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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Back to the reverence debate!

Rebecca Parker, president of the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Berkeley, has launched what appears to be a new round in the public conversation about UUA President Bill Sinkford's call for a Unitarian Universalist "vocabulary of reverence." Her open letter to Sinkford, published [pdf] recently on the freshly re-designed Starr King School for the Ministry Web site, includes these paragraphs:

Can Unitarian Universalists speak of God? Some outside of Unitarian Universalist circles would find the question itself astounding. "If you can't mention God in church, where can you talk about God?" But we have been wary of God-language and for good reason. God-talk has often aided and abetted injustice and oppression. Unitarian Universalist theologian William R. Jones, in his ground-breaking book Is God a White Racist?, argues that traditional theology which speaks of God as requiring redemptive suffering has blessed white privilege and sanctioned social structures that multiply black suffering. Feminist theologians have noted that patriarchal patterns in society have been authorized by imagining God as Father, King and Ruler. The struggle for racial justice and the rights of women and children continue. Why resurrect language and images that have caused so much harm?

Over the course of the past 200 years, in the name of justice and liberation, religious liberals have hastened the death of God. We have presided over the funeral of God the King, God the Father, God the Unmoved Mover, God the Old White Man in the Sky, the Able-Bodied God, the Straight God, the All-Knowing God, the Leave-It-All-to-Me- I'll-Take-Care-of-It- God, and more. In place of God, we have emphasized human responsibility. We know it is in our hands to create justice, equity, compassion and peace. As Marx said, faith in God too often becomes a way for people to abnegate our responsibility, deny our power and become passive in the face of a sacrosanct status quo. The way the name of God has been so easily on the lips of those who bless acts of war is only the most recent example of people leaning on God to rationalize human actions that are far from holy.

Your call for a renewed religious language is heard by some among us as a threat to this hard-won sobriety in the face of religious language that sanctions injustice and obscures human responsibility. But I hear something else in your call. It is not a call to return to old ways that we have learned are inadequate. Your call is something new—something that could only happen in the wake of the death of God.

Those who have moved through the death of God find themselves entering a new space—a space in which the divine can be experienced in a fresh way. The baggage of oppressive images has been left behind. In the ensuing openness, a sense of sacred presence emerges and invites articulation. People come again to the realization that in the face of overwhelming threats to our lives and the life of all we love there is a source of sustenance, resistance and hope that moves within us and beyond us. In a recent essay on the postmodern debate in theology, Michael J. Scanlon comments, "The central meaning of postmodern contemporary thought on God is the breakthrough of God's reality, no longer constrained by the modern logos. Postmodernity has brought a strange return of God to the center of theology. This re-entry of 'the hidden-revealed God now comes through . . . those ignored, marginalized, and colonized by the grand narrative of modernity.'" . . .

Scanlon is quoting David Tracy who makes the case that new language about God emerges in particular from those who have been historically oppressed by the old images. The "strange return of God" to the center of Unitarian Universalism, if it happens, will be a sign to me that we have moved not only from adolescence to maturity—the metaphor you have invoked—but from a church of the privileged seeking to help the oppressed, to a community of those who have found a new experience of the divine in the space created by the death of God. This development would take us beyond benevolent paternalism towards an embodied covenant of compassion and justice that surpasses old dichotomies of oppressor and oppressed. It would mean that the fruit of our Unitarian Universalist passion for justice is a renewed and deepened experience of the holy at work among us . . .

("An open letter to the Rev. Bill Sinkford, UUA President," Rebecca Ann Parker, Starr King School for the Ministry, n.d.; pdf)

There's more in the letter, including several questions for Sinkford — who apparently plans to respond on the Starr King Web site.

Update 4.4.04: Be sure to read Chutney's excellent critique of Rebecca Parker's letter at

Posted by Philocrites, March 31, 2004, at 06:13 PM | 8 comments

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

How open is the UUA?

A talented and thoughtful group of Unitarian Universalists has been working for some time to help make the UUA's governance more "open and transparent." Some of this effort has been taking place within the UUA's board of trustees, but perhaps the most significant development is the emergence of a grass-roots movement focused on open governance. Check out OpenUUA, which hosts an e-mail list and has set up a joint working group with members of the UUA board. This is important work.

