Patol House

While developing a curriculum for middle elementary grades, I found an interesting game, “Patol House,” originally played by Native Americans in New Mexico. I found this game in the book Handbook of American Indian Games by Allan and Paulette Macfarlan (Toronto: General Pub., 1958; reprint, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Pub., 1985). The Macfarlans are recreating games for use by middle class white kids in summer camps in the 1950s, and no doubt they have modified the rules to this game somewhat. I have further modified the rules, turning this into a board game suitable for use indoors in a multi-racial Sunday school classroom; and I further modified the rules to fill in a gap or two that we found in the Macfarlans’ rules during test play.

Sample game play with adults showed this can be a fun game. It’s supposed to be a game of skill and strategy, not of luck — the skill comes in being able to throw the counting sticks to yield the number you want; the strategy comes in planning your moves to “kill” opponents’ horses. In our sample play, we gained enough skill to throw the desired number maybe one out of ten times, so it was mostly a game of luck for us. But even as a game of luck, it was enjoyable to play.

With no further ado, here’s how to make and play the game:

Making the game: According the the Macfarlans, the Indians used a game board of 40 stones arranged in a circles, with 4 gaps between the stones; the gaps are “rivers.” The design shown in the photo below reproduces this game board on paper; the blue stripes are the “rivers.” I printed the design in halves, on two 11 by 17 inch pieces of cardstock; then gluing the cardstock to foamcore to make a 17 by 17 inch game board. The counting sticks are popsicle sticks that are shortened; the sticks are marked (based on Tiwa Indian designs) as follows: all three sticks have two hatch marks on one side; two are left blank on the reverse side, while one is marked with three hatch marks on the reverse. A flattish stone goes in the center; this is to bounce the counting sticks off. I made two cards showing how to score the throws of the counting sticks. For playing pieces, I found some small stones, as you can see in the photo below; however, these were not very satisfactory, and I have since substituted colored game pawns.

(Notes on making the game: 1. The point of this game is not to try to recreate an utterly authentic Native design, but to make a game that is easily playable. 2. The file for the game board is something like 5400 x 5400 pixels at 300 dpi and too big to post here, so you’ll have to draw your own game board. 3. I’m prototyping the game using the Board Games Maker Web site; when they ship it to me I’ll post a photo on this blog.)

This game works best with 8 or more players. If you have fewer players, give each player two horses; players take a separate turn for each horse.

Setting up the game:

Put the stone in the center of the game board. The playing pieces, called “horses,” remain off the game board until a player plays them.

Throw the counting sticks to see who goes first:

Hold the three counting sticks in your hand about a foot above the game board. Bring your hand down, and release the sticks about 6 inches above the stone (but no closer). The sticks hit the stone, bounce, and fall with one face or another showing. 

The diagram below shows how many points you get, depending on which sides of the counting sticks are showing. The player with the highest number of points goes first.

Game play:

The first player throws the counting sticks, and, starting from a blue circle nearest to where they are sitting, moves their horse that number of spaces. Players may move either clockwise or counterclockwise as they wish, but once they begin moving in one direction they must keep moving in that direction in subsequent turns. However, if they throw a 10, this would place their horse in a river. Horses may not land in rivers. Whenever a throw lands their horse in a river, the player must throw the counting sticks again until they throw a number that will not land their horse in a river.

The other players may begin from the same river that the first player started from, or from a different river. Again, they may move either clockwise or counterclockwise, but once they begin moving in one direction they must keep moving in that direction.

Player’s horses may pass over other players horses. But if one player’s horse ends up on the space occupied by another player’s horse, the other player’s horse is considered dead and must start over. A player may have to start over several times during the course of a game.

If you start over, you must start in the same river you started in before (that is, in the same blue circle). However, if you start over, you can again choose to go either clockwise or counterclockwise—though again, once you choose a direction you have to keep going in that direction, until you have to start over again.

