a person become secure? — A person becomes secure through courage.
2. How may a person become wise? — A person gains wisdom by living with people who are wise
3. What is best for the Brahmans (those who pursue learning as their life’s work)? — Studying the Vedas, the holy books, is best for the Brahmans.
4. What is best for the Kshathriyas (those who are the warriors and defenders)? Weapons are best for the Kshathriyas.
5. What is best for farmers? — Rain is best for farmers.
6. Who does not close their eyes when sleeping? — Fish do not close their eyes when sleeping.
7. What does not move even after birth? — Eggs do not move even after birth.
8. What does not have a heart? — A stone does not have a heart.
9. What grow as it goes? — A river grows as it goes to the sea.
10. Who is the guest who is welcome to all? — Fire is the guest who is welcome to all.
11. Who travels alone? — The Sun travels alone.
12. Who is born again and again? — The Moon is born again and again.
13. What container can contain everything? — The Earth can contain everything.
14. Out of all things, what is best? — Out of all things, knowledge gained from wise people is best.
15. Out of all blessings, what is best? — Out of all blessings, good health is best.
16. Out of all pleasures, what is best? — Out of all pleasures, being contented is best.
17. Out of all just actions, which is best? — Out of all just actions, non-violence is best.
18. What must a person control in order to never be sad? — A person must control their mind in order to never be sad.
19. What will a person never be sad to leave behind? — A person will never be sad to leave behind anger.
20. What should a person leave behind to become rich? — A person should leave behind desire in order to become rich.
21. What should a person leave behind to be have a happy life? — A person should leave behind selfishness to have a happy life.
22. By what is the world covered? — The world is covered by ignorance.
23. Why doesn’t the world shine brightly? — Bad behavior keeps the world from shining brightly.
24. What is surprising? — It is surprising that we think of ourselves as stable and permanent, when every day we see beings dying.

Illustrations are from the following public domain sources (accessed through the Internet Archive):
Sarus Crane, H. E. Dresser, “A History of the Birds of Europe,” London: 1871-1881.
Yudhistira and the crane, Mahabharata, Gorakhpur, India: Geeta Press, n.d.

Risk Reduction Resource Kit

Alex, a friend who works at Health Initiatives for Youth (HI4Y) in San Francisco, told me about their Risk Reduction Resource Kits. These kits contain resources to help teens teens learn about sexuality and safer sex. Alex knows about the OWL comprehensive sexuality education program, and has heard me describe our youth programs, and based on that he encouraged me to put in an application for the last remaining Risk Resource Reduction Kit, and Carol and I went in to JI4Y’s offices to pick up the kit on Monday.

The whole point of the kit is that it’s supposed to be placed where teens can access it without adult supervision, to encourage them to explore the materials on their own. The kit was designed to accompany a sexuality education curriculum developed by HI4Y, but be accessible both to teens taking the curriculum and other teens. So for our congregation, it’s a prefect accompaniment to the OWL unit for gr. 10-12; for those taking OWL the kit will reinforce the curriculum; and it can also serve as an educational resource for those not taking OWL.

The Curriculum Subcommittee of our congregation met the day after I picked up the kit, and we devoted the meeting to talking about the kit. The Curriculum Subcommittee has been exploring ways to be more intentional about our congregation’s implicit curriculum, asking ourselves: How can we structure intentional learning opportunities that are not part of the explicit curriculum, the formal educational programs? We agreed that the kit is a solid addition to our implicit curriculum: Not only does it educate teens about specific sexuality topics, it provides a larger lesson that information about sexuality should be easily accessible and shared without shame or guilt.

Beyond educational theory, we also talked about how best to implement this aspect of our implicit curriculum. Alex had warned us that sometimes the kits get forgotten, and stowed in some obscure corner. So we’re going to provide orientation to the kit for key adults (youth advisors, OWL leaders, ministers, and others) to increase the chance that adults will remember to make the kit accessible. In addition, we’re also going to provide a brief orientation to the kit to teens — both to youth group members, and participants in OWL gr. 10-12 — showing them what’s in the kit, and telling them where it will be located. (When we offer OWL for gr. 7-9 next year, we’ll do another orientation.)