Posted by Philocrites, March 30, 2004, at 07:18 PM | 0 comments

'Occidentalism' watch, part II.

Christopher Hitchens weighs in on Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit's new book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies. As usual, Hitchens works himself into a lather, but I'd endorse the main idea in his concluding sentence: "The ideas of liberal pluralism are newer in 'the West' than we suppose, and could in fact use some ruthless warriors of their own." (But can't we be relentless or determined rather than ruthless?)

("The West and the worst," Globe and Mail 3.27.04; thanks to Kevin Sturr for the link!)

Posted by Philocrites, March 30, 2004, at 05:26 PM | 0 comments

Monday, March 29, 2004

Blogging the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention.

The Boston Globe is sponsoring two blogs about today's constitutional convention: Amy Hunt of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, is blogging the pro-gay marriage, anti-amendment side; Dwight Duncan, associate professor of constitutional law at Southern New England School of Law, blogs against same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, the Boston Phoenix is blogging the convention, too.

Posted by Philocrites, March 29, 2004, at 12:28 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, March 28, 2004

The resolution no one noticed.

Okay, maybe it's not a big deal when one of the largest Episcopal dioceses in the U.S. votes in a special convention to affirm the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. (Especially when we do get Associated Press reports about one Catholic church showing an anti-gay-marriage video in church. Update 3.29.04: Not to mention a follow-up story in the Globe.)

I reported that vote on this site 15 days ago, when the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts Web page (and my wife, who was there for the vote) announced it. Strangely, I thought, the diocese didn't issue a press release until almost a week later, when Anglicans Online first noted it. But I can't find any major media source reporting this story — not the Boston Globe, not WBUR, not the AP, not even the Massachusetts Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry. Hey!

At last, however, the story is out. The Watertown Tab, a weekly newspaper for one of Boston's suburbs, mentions the vote in its roundup of local religion news. (In other news, the Methodists are holding a potluck and there are lectures about the origins of the seder.) Come on, people! Does the diocese want to influence public opinion? Then hawk this story. And where is the media on this? The Episcopalians — the second-largest Protestant denomination in the eastern half of the state — voted to support the same-sex marriage ruling. I think that's a big deal. I hope they were a bit more direct in the letters the diocese resolved to send to each state senator and representative for tomorrow's Constitutional Convention.

Posted by Philocrites, March 28, 2004, at 10:08 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Republicans for Ralph Nader.

Nearly 10 percent of the Nader contributors who have given him at least $250 each have a history of supporting the Republican president, national GOP candidates or the party, according to computer-assisted review of financial records by The Dallas Morning News.

Hmm . . .

("GOP donors double dipping with Nader," Wayne Slater, Dallas Morning News 3.26.04, reg req'd, via Daily Kos)

Posted by Philocrites, March 27, 2004, at 11:25 PM | 0 comments

'Sponge for punishment.'

Garry Wills on Mel Gibson's Passion:

If Gibson is making a theological point, that the blood is an abundant source of salvation, one wonders why the scourgers get more of it than the believers. It is not as though Gibson were a Universalist when it comes to salvation. He told The New Yorker that not merely non-Christians but nonorthodox Christians (including his wife) are going to hell. . . .

[Jonathan] Edwards's theme was "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." Gibson gives us "God in the hands of angry sinners." Behind both these minatory visions stands a bloodthirsty Father, damning and punishing. It can be said in Gibson's defense that he was not narrowly anti-Semitic when he wanted to include the verse from Matthew 27.25. He sees vast hordes becoming subject to God's vengeance, to be carried off to hell. He offers equal opportunity damnation. Saint Augustine came to see that this view of a vengeful father was unworthy of God, and abandoned the "ransom" theory of Christ's death, the notion that the death of Christ was a price paid to God in order to bring about the redemption of humanity.

Not many thinkers have followed Augustine's lead in this, although the philosopher Renť Girard has done so brilliantly. But without formal theological reasoning, most Christians have quietly realized that God the inflicter of eternal torture is not a concept they can live with. The recent and rapid fading of belief in hell is one of the things that conservatives deplore. "Real men" support hell—even for their wives. It is hellfires that are warming the hearts of the "tough love" Christians who watch Gibson's Jesus being beaten into a mess.

