The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1

I’ve been putting together some stories for liberal religious kids, and I’m working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymns. I’ve taken the translation by E. G. Evelyn-White (Cambridge: Harvard, and London: William Heinemann, 1914 — now in the public domain), and simplifying it somewhat for upper elementary and middle school kids — but retaining the somewhat archaic flavor of the translation, and retaining some of the Greek epithets (“rich-haired Demeter,” etc.). Here’s the first part of the story:

Rich-haired Demeter, goddess who strikes awe in the hearts of all humankind, the goddess of the wheatfields, goddess of farming and agriculture—Demeter had a daughter named Persephone.

Once upon a time, trim-ankled Persephone was playing with the daughters of Oceanus. They roamed over a soft meadow on the plain of Nysa, gathering flowers: roses, crocuses, beautiful violets, irises and hyacinths, and also the narcissus. Gaia, mother Earth, made the narcissus grow at the will of Zeus, the ruler of all the other gods and goddesses. All-seeing Zeus, the god of loud thunder, had decided that Persephone was old enough to be married. It was his will that the narcissus should grow in the meadow, to attract the attention of Persephone. The narcissus is a marvellous, radiant flower—a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and is smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy.

When Persephone saw the narcissus blooming, she was amazed, and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy. But to her surprise, the wide-pathed earth yawned open there in the middle of the meadow. Out of the yawning hole rode Hades, Son of Cronos and brother of Zeus, god of the underworld, Host of the Many (he was called “Host of the Many” because he ruled over the underworld, the land of the dead, which meant he was host to all the many people who had died over the centuries).

Hades caught up the reluctant Persephone and carried her away. Continue reading “The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1”

OWL dollars

We’re running the Our Whole Lives (OWL) comprehensive sexuality education program for grades 7-9 here in the Palo Alto congregation, and today we did the second session, which includes an activity known as the “Values Auction,” where the youth bid on values like being honest, living a good life, etc. The curriculum suggests that you use play money from a board game such as Monopoly — but you also need $300 in play twenties, which is more money than most board games give you. So I made some OWL dollars.

Since I’m sure other people running the OWL program run into the same problem, I figured I’d post the OWL dollars online here as a PDF. You print out the whole sheet, then trim each OWL dollar to exactly 2 inches by four and a quarter inches (it goes really quickly using a paper cutter). Each sheet has ten OWL dollars, so you need one and a half sheets per participant. It’s a big file, so it may take a while to open.

Sheet of 10 “OWL dollars” (3.9 MB PDF file)

Three safe predictions for 2012

Allow me to make three safe predictions for liberal religion in 2012. Here’s a summary of my three predictions:

1. Baby Boomers will continue to run most liberal religious congregations to suit themselves.
2. Liberal congregations will continue to focus more on short-term financial goals than on long term ministry and mission goals.
3. Fewer kids will be part of liberal religious congregations.

Now on to my reasons for making these predictions: Continue reading “Three safe predictions for 2012”

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 7

3. This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reported the fourth year of decline in religious education enrollment in congregations. This decline came after a couple of decades of steady growth. Worse yet, 2007 marked the highest number of births since 1961, at the height of the Baby Boom, which means we should be seeing an increase in the number of kids in our congregations.

Why is the fourth straight year of decline a good thing? Because now this is a trend that can’t be ignored, nor dismissed as a statistical aberration. Congregations are going to have to face up to the results of years of nibbling away at the infrastructure for religious education — cutting hours and salaries of religious educators, giving away religious education office and storage space to other age groups, deferring maintenance on classrooms, neglecting to place parents in leadership positions, and treating children and youth as a burdensome expense rather than as a central part of the congregation’s mission. And the UUA is going to have to face up to the results of cutting staff positions, producing uninspiring curriculum and other resources, not having parents in positions of leadership, andand treating children and youth as an extra expense rather than as a central part of our shared mission.

Not that I am silly enough to believe that congregations and the denomination are actually going to change their behavior, and begin treating children, youth, and their families as central to our reason for existence. But at least congregations and denomination can no longer pretend that they care about kids — no longer can they cover over the fact that they’re trying to make liberal religion into an over-55 community.