Winning the game: 

The first player whose horse makes it all the way around the circle, back to their starting point or past it, wins the game. 

Strategy: For good players, this is a game of skill. A good player can hold the sticks in their hand and bounce them in such a way as to get the number they want. But be sure to release your hold well above where the sticks hit the stone, so you’re not accused of cheating.

Paper bag puppets for a Jataka tale

I’m in the middle of writing curriculum for middle elementary grades, and here’s a children’s craft project I just developed for this curriculum. These are puppets for acting out the story-within-the-story of the Buddhist Jataka tale “The Little Tree Spirit” (which you can read on my old blog here).

You will need:
patterns that you print and cut out ahead of time
glue sticks or paste
scissors
pencils
black magic markers
paper bags (lunch bag size, 5 x 10 in. folded)
paper or card stock in the following colors:
—pink (for noses and mouths)
—white (for eyes)
—dull green (for Little Tree Spirit)
—bright green (for Great Tree Spirit)
—orange (for Tiger)
—yellow (for Lion’s head)
—brown (for Lion’s mane)

Let’s start by seeing how the Tiger is made.

(1) Cut out the head, attach it to the paper bag:

Trace the head shape from the patterns or draw it freehand on orange paper, then cut it out. Glue the head to what is the usually bottom of the paper bag.

(2) Add details to the head:

Cut out the nose from pink paper, and two eyes from white paper. Glue on the eyes and nose, and draw pupils in the eyes. Using the black magic marker, draw stripes and whiskers on the tiger as shown above.

(3) Add the mouth:

Cut out the mouth, and fold it at about one third of the way across the diameter (about one inch from the edge). Glue the mouth in the flap formed by the bottom of the paper bag where it’s folded over, as shown in the drawing. You want a little bit of the pink mouth to show below the head of the puppet.

(4) Try your puppet:

Put your hand inside the puppet, and make sure the mouth looks right when you open and close the puppet’s mouth.

(5) Make the other puppets:

The rest of the puppets are made in much the same way. (1) For the Lion: use the same head pattern but cut the head out of yellow paper; then cut a mane out of brown paper and glue the head on the mane. (2) For the Little Tree Spirit: use the tree pattern and cut the tree out of green paper. (3) For the Great Tree Spirit: use the mane pattern, cutting the shape out of green paper for the “head.”

Now you have all the puppets you need to act out the story. They’re kind of crude, but they’re effective.

Kisolo

I’m in the process of writing a curriculum for middle elementary that will include a story from the Kongo religious tradition, “Spider Steals Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire.” As a supplementary activity, I’m planning to include instructions for Kisolo, a traditional Congolese game that resembles the well-known Mancala game that’s commercially available in the U.S. So here’s my first pass at Kisolo rules, somewhat simplified for middle elementary grades. (If you play this game, let me know what you think of the rules.)

To make a Kisolo board: Take two egg cartons, and cut their lids off. Tape them together to make a game board with six by four holes. (Most traditional Kisolo boards are four by seven holes in size, but a smaller board is allowable and makes for shorter game play.) You can also use he commercially available Mancala boards — take two of them, place them side by side and ignore the large bins at the ends of the boards.

To set up the board: Place three “seeds” in each bin. You can use actual bean seeds, or small glass tokens or what-have-you, for seeds. (For a faster game, plant only two seeds per bin.)

Simplified Kisolo baord, showing initial set up

To start:

Two players sit at the long sides of the game board opposite each other. The twelve bins on your side belong to you, and the twelve bins on your opponent’s side belong to them. Each player has six “outer bins” (the row of bins nearest to them) and six “inner bins” — see the diagram above.

To play:

Youngest player starts.

When it is your turn, see if one of your inner bins contains seeds AND your opponent’s inner bin opposite it contains seeds. (If that’s true of more than one of your inner bins, just pick one; OR if you can’t capture any seeds, see below.)

Then remove all the seeds from your inner bin, plus the seeds in the corresponding bin that belongs to your opponent, and any seeds in your opponent’s outer bin that’s next to that inner bin.