Oh, Wills also examines a new book about the abusive and paranoid archconservative Catholic organization, the Legion of Christ.

("God in the hands of angry sinners," Garry Wills, New York Review of Books 4.8.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 27, 2004, at 07:39 PM | 0 comments

'Occidentalism' watch.

Time to start collecting reviews of Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit's new book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by two writers I admire: historian Ian Buruma and philosopher Avishai Margalit. (I've come to know both writers through the New York Review of Books, and especially enjoyed Margalit's recent book The Ethics of Memory.)

In his New York Times review, Gary Rosen writes:

Occidentalism, as they call it, is not a full-blown ideology but rather a "cluster of prejudices": a way of demonizing and inciting violence against the bourgeois West. It is the shared parlance of Maoists and Nazis, Baathists and the Khmer Rouge, 19th-century Slavophiles and today's jihadists. And paradoxically, it too, they argue, is a creature of the West, the bastard child of Enlightenment rationalism and freedom. . . .

Like Paul Berman in his recent book "Terror and Liberalism," they trace the often surprising pathways by which exposure to the West has been transformed into hatred of Western societies. Most Tokkotai [kamikaze] volunteers, it turns out, were bookish radicals, readers who took to heart the lessons of Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx. Pol Pot, while a student in postwar Paris, absorbed the polemics of Frantz Fanon and other bloody-minded Western critics of colonialism, with devastating consequences for Cambodia. Sayyid Qutb came to the United States from Egypt in 1948 to study English and went home appalled by the materialism and gross sensuality of American culture; he became a key ideologist in the development of Islamism. . . .

To the Occidentalist imagination, the modern West comes to life as a collection of weak, complacent merchants, slaves to comfort who know nothing of self-sacrifice; or as a cold, mechanical, ruthlessly efficient "mind," crushing every higher ideal in the name of commercial and technological advance.

Above all, the West is embodied for its enemies in what Mr. Buruma and Mr. Margalit call "the Occidental city." Here the motifs of corruption and degeneracy find a geographic home and a wider cast of sinister characters: Jews, prostitutes, financiers, rootless cosmopolitans of every description. Through the eyes of the Occidentalist, the modern metropolis appears "inhuman, a zoo of depraved animals, consumed by lust." It is a problem whose only remedy lies in the redemptive power of revolutionary violence.

("Is terrorists' hatred of the West the West's own bastard child?" Gary Rosen, New York Times 3.27.04, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, March 27, 2004, at 07:04 PM | 0 comments

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Nothing to see here. Move along.

I've been preoccupied wrapping up the magazine — finished today — and so have depended on others to keep up on the Congressional terrorism hearings and the explosive criticism of the Bush administration from Richard Clarke. If you're looking for resources, Amy Sullivan suggests six — including a brilliant bit of satiric commentary by Jon Stewart [RealVideo] — and Josh Marshall fills in all the details.

But after you've watched Jon Stewart's Comedy Central video, consider Jonathan Chait's observations about White House press secretary Scott McClellan's inability to lie with a straight face:

[W]hen forced onto difficult terrain, he is the picture of discomfort. He averts his eyes from his questioners, often appearing to recite from prepared talking points on the podium. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, the frequency of these shifts depending upon his level of anxiety. (At the highest level, his rocking grows so violent that he steadies himself by gripping the podium with both hands, as if to keep from toppling over.) Like a bad card player, he overcompensates for his uncertainty with emphatic gestures — folding his lower lip, furrowing his brow. Indeed, McClellan is a near-perfect embodiment of the physical manifestations of dishonesty listed by high-profile jury screener Jo-Ellan Dimitrius in her book Reading People. The list begins:

Shifty or wandering eyes
Any type of fidgeting
Rapid speech
Change in voice
Shifting back and forth in one's feet or in a chair
Any signs of nervousness
An exaggerated version of the "sincere, furrowed-brow look"

("Honest mistake: Scott McClellan, bad liar," Jonathan Chait, New Republic 3.29.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 25, 2004, at 10:47 PM | 0 comments

The media's bias for gay marriage.