Major changes at the last minute

Excerpt from my teaching diary

The traffic sign over Highway 101 displayed an unwelcome message: “Left 3 Lanes Closed at Willow Rd Seek Alt Routes.” I sought an alternate route off the freeway, and arrived at church half an hour later than my planned arrival time, and only twenty minutes before class began. The goal of today’s lesson plan was to tell the children a little about the history of the flaming chalice, the unofficial symbol of Unitarian Universalism, and the lesson plan called the children to make flaming chalice of their own out of very small flowerpots. I went to where I knew we had a stash of very small flowerpots — and there weren’t any flowerpots there. Uh oh. Continue reading “Major changes at the last minute”

REA conference, part seven

Some miscellaneous notes on, and information from, the Religious Education Association annual conference:


The conference proceedings are online, an consist of working papers presented at the conference in Research Interest Groups and Colloquia:


One of the pleasures of attending the conference was seeing luminaries in the field of religious education like Gabriel Moran and Thomas Groome; these are people who wrote books and articles that were formative in my own development as a religious educator. I also enjoyed hearing the REA archivist’s report, in which he talked about previous REA members who had also influenced me. It was also affecting to hear about the death of Harold Burgess when recently deceased REA members were recognized before Saturday night’s banquet; Burgess’s Models of Religious Education was a very important book for me in my first five years working as a Director of Religious Education. Continue reading “REA conference, part seven”

REA Conference, part six

“Diversity and Neuroscience” was the title of the fifth plenary session of the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA). Moderator Harold Horell introduced the panel discussion with two questions:

— What are the implications of neuroscience for the field of religious education? — and
— How did the presentations and conversations address the racially and ethnically diverse constituencies of the Religious Education Association?

Claire Smith of Saint Paul School of Theology was the first panelist to speak. “I found in this conference an awareness of the issues of diversity,” she said, “and a concern to include all.” She gave several specific examples, e.g., the recognition of native peoples in the opening ritual.

While there was a general awareness of diversity issues within the REA, Smith offered two cautions.

First, much of the brain research we have is provisional, and “we should not treat it as gospel.” In spite of this caution, Smith said that there is much that comes out of this research that are important for our work as religious educators. Continue reading “REA Conference, part six”

REA conference, part five

During the Saturday afternoon breakout session of the Religious Education Association annual conference, I attended a workshop titled “Practical Neuroscience for the Pews”; it was led by Mary Cheng and Alan Weissenbacher, both doctoral candidates at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Of the six people who participated in this workshop, three were full-time practitioners working in local congregations: a catechist serving a Roman Catholic parish outside Toronto, a pastor serving a Uniting Church congregation near Brisbane, Australia, and me, a minister of religious education from California. Another participant was associated with Fordham, but she also served in a local congregation, and I believe at least one other participant also served a Catholic parish. The workshop leaders encouraged full participation from the rest of us and allowed the conversation to range widely; as a result, this report may seem a little disjointed. However, the workshop seemed anything but disjointed: at the end, several of us agreed that it was by far the best presentation yet.

Goals and ends

Weissenbacher and Cheng began by asking us to consider what our goals are as religious educators, and to consider how brain science gets us to our goals. Then Weissenbacher asked a provocative question: If we use brain science to reach our religious education goals, how are we different from those who use brain science to practice mind control? Does what we are doing lay the foundation for more intrusive mind control techniques? He said that key difference is that religious educators (ethical ones, anyway) respect the agency of the people they are educating; furthermore, religious educators will be quite open about the techniques they are using. Continue reading “REA conference, part five”

REA conference, part four

The fourth plenary session of the annual Religious Education Association conference was devoted to “lightning talks,” five-minute presentations by scholars on their work in progress. I’ll give brief overviews of three of the lightning talks that I found of particular interest; and I’ll add one more quick overview of current research at the end.

Mark Hayse of MidAmerica Nazarene University spoke about his current research in theology and technology, and in particular about his study of video games from a theological perspective. He said that there is a tension in video games between narrative or story, and procedures and rules. He also said that video games provide an interesting bridge between religious education and technological studies. In his research, he draws on the work of Dwayne Hubner and others regarding the synthesis of the spiritual and the aesthetic.

Hayse said his research has raised some challenging questions, including the following: Continue reading “REA conference, part four”

REA conference, part three

For the Saturday morning breakout sessions at the Religious Education Association annual conference, I went to Ryan Gardner’s presentation titled “Improving Teacher Reflection in the Religious Education Classroom.” Gardner is doing his Ph.D. research on how paid religious education teachers at the Latter Day Saints Seminaries and Institutes of Religion (S&I).

Gardner introduced his work on teacher reflection with a quote from Joseph Smith, who once wrote about “serious reflection and great uneasiness.” Gardner suggested that often serious reflection by religious education teachers can often lead to great uneasiness. Certainly, this has been my experience supervising volunteer teachers, and I found it very interesting to talk about how serious reflection may often lead to greater uneasiness for teachers, at least in the short term.

His doctoral dissertation aims to come up with a practical, useable model for teacher reflection. He has recently concluded a research phase, where he did intensive qualitative field research of six S&I teachers, trying to determine what kinds of reflection they engaged in as teachers. He led us through his theoretical approach, and wound up presenting us with an instrument for teacher reflection. Continue reading “REA conference, part three”