Now “sow the seeds,” that is, starting with the inner hole you’ve just emptied, place one seed in each of your holes and continue counterclockwise sowing seeds only into you holes, until you have sown all the seeds.

If your last seed falls in one of your inner holes, then you ALSO get to remove all the seeds from your inner bin, plus the seeds in the corresponding bin that belongs to your opponent, and any seeds in your opponent’s outer bin that’s next to that inner bin. Then you sow the seeds as before—it’s like you get another turn (but after that your turn is over).

IF YOU CANNOT CAPTURE ANY SEEDS, then empty the seeds out of any one of your holes and sow those seeds counterclockwise into your own holes.

To win the game:

Capture all the seeds in your opponent’s INNER holes (doesn’t matter how many seeds are in the OUTER holes).

Note that some games will end in a draw, where neither player can win. If it feels like the game is going nowhere, the players can agree to a draw.

The Accursed Lake

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story comes from Charles Fletcher Lummis, Pueblo Indian Folk-Stories (New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1910), pp. 109-116; a book of stories of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, or Tigua Indians of Texas. I have edited the story for length and clarity.

Long ago there was still a village east of the Eagle-Feather Mountains, where there lived a Hunter. One day, while out hunting, he followed the trail of an antelope until the trail ended in a large lake.

Just then, a fish thrust its head from the water and said, “Friend Hunter, you are on dangerous ground!” and off it went swimming.

Before the Hunter could recover from his surprise, a Lake-Man came up out of the water and said, “How is it that you are here, where no human ever came?”

The Hunter told his story, and the Lake-Man invited him to come in to his house. They entered the house by a trap-door in the roof, and climbed down a ladder. Inside, there were doors to the east, north, west, and south, as well as the door in the roof. Soon the Lake-Man learned that the Hunter had a wife and son at home.

“Why not come live with me?” the Lake-Man said. “I am no hunter, but I have plenty of other food. We could live very well here together.” And he showed the Hunter the four other huge rooms, all filled with corn and dried squash and the like.

“I will come with my wife and son in four days,” said the Hunter, “if the leader of my village will let me.”

So the Hunter went home, and his wife thought very well of the offer. The leader of his village did not want him to go, for he was the best hunter in all the pueblo, but at last gave permission.

So the Hunter and his wife and little boy came to the lake with all their property. The Lake-Man welcomed them, and they settled in. The Hunter went out hunting and brought back great quantities of game, and his wife took charge of the household, as was their custom.

Some time passed very pleasantly. But at last the Lake-Man, who had an evil heart, pushed the Hunter into the East Room, locked the door and left him there to starve. The room was full of the bones of people whom he had tricked in the same way.

The boy was now old enough to hunt small game, and he brought home many rabbits. But the evil-hearted Lake-Man wanted to get him out of the way, too. One morning when the boy was about to start hunting, he heard his mother groaning as if about to die.

“Your mother is in terrible pain,” said the evil Lake-Man, “and the only thing that will cure her is sacred ice from the Lake of the Sun in the east.”

The boy said he would go get the ice, and started off toward the sunrise.

He walked over the brown plains until at last he came to the house of Old-Woman-Mole. She was there all alone, for her husband had gone to hunt. They lived in an old broken-down hut, and she was huddled trying to keep warm by a dying fire. But when the boy knocked, she rose and welcomed him kindly and gave him all there was in the house to eat: a tiny bowl of soup with a patched-up snowbird in it. The boy was very hungry, and picking up the snowbird bit a big piece out of it.

“Oh, my child!” cried the old woman. “You have ruined me! My husband trapped that bird these many years ago, but could never get another, and that is all we have had to eat ever since. So we never bit it, but cooked it over and over and drank the broth. And now not even that is left.” And she wept bitterly.