As we get ready for next week's final round in the Massachusetts legislature's attempt to launch the two-year constitutional amendment process to ban same-sex marriage, two things seem worth mentioning. First, marriage licenses are going to be available to same-sex couples starting May 17 no matter what the legislature — or Gov. Mitt Romney — does. But that's no reason to sit home confident that history is bending toward justice all on its own. History needs your help.

Call your representatives — and no matter where you live, I urge you to donate to the good work MassEquality is doing. They have set a $75,000 goal for March 29, and as of today they have only raised $14,694.

And if you live anywhere near Boston and you haven't previously come up to the State House to be part of the democratic frenzy, I urge you to stop by for an hour or more on Monday. It will be quite the scene, and your presence matters. Although it's awfully convenient for me (working next door and all), I plan to put in an hour at least on Monday. I hope you'll join me.

Second, there's a good side and a bad side to the overwhelmingly sympathetic treatment the media is giving the push for gay marriage. Mrs Philocrites and I have been struck (as viewers of the local Fox ten o'clock news) at the remarkable contrast between the faces in the gay marriage debate: Pleasant, middle-class lesbian parents on the one hand, apoplectic fundamentalists and Catholic hierarchs on the other. If nice was always victorious and these images were truly representative of the national mood, Massachusetts would be leading a relatively brief national march to gay marriage.

So here's the bad news: There's a reason the media is putting a good face on my side of this debate, and proponents of same-sex marriage should be aware of it so that they don't start to get complacent about the difficulty of the road ahead. That reason is bias.

Jonathan Chait, who also supports gay marriage, observes that a lot of the national press keeps saying that President Bush is "rekindling a culture war" by calling for a U.S. Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But when the press puts it that way, it

betrays an assumption that has characterized most of the coverage of the gay marriage debate: that the culture wars are being "rekindled" not by those who are revolutionizing the way society thinks about gay rights and marriage but by those who stand in their way. For many in the media, that is, efforts to expand gay rights simply constitute progress; efforts to arrest that expansion constitute culture war.

Chait believes "the coverage is a function of the kind of people — affluent, educated, and secular — who tend to work in the national media. Indeed, press coverage of the gay marriage debate offers a perfect case study of the degree to which journalists' socioeconomic assumptions influence their reporting." I'd buy that.

When you look at the polling data, you discover that Americans are divided even on the legality of gay relationships — not marriages, mind you, just relationships. When asked by a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll last July if "homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal," "should" edged out "should not" by just 48 to 46. An identically worded question, posed by a CBS/New York Times poll in December, resulted in just 41 percent replying yes and 49 percent no.†

Unsurprisingly, the public rejects gay marriage by a far wider margin. Last month, the Annenberg Center conducted a poll asking, "Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow gays and lesbians to marry a partner of the same sex?" Thirty percent said they favored it; 64 percent opposed it. This finding is pretty typical: In most polls, about one-third of respondents favor gay marriage, and two-thirds oppose it. . . .

Needless to say, this is not the picture one gets from media accounts of the controversy, which have tended to focus on the possibility that Bush's support for the amendment will cost him among swing voters. As this week's Time magazine contends, "Many swing voters are also the suburbanites who abandoned the GOP in the past when it got too wild-eyed about culture wars." This may be true as far as it goes. But the voters that Time is referring to — i.e., upperincome, socially moderate, economically conservative folks — don't make up the entire swing vote or even the largest portion of it. A larger bloc of swing voters has essentially the opposite sensibility — culturally traditional and economically populist. "The greatest bloc of contested voters watching politics from a distinct perspective is noncollege and blue-collar America," writes Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in his new book The Two Americas. "These are the voters for whom church and faith are important and who think values and family are under pressure too."†

These downscale swing voters are substantially more likely to support an amendment banning gay marriage than the more libertarian suburbanites Time focuses on. And, while most of the recent polls on gay marriage are not broken down into useful demographics, such information as there is supports this assumption. The Annenberg poll — which, again, was an outlier in showing overall opposition to the amendment — shows voters with advanced degrees overwhelmingly opposed to the amendment and all others essentially split.†

It's not hard to understand why the national media fails to grasp the continued strength of cultural traditionalism: In Washington and New York, where many journalists dwell, gay marriage is an increasingly mainstream proposition. Unfortunately, in most of the country, it's not. And, even if the media doesn't realize this, it's a good bet Karl Rove does.