But the real strength of the kit is what it contains. HI4Y came up with some excellent youth-friendly resources, including comics, zines, books, and samples — I’m putting a complete list of what’s in the kit below. The materials are housed in a wheeled nylon case, like airline luggage (actually, it’s a scrapbooking case HI4Y bought from Michael’s art supply). A highlight of the kit is contraceptives samples that youth can examine: condoms of course, but also dental dams, female condoms, and lubricant; HI4Y even has some grant money left to replenish samples when they get depleted. There’s both a penis model (made of wood, not plastic!) for trying condoms, and a vulva/vagina model for trying female condoms. We were able to add one very important thing to this kit: our congregation has a ten thousand dollar bequest that we can use to put books in the hands of children and teens, so we are able to provide copies of the book “S.E.X.” by Heather Corinna that youth can take for their own.

We would not have been able to afford to put this kit together ourselves, and we are grateful to HI4Y for writing the grant and assembling the kit, and to the federal government for providing the grant money. Just in case your UU congregation can find the funding, I’m going to provide a complete list of all the resources in the kit below; at the very least, this list of resources might spark ideas for you.

The Risk Reduction Resource Kit (we added the sign at top).

Here’s what’s in the kit:

Birth control samples and examples:
Dental dam samples
Female condom samples
Female Contraceptive Model (to practice inserting female condoms)
Lubricants samples
Male condom samples
Penis model (to practice with male condoms)
IUD model
The Ring model
The Pill model
The Implant info card
Plan B info card
Birth Control Patch info card
“How Well Does Birth Control Work” info card

Home test kits:
Pregnancy test kits
HIV Home Test Kit information (actual kit is stored separately, per instructions from Health Initiatives for Youth)

Handouts and Miscellaneous:
“Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis” handout
Individual Drug Fact Cards (handouts)
Drug Fact Cards set
Chlamydia Plush Toy
HIV Plush Toy
Youth Clinic Youth Guide to San Francisco and Silicon Valley (list of local clinics that serve youth; includes 1-page summary of California law on youth’s right to treatment)
(We also added handouts from the nearest Planned Parenthood Health Center)

Publications:
“Dr. Rad’s Queer Health Show: Self Exams & Check-Ups” zine by Rad Remedy and Isabella Rotman
“You’re So Sexy When You Aren’t Transmitting STIs” comic zine by Isabella Rotman
“Not on My Watch: Bystander’s Handbook for Prevention of Sexual Violence” comic zine by Isabella Rotman
“100 Questions You’d Never Ask Your Parents” book by Elisabeth Henderson and Nancy Armstrong
“S.E.X.” book by Heather Corinna
“LGBTQ: The Survival Guide” book by Kelly Huegel Madrone
“Birth Control Top Picks” magazine by Bedsider.org

More coloring pages

In response to my recent post about creating coloring pages, Carol sent me a link to “Color Our Collections,” an initiative hosted by the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM). For the past three years, libraries, archives, and museums in North America and Europe have created coloring pages based on items in their collections, and NYAM shares them at library.nyam.org/colorourcollections . Most of these collections of coloring pages are really aimed at adults, but there are dozens of collections to look through. I’m going to be able to use at least some coloring pages from the collections created by the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture, and Design; the Biodiversity Heritage Library; the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park; Berkeley Library at the University of California; and maybe one or two others.

And Matt pointed me to the 2019 coloring and activity book created by Black Lives Matter at School. This is a big book, with 32 pages, and mostly aimed at kids older than my target audience. We won’t be able to use the activity pages that require knowing how to read and write, but I know we’ll be using the coloring pages titled “Diversity,” “Black Families,” “Black Women,” “Queer Affirming,” and “Transgender Affirming.” Both the art and the messages are fabulous.

If any of you have any more tips for great free coloring pages, let me know — I’m especially looking for coloring pages that feature East Asian, South Asian, and Hispanic culture. And some time in March, I’ll set up a coloring pages Web page on my curriculum web site, with links to the best coloring pages.