“Nay, Grandmother, do not worry,” said the boy, for he saw many snowbirds alighting nearby. Using his long hair, he made sanres and soon caught many snowbirds. Then the Old-Woman-Mole was full of joy. After the boy told her his errand, she said:

“I shall help you. When you come into the house of the True People, they will offer you a seat, but you must not take it. They will try you with smoking the weer, but I will help you.”

With that, the boy started away to the east. At last, he came so near to Sun Lake that medicine men and guards of the True People saw him coming, and went in to tell the True People.

“Let him be brought in,” said the True People; and the guards brought the boy in through a magnificent building, until he stood in the presence of the True People in a vast room: white-colored gods of the East, blue gods of the North, yellow gods of the West, red gods of the South, and rainbow-colored gods of Up, Down, and Center. Beyond them were the sacred animals: the buffalo, the bear, the eagle, the badger, the mountain lion, the rattlesnake, and all the others that are powerful in medicine.

The True People offered the boy a white robe to sit on; but he declined respectfully, saying that he had been taught, when in the presence of his elders, to sit on nothing save what he brought, and he sat upon his blanket and moccasins. Then he told them that he had come for the sacred ice, to save his mother’s life.

The True People gave him a sacred weer, that is, a hollow reed filled with the magical plant pee-en-hleh, from the smoke of which the rain clouds come. The boy took in the unpleasant smoke, but the Old-Woman-Mole dug a hole up to his toes, and the smoke went down through his feet into the hole so that no smoke escaped into the room of the True People.

The boy and the True People. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” So they put him into the room of the East with the bear and the mountain lion, but he came out again unhurt. They put him into the room of the North, with the eagle and the hawk; into the room of the West, with the snakes; into the room of the South, with the Apaches and other human enemies of his people. He came forth from each room unhurt.

“Surely he is our child,” said the True People to one another, “but we must test him again.” They had a great pile of logs built up, set the boy on the top of the pile and lighted it. But in the morning, the boy sat there unharmed, saying, “I am cold and would like more fire.”

So the guards brought him inside, and the True People said: “You have proved yourself worthy of us, and now you shall have what you seek.”

They gave him the sacred ice, and he hurried home, stopping only to thank the Old-Woman-Mole.

When the evil Lake-Man saw the boy, he was very angry, for he had never expected him to return with the sacred ice. He pretended he was glad to see the boy, but said he must go to the gods of the South to get sacred ice there.

The boy walked south across the brown plains until he came to a drying lake. There, dying in the mud, was a little fish. Picking it up, the boy put it in his gourd canteen of water. After awhile he came to a good lake, and the fish in his gourd said, “Friend Boy, let me swim while you eat your lunch, for I love the water.”

So he put the fish in the lake; and when he was ready to go on, the fish came to him, and he put it back in his gourd. At three lakes he let the fish swim while he ate; and each time the fish came back to him.

Beyond the third lake began a great forest which stretched clear across the world, and was so dense with thorns and brush that no human being could pass through. The tiny fish changed itself into a great Fish-Animal with hard, strong skin, and bidding the boy mount upon its back, it went plowing through the forest, breaking down big trees like stubble, and bringing him through to the other side without a scratch.

“Now, Friend Boy,” said the Fish-Animal, “you saved my life, and I will help you. When you come to the house of the True People of the South, they will try you as they did in the East. When you have proved yourself, the leader of the True People will bring you his three daughters, from whom to choose you a wife. The two eldest are very beautiful, and the youngest is not; but choose the youngest, for she is good and the beauty of the older sisters does not reach to their hearts.”

The boy thanked the fish and went on. At last he came to the house of the True People of the South. They tried him just as the True People of the East had done. Once again he passed the tests, and they gave him the sacred ice. Then the leader of the True People brought his three daughters, and said, “You are now old enough to have a wife, and I see that you are someone who cares for those around him. Therefore, choose one of my daughters to marry.”

The boy remembered the words of his fish friend, and said, “I choose your youngest daughter.”