("Look left," Jonathan Chait, New Republic 3.15.04, sub req'd)

So that's the bad news. The good news is that a lot of people are mobilized for change, and a lot of other people are gradually coming to see that their gay and lesbian neighbors are, in fact, really there and that their relationships are worth at least some respect. The long-term trend is favorable to same-sex couples, but the short-term need is for hard work, careful arguments, and strategic thinking.

See you at the State House on Monday.

Posted by Philocrites, March 25, 2004, at 10:24 PM | 0 comments

'Christian Century' on 'The Passion.'

One of my Harvard Divinity School classmates writes an insightful article about Mel Gibson's Passion for the Christian Century (which, still caught in the 20th century, doesn't really put anything on-line). At HDS, Matt Boulton wrote and staged some marvelous dramatizations, including a Passion play that presented the voice of each evangelist in overlapping and sometimes contradictory ways rather than trying to boil them all down into one. It also explicitly acknowledged modern biblical scholarship by adding a scholar to the cast of characters, speaking sometimes as yet another overlapping voice. (His version of the Passion will be performed at Andover-Newton Theological School next week.)

In "The Problem with The Passion," he identifies a key bit of hypocrisy in Gibson's claim to biblical fidelity while acknowledging some of what Gibson gets right:

Gibson has both the will and the ingenuity to imagine an extrabiblical scene in which Pilate and his wife, Claudia, privately confer. The troubled procurator laments how imperial life, with its endless cycle of repression and rebellion, pulls him into shadows where "truth" is obscure. The scene invites us to understand Pilate as a man caught up in the larger, rougher forces of his time.

All this raises the question: couldn't Gibson have done the same for Caiaphas? There are good biblical and historical grounds for doing so. The biblical grounds are found in John 11. There, immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, "the chief priests and the Pharisees" call a meeting of the Sanhedrin and ask, "What are we to do? . . . If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation."

Pilate has his troubled tale to tell, but so do the members of the Sanhedrin, and their fears about the Roman threat to their temple and to their people — which they are, after all, charged to protect — form the basis of Caiaphas's proposal: "It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."

Gibson fails to include this episode in his film, and he also fails to imagine a scene that elaborates on it, as he does in the case of Pilate. So Caiaphas's circumstances, fears and motives remain obscure; in him, we can only see the blank face of evil.

("The problem with The Passion," Matthew Myer Boulton, Christian Century 3.23.04, 18-20)

Incidentally, I also meant to call attention to Commonweal film critic Richard Alleva's review of The Passion, "Tortuous" (3.12.04). Alleva faults the film for dramatic failures, but praises its success as ritual.

Posted by Philocrites, March 25, 2004, at 10:09 PM | 0 comments

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Always look on the bright side...

The cheesemakers and the Greeks are rejoicing at the news that Monty Python's Life of Brian is being re-released in April. (Thanks to Mel Gibson for giving Monty Python an excuse, and Holy Weblog! for calling it to our attention.)

Posted by Philocrites, March 24, 2004, at 06:21 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Better than the 'Interdependent Web'?

Jeff Sharlet (The Revealer) is out with his butterfly net, catching religion blogs and pinning them into their proper drawers: The Catholic bloggers call themselves St. Blog's Parish; the Jewish bloggers (scroll down) apparently prefer "jBlog"; and the Mormon bloggers (ah, nostalgia!) are leaning toward calling themselves the Bloggernacle Choir. (It's too bad "Hie to Koblog" won't cut it. As a kid, I thought "If You Could Hie to Kolob" was the loooooongest hymn ever. And no, I won't be modifying the words for the next Unitarian Universalist hymnal.)

So, my blogger-friends in the curiously intersecting worlds of mainline Protestantism and Unitarian Universalism, a challenge stands before you: Name yourselves! (Chris, Allen, Dave, Dwight, Nate, et al., I'll let you take responsibility for the National Council of Churches end of things.) And, fellow UUs, can we do better than the "Interdependent Web"? Discuss!

Posted by Philocrites, March 23, 2004, at 06:41 PM | 20 comments

Sunday, March 21, 2004

The Rev. Karen Dammann acquitted.