Coloring pages

Coloring pages are an essential part of how we make space for children in our Palo Alto congregation. When they enter of Main Hall, children and their parents can pick up packets of coloring pages and crayons, to give the children something to keep them engaged while they’re in the worship service.

Now, for years I’ve made special activity books for two of our intergenerational worship services, Easter and Flower Communion; the Easter activity books in particular are designed to have some educational value. But I haven’t put much thought into our regular weekly coloring pages; the Religious Education Assistant just found free coloring pages on the Web, and that’s what we used. The coloring pages may have nothing to do with our faith community, but at least the kids are happy.

But it occurred to me that we were missing an educational opportunity: why not come up with coloring pages that are both fun, and have some educational value? I did a Web search to see if other Unitarian Universalist congregations had produced coloring pages, and found the Alice the Chalice coloring pages by talented religious educator Rev. Amy Friedman — great stuff! But Amy has only provided a half a dozen different coloring pages. We give out packets with 8 or so coloring pages, and ideally I wanted to have a different packet for every month. It looked like I was going to have to make my own.

I began to collect images that I thought would be fun to color in. More importantly, I began to think about what I wanted to teach. Our religious education program does a lot with nature and ecojustice. So it made sense to produce coloring pages of living things; this would show young children and our families that we value non-human organisms, and if the images were of organisms native to California this would show our awareness of the immediate web of life surrounding us. (OK, maybe this is a little above the head of a four year old, but parents and older siblings will be looking at these, too.)

A search for public domain line drawings turned up a good selection of Pacific Coast wildflowers, as well as Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), and I was quickly able to assemble 8 coloring pages with California native plants, and 8 coloring pages with butterflies and moths. California mammals would be another obvious category, but I couldn’t find line drawings that would make good coloring pages; I was going to have to draw my own. I’ve started working on mammal coloring pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Townsend’s Chipmunk, a sample page from the California Mammals coloring pages.

What about coloring pages with more explicitly religious content? We Unitarian Universalists are known for being feminists, so why not Goddesses Coloring Pages? I was able to find some public domain line drawings of goddesses, including goddesses from South Asia and the Mediterranean, and East Asia. I’m still looking for public domain images of goddesses from Indigenous America, Africa, and Oceania — and the images of the East Asian goddesses needed to be completely redrawn. Eventually, I’m planning on two packets of Goddesses Coloring Pages, and if you click on the image below you’ll get a PDF with two of those pages.

Above: Guanyin, a sample page from the Goddesses coloring pages.

You’ll notice that I’ve put copyright notices on the coloring pages; I did so because it’s a big, bad Internet out there, and I don’t want other people to steal my work. But I hereby grant permission for Unitarian Universalist congregations, and other educational nonprofits, to print hard copies of these coloring pages for free distribution in their educational programs.

Eventually, I may put all my coloring pages on my curriculum web site, and if I do so I’ll mention it here on my blog. In the mean time, now you have 4 more coloring pages to add to the Alice the Chalice coloring pages.

Animal ears

The No-Rehearsal Christmas Pageant we do every year requires some kind of minimal costume for the six animals in the manger scene. The vinyl animal noses I’ve been using for the past decade and a half have started to get tacky, and it’s time to stop using them. Nor did I want to purchase new animal noses; the world doesn’t need any more cheap vinyl junk. First I made a chicken hat as a possible replacement for the chicken nose, but this week I decided that making five other animal hats (and finding a place to store them) simply wasn’t practical.

So instead I made animal ears mounted on head bands. It turns out that animal ears mounted on head bands are a substantial cottage industry, sold on Etsy (just search for “farm animal ears”) and elsewhere. But I decided to make my own — cow ears, donkey ears, dog ears, pig ears, mouse ears, and a chicken crest — using hair bands, felt, wire for stiffener, and a hot melt glue gun.

It would have been cheaper (once you figure in my time) and easier to purchase the ears available on Etsy. However, having made them I know how to repair them, and I anticipate that these animal ears will last until I finally retire.