The leader of the True People was pleased, and the boy and the youngest daughter were married. They started home, carrying the sacred ice and many presents. With the help of the Fish-Animal, they got through the forest, and walked on.

The evil Lake-Man being struck by lightning. Illustration by George Wharton Edwards (modified public domain image), based in part on photographs by Charles F. Lummis.

At last they came in sight of the big lake, and over it were great clouds, with the forked lightning leaping forth. They could see the evil Lake-Man sitting at the top of his ladder, watching to see if the boy would return, and as they watched the lightning of the True People struck him dead.

So the boy and the youngest daughter found the boy’s mother, and the three of them left the house of the evil Lake-Man. They left all the belongings of the evil Lake-Man behind, and when they got to the shore of the lake, the boy stood and prayed to the True People that the lake might be accurst forever. From that day its waters turned salt, and no living thing has drunk therefrom.

Drawing of a Tigua figure (copyright 2019 Dan Harper). After a vase made circa 2010 by Albert Alvidrez, member of the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo / Tigua Indian Reservation.

The Red-Cedar Sculpture of the Woman Who Had Died

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a Tlingit myth recorded in Wrangell, Alaska.

A young man and a young woman on the Haida Gwaii, the Islands of the Haida People, married. The young man was a chief, and the couple were very happy together. But soon after they were married, the young woman fell ill. Her husband sent around everywhere for the very best shamans, to try to cure her of her illness. He heard about a very fine shaman from another village on the island, and sent a canoe there to bring that shaman. But that shaman could do nothing. The young chief heard about another fine shaman at another village on another island, and again sent a canoe; but neither could that shaman cure the young woman. The young man sent for several fine shamans, but none of them could help his wife, and after she had been sick for a very long time she died.

The young chief felt very badly after his wife had died. He went from village to village to find the best wood-carvers in order to have them carve a sculpture of his wife. But though he asked several fine carvers, no one could make a sculpture that looked like his wife.

All this time there was a wood-carver in his own village who could carve much better than all the others. This man met the young chief one day and said, “You are going from village to village to have wood carved like your wife’s face, and you can not find anyone to do it, can you? I have seen your wife a great deal walking along with you. I have never studied her face with the idea that you might want some one to carve it, but I am going to try if you will allow me.”

The young chief agreed to try. The wood-carver found a very fine piece of red-cedar and began working upon it. When he had finished, the wood-carver had dressed the sculpture just as he used to see the young woman dressed. Then he went to the young chief and said, “Now you can come along and look.”

The young chief came to the wood-carver’s workshop, and when he got inside, he saw his dead wife sitting there just as she used to look. This made him very happy, and he said he would like to take this sculpture home. “What do I owe you for making this?” he asked the wood-carver.

The wood-carver had felt sorry to see how the young chief was mourning for his wife, so he said, “Do as you please about it. It is because I felt badly for you that I made that. So don’t pay me too much for it.”

But the young chief paid the wood-carver very well, both in slaves and in goods.

The young chief dressed this sculpture in his wife’s clothes and her marten-skin robe. When he finished, he felt that his wife had come back to him. He treated the sculpture just like her. One day, while he sat very close to the sculpture, mourning for his dead wife, he felt the sculpture move. He thought that the movement was only his imagination. Yet he knew his wife had been as fond of him as he was of her, and so each day as he ate his meals he sat close to the sculpture, thinking perhaps some time it would in fact come to life.

After a while the whole village learned the young chief had this sculpture of his wife. One by one, they all came to see it. It was so life-like that many people could not believe that it was not the woman herself until they had examined it closely and saw it was only made of wood.

One day, after the chief had had it for a long, long time, he sat down next to the sculpture, and saw that the body was just like the body of a human being. Now he was sure the sculpture was alive, and he began to treat it just as if it were his wife. Yet though he was sure the sculpture was alive, it could not move or speak.