The three-day church trial of United Methodist minister Karen Dammann, who was accused of living openly as a lesbian in contradiction of church law, has ended in a victory for liberal Christians. The Washington Post reports that the ministers who ruled in the case concluded that "the church has not clearly declared homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching."

Like Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans and other mainstream Protestants, Methodists have been battling for years over whether to allow gay clergy and holy union ceremonies for same-sex couples. The church's governing General Conference, which meets every four years and will next convene April 27 in Pittsburgh, has heatedly debated resolutions on the issue at every session since 1972.

As a result, the jury had to weigh a series of carefully balanced phrases in the church's legal code, the fruit of many hard-won legislative compromises. On one hand, the church's Book of Discipline says that because "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve" as pastors.

On the other hand, it also says that sexuality is "God's good gift to all persons," that homosexuals "are individuals of sacred worth," that "God's grace is available to all," and that "certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons."

The jury appears to have been swayed by a key witness for the defense, the Rev. Jack Tuell, a retired bishop of Los Angeles and expert on church law. He traced the history of all these phrases and argued that the General Conference has never been able to reach a definitive position condemning or condoning homosexuality.

("Methodist jury acquits gay pastor," Alan Cooperman, Washington Post 3.21.04, reg req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, March 21, 2004, at 03:40 PM | 0 comments

Slow news out of the Episcopal Diocese.

The press release announcing the vote of the special convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts last weekend affirming the civil right to same-sex marriage finally hit the wires on Friday. Expect a news story next week?

Posted by Philocrites, March 21, 2004, at 03:30 PM | 0 comments

Happy birthday, Bach!

At a concert celebrating J.S. Bach's birthday last night, I realized that, um, I'm getting older. (Bach turns 319 today. Lotta candles.) The organ prelude transported me back to the summer of 1982, when I was an eleven-year-old kid peddling my bike to the Riverside Mall in Eugene, Oregon, with my little brother. In the music store, there was a cardboard display from a cheap-o Soviet classical music label, "Melodiya Allegro," advertising cassettes four for $10. Yes, friends, my first albums weren't by Journey or Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (whose songs I knew from the roller-skating rink); they were "J.S. Bach Organ Music," "J.S. Bach Toccatas for Organ," "Beethoven Symphony No. 6," and "Beethoven Symphony No. 9." I didn't regret buying the Beethoven, but I found those two cassettes of organ music the most amazing things I'd ever heard. A nerd was born — or, perhaps, exacerbated. "Toccatas for Organ" (with Harry Grodberg) may be one old tape, but I'm listening to it now with unalloyed delight.

Nineteen years ago, my family had moved back to Orem, Utah, and I was a secret teenage fan of the local university classical music station, KBYU. I loved Michael Barone's "Pipe Dreams" program. (Tangential rant: The snobbery of Boston public radio is unsurpassable. Like many other very fine programs produced elsewhere, "Pipe Dreams" isn't broadcast by WGBH. I miss it. I miss Jim Svejda's "Record Shelf," too.) When the radio station informed me that Bach's 300th birthday would be celebrated by a series of recitals featuring all of Bach's organ music, well, let's just say that I made a note of it and got a hold of the bus schedule.

I have no idea if the series ever ran its full course, since Bach wrote an awful lot of organ music. It seemed as if I was celebrating Bach's tricentennial for several years. Those recitals were purely thrilling. I love the memory of them. Because I didn't go to a rock concert until Midnight Oil's Diesel and Dust show in Salt Lake City on the night of my 18th birthday — the subject for another post, perhaps — the organ recitals were the loudest, most moving musical experiences I'd known. I was a total fan.

The organ console sat directly in front of the first row of seats in the small concert hall, and I planted myself just to the side in the front row so I could watch the feet and hands of the organist. At the end of each recital, I'm sure I amused the organists by asking them to autograph my programs. (If any of you should ever read this, dear organists, I was the orange-haired kid with the big glasses.) A few years ago, when I saw that BYU's Douglas Bush was coming to play the E. Power Biggs organ in Harvard's Adolphus Busch Hall, of course I went to hear him play — and to thank him for those recitals in Provo. But that organ console is up in a balcony, and I never saw him come downstairs afterward. So here's a public thank-you.