Then one day the sculpture gave forth a sound like cracking wood. The man was sure something was wrong; perhaps the sculpture was ill. He had some people come and move it away from the place where it had been sitting, and when they had moved the sculpture they found a small red-cedar tree growing there on top of the flooring. The man left the young red-cedar tree to grow there, until it grew to be very large. (For many years afterwards, when people on the Queen Charlotte Islands went looking for red-cedars, if they found a good one they would say, “This looks like the baby of the chief’s wife.” And it is because of the young chief’s wife that red-cedars on the Queen Charlotte islands provide the very best wood for carving.)

But to return to the red-cedar sculpture of the young woman: The sculpture continued to grow more and more like a human being day after day. People from villages far and near heard the story, and came in canoes to look at the sculpture, and at the young red-cedar tree growing there, at which they were very much astonished. The sculpture moved around about as much as a tree trunk might move in the wind, which is to say not much at all, and the sculpture was never able to talk. Yet the woman’s husband had dreams in which she spoke to him, and even if the sculpture could not talk, it was through these dreams the husband knew his wife was talking to him.

Source: Tlingit Myths and Texts, John R. Swanton, Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 39, U.S. Government, 1909, pp. 181-182

Detail, Centennial Pole, Sitka National Historical Park, Alaska

The above is an edited public domain photograph of the Centennial Pole, dedicated in 2011 at the Sitka National Historical Park, Sitka, Alaska, showing the woman carved at the bottom of the pole. “The bottom figure…is a fascinating female portrait by Donnie Varnell, a Haida carver from…Ketchikan (Alaska). Flanked by male and female salmon, she represents Mother Earth.” (Mike Dunham, “Sitka’s Centennial Pole a showpiece of modern totemry,” Anchorage Daily News, June 6, 2014.) Since the story above is a Tlingit tale of the Haida Gwaii, the homeland of the Haida people, it seemed appropriate to use a Haida sculpture to illustrate the story.

The Raja’s Son

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious children. I adapted this story from story 49b A raja’s daughter turned into a boy in “The B40 Janam-Sakhi: An English translation with introduction and commentary of the India Office Gurmukhi Manuscript Panj. B40, a janam-sakhi of Guru Nanak compiled in A.D. 1733 by Daya Ram Abrol,” ed. W. H. McLeod (Amritsar: Guru Nanak Dev Univeristy, n.d. [1979]), pp. 206-208. In the translation of the original story, the raja comes across as deluding himself that his child is, in fact, a girl, not a boy. But since nowhere does the raja’s child express any discomfort with identifying as male, though he is biologically female, I chose to interpret the raja’s child as transgendered. In the story, I avoid the term “transgendered” as anachronistic, but assumed that the raja’s child did in fact identify as a man; this is consistent with an assumption that there have been what we Westerners would call transgendered eprsons across cultures and throughout time. There are also stories from the Western religious traditions that present transgendered persons (e.g., queer theologians who argue that Jesus had non-binary gender, etc.), but I chose to retell this story simply because it tells about a child growing up into an adult. Note that the excerpt from the Guru Granth Sahib combines translations from Bhai Manmohan Singh, Dr. Sant Singh Khalsa, and The Sikh Encyclopedia. Now here’s the story:

There once was a raja, a Hindu king, who married a woman who was a Sikh. When she became the rani, or queen, this woman stayed in touch with the Sikhs who lived in the kingdom, and who had their dharamsala, or place of worship, just below the palace where the raja and rani lived. The Sikhs were well known for their beautiful hymns and their beautiful singing, and the raja came to enjoy listening to the hymns that were sung during kirtan, that is, during the Sikh worship service.

One day, the rani said to the raja, “Do you not wish that we had a child?”

“Oh yes,” said the raja. “I would love for us to have a child. I wish we could have a little boy.” For in the raja’s kingdom, it had always been men who had ruled the kingdom, and the raja hoped for a song that would rule his kingdom after him.

The rani said, “Let us go down to the dharamsala, and ask the sangat for a child.” The sangat was the gathered community of Sikhs, and it was thought that Guru Nanak, the founder of the Skih religion, was present in the sangat, even though he had died long ago.

The raja agreed to do this. A large congregation of Sikhs had gathered for Ekadasi, a Hindu lunar celebration. Even though Sikhs did not celebrate Hindu holidays, the Guru Arjan had said:
On Ekadasi, see God by your side,
Control your desires, and listen to God’s praise,
Let heart be content, and be kind to all beings.

The raja and rani presented their wish for a son as a hymn was being sung. “Speaking to the congregation, the raja and rani said: “You come together for Guru Nanak, and so whatever wish is asked of you will be granted. We ask that the Guru would give us a son.”

Those who were in the sangat said, “Trust in the Guru, he will grant you a son.”

Not long thereafter, the raja’s wife told the raja that she was pregnant. “Guru Nanak was right,” they said to each other, “and soon we will have a son.” When the baby was born, the baby’s body looked like a girl’s body, but the raja and his wife were confident that Guru Nanak had correctly foreseen that their child would be a son.

The raja and his wife gave the baby a name that was usually given to a boy, and then waited to see what would happen. And when their baby grew enough to begin to walk and talk and run around, it became clear that the child knew he was a boy. So what Guru Nanak had said did indeed come true: the raja and his wife had a son.

The boy grew quickly, and became a fine young man. Although he had a young woman’s body, nobody in the raja’s palace thought much about it, and the young man did everything that all the other young men did. Then one day, his father called him to the throne room.

“My son,” said the raja, “it is time you married. I would like you to marry –” and he named the daughter of a neighboring raja.

The young man thought he liked this daughter of the neighboring raja, and he also thought that she liked him, so he did not disagree with his father’s idea. But he asked, “Why is it that you want me to get married now, father?”

“I have received a marriage proposal from the young woman’s father,” said the raja. “And besides, I would like to see you married, and I would like you to have children, so that my grandchildren will continue to rule this kingdom.”

The young man looked thoughtful. “Of course I would like to have children,” he said, “but as you know, even though I’m a man, remember that I do have a woman’s body….”

His father waved this away. “Do not worry,” said the raja. “I trust in the Guru. He said that your mother and I would have a child, and we did. He said that your mother and I would have a boy, and we did.”

So the marriage proposal was accepted. The raja instructed his Hindu pandit to carry out the ceremonies to prepare for the marriage. But there were those who whispered, “The young man has a woman’s body. If he marries a woman, how can the two of them have children? The old raja will bring disgrace on us all.” But the old raja didn’t listen to these whispers; he trusted in Guru Nanak, and he knew that his son was indeed a man.

Before long the day of the wedding arrived. The young man got on his horse and, accompanied by a large party of well-wishers, rode to the neighboring raja where the wedding would take place. Suddenly a golden deer appeared in front of the party, and the raja’s son boldly spurred his horse and gave chase to this magnificent animal.

The golden deer ran from the raja’s son, leading him away from the others, until at last the deer jumped into a garden. The raja’s son followed, but when was inside the garden he found, not the golden deer that he had expected, but the Exalted One, Guru Nanak himself.

The raja’s son bowed down before the Exalted One. The Guru said to him, “My child, the Guru will fulfill your wish.”

The rest of the party had been following the raja’s son, and just then they arrived in the garden. Upon seeing Guru Nanak, the raja walked around him, then prostrated himself and laid at the feet of the Guru. “I am truly blessed, to see you, Baba Nanak!” said the raja. “You granted my wish to have a son. No human mouth can praise you enough, for you are beyond all praise!”

“Go in peace,” said Guru Nanak. “I will be with you wherever you go. Wherever you sing my hymns or offer praise to me, there you shall find me.”

The raja and all those in the wedding party became Sikhs from this moment. They continued on their journey, all chanting, “Guru, Guru!” The raja’s son was duly married to the daughter of the neighboring raja, and all was well.

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.