To top it all off, KBYU offered donors a ceramic and brass lapel pin celebrating the tricentennial in 1985, and I wore mine proudly. (There are family photos in which I look like quite the dork with my pin fixed to my sweater.) The other boys at church liked to tease me for my "Batch" pin. Good times.

I was willing to endure a lot of ribbing for Bach. In fact, I'm posting this little tribute because I'm willing to mock myself and endure even more. His music moved me — still moves me — like nothing else. When WHRB in Cambridge marked the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000 by playing all of his music in chronological sequence over ten days, those ten days were like a sojourn in Dante's Paradiso. When the last bar from the unfinished Art of Fugue trailed off on the last day and the radio station simply allowed the silence to linger, it was heartbreaking and satisfying all at once.

Happy birthday to Bach, and a prayer of thanksgiving for his music.

Posted by Philocrites, March 21, 2004, at 09:18 AM | 2 comments

Saturday, March 20, 2004

The difference a month makes.

Kristen Lombardi, who has written some great coverage of the Massachusetts battle over same-sex marriage for the Boston Phoenix, examines the second round of the Constitutional Convention. Although it's still likely that an amendment defining "marriage" as male-female turf will pass, gay and lesbian rights activists have made huge gains. (Remember: An amendment passed by this convention must also be passed by another convention in next year's legislature — after same-sex couples start receiving marriage licenses on May 17 — and, if it's approved in that convention, must then go on the ballot for a popular vote in November 2006.) Civil unions had no legislative chance in Massachusetts a year ago; yet at the March ConCon an amendment that would have invalidated same-sex relationships lost 136-62. The trend is now clearly in favor of civil unions, and in the long run for civil marriage as well.

Lombardi writes that gay-rights advocates have done terrific organizing work. (I tip my hat to the MassEquality folks, and urge you to join me in putting a few bucks toward their efforts.) But Gavin Newsom deserves a lot of credit, too:

Since February 12, the second day of the Massachusetts ConCon, lesbian and gay couples have been getting married. And the sky hasnít fallen. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom started it all late in the afternoon of February 12, when he married Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first nationwide organization for lesbians. The couple have been together for 51 years. As Newsom explained to Time, he wanted simply to show that same-sex marriages could be done. "Put a human face on it," he said. "Letís not talk about it in theory." That first wedding kicked off a frenzy when thousands more same-sex couples lined up outside San Francisco City Hall to get married as well. And it was that human face — the televised images of couples waiting all night in the pouring rain to be wed — that set off something of a cultural tsunami that has yet to settle down.

But what will happen when the Constitutional Convention meets for a third time to try to undo the Supreme Judicial Court decision?

Will the pro-gay-marriage momentum translate into enough votes to defeat the constitutional amendment? On paper, it doesnít seem likely. In just a month, the number of legislators voting with pro-gay forces increased from 55 in February to 77 last week. But thatís still a far cry from the magic number of 101 needed to stop the amendment.

Over these next two weeks, gay-rights advocates intend to set their sights on legislators who privately shudder at the thought of amending the state constitution to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage but who canít bring themselves to vote that way. According to Isaacson, a "fair number" of Massachusetts representatives and senators have actually felt "guilty" or "embarrassed" about the votes that theyíve cast against full equality for gay and lesbian couples. "I cannot tell you how many legislators have said to me, ĎArline, Iím sorry I have to vote this way,í" she says, even as she notes that she isnít about to specify the exact number. "Letís just say Iím seeing a sharp increase in the number of legislators voting against us yet feeling badly about it."

Ironically, the sense of inevitability around gay marriage may ultimately hurt the pro-gay-marriage side. The feeling that gay marriage is sure to happen some day, regardless of what Massachusetts legislators do today — has made for some interesting rationalizations. Some legislators may believe they can vote for a constitutional amendment because of current political concerns — i.e., too much heat from constituents or concern about a challenger in the November elections — and then oppose it if it makes it on to the November 2006 ballot. (In order for a constitutional amendment to pass, it must be approved in two successive legislative ConCons and then be ratified by a majority of voters.) Other legislators figure that whatever they do, the next generation of lawmakers will overwhelmingly favor same-sex-marriage rights and fix any damage caused by an amendment. For the pro-gay side, the trick is to convince lawmakers that this vote cannot be rationalized away. Or, more bluntly, to worry about their legacy. Do they want to be on the winning side of history? Or do they want to be remembered the way that those who opposed civil-rights legislation for African-Americans are remembered today — as moral and intellectual cowards?

Thatís far more relevant, Isaacson believes, than whatís happening nationally. And thatís because the Massachusetts debate differs from discussions in other parts of the country in one fundamental way: gay and lesbian couples in this state have a legal right to marry, whereas their counterparts in other states donít. Beginning May 17, city and town clerks across the state will be able to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples thanks to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Courtís November 18 ruling that the current ban on such marriages is unconstitutional.

("Same-sex banns in Boston?", Kristen Lombardi, Boston Phoenix 3.25.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 20, 2004, at 09:38 AM | 0 comments

A brief history of doctrine.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light notes that Melissa and Sean Davidson, who went after each other tooth and nail after seeing The Passion of the Christ and discovering that they were not of one mind when it comes to the Trinity, reprised a bit of ecclesiastical history:

The night before the final balloting at the Council of Nicea, Saint Nicholas of Myra punched out Arius in a bar fight arising from a very similar argument.

(Thanks, Melanie!)

Posted by Philocrites, March 20, 2004, at 09:11 AM | 1 comments

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Neruda centennial.

Mrs Philocrites and I spent yesterday evening listening to some fine poets pay tribute to Pablo Neruda, whose centennial is this year. If you ever get a chance to hear MartŪn Espada read, take it. My wife studied with him when she was in college, and we've gone to hear him in Cambridge twice before. Incredible.

I have to admit that I was surprised to hear Jorie Graham read Neruda so very effectively; I don't find her especially Nerudean, but she is a great teacher of poetry. Also reading yesterday: Ilan Stavans, editor of The Poetry of Pablo Neruda; Marjorie AgosŪn (who grew up next door to Neruda!); Dr. Rafael Campo; and D.A. Powell, whose work I knew nothing about but about whom I have to tell a funny story.

Twice last night, as Mrs Philocrites and I were walking around campus, our conversation drifted back to the poets we had heard. (Or to Helen Vendler, who was also there and whom we both admire.) Each time, as I asked a question about Powell and my wife was just starting to answer, who should we see before us but D.A. Powell! It was uncanny. The first time was right outside the Sackler Museum, no surprise. But the second time we were leaving the Harvard Bookstore on the other side of campus almost an hour later. I will hereafter refer to him as the ubiquitous D.A. Powell.

And since I was on a classical music kick Tuesday, let me say that while Samuel Barber wrote great orchestral music, the recording I own of his setting of Neruda's "Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair" is nowhere nearly as good as hearing good poets read the words.

Posted by Philocrites, March 18, 2004, at 07:21 PM | 3 comments

The Site Meter black hole.

Fie on Site Meter, the friendly, free site-traffic counter that has tossed out all record of all your visits on two occasions this month. Imagine my surprise when yesterday's 83 visits to the front page and Tuesday's 76 suddenly showed up as round zeroes. (Happily, I use AddFreeStats, too, which kept on counting. Otherwise, I would have felt abandoned!)

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 18, 2004, at 07:02 PM | 3 comments

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

'Quartet for the end of time.'

Alex Ross writes a wonderful, brief essay about one of my very favorite pieces of music: Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps, composed in 1941 for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano when Messiaen was held at the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp in GŲrlitz, Germany. Ross calls it "the most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century." If you haven't heard it, do. Ross recommends this recording, which I haven't heard; I own the Walter Boeykens recording, which may have gone out of print. It's spare, haunting, lyrical, almost heart-stoppingly beautiful. If you hate the thought of twentieth-century classical music (with religious themes, no less), listen to this. (And then if you're feeling up to trying a twentieth-century choral work from the same era and with a similar sort of beauty, try Frank Martin's Mass for double choir. For something really ear-popping, though, try Stravinsky's Les noces and Symphony of psalms; I'm not quite sure what to make of his Lamentations of Jeremiah. I put that CD on only when Mrs Philocrites is out of the house.) Enough classical music: Gotta resume my Gen-X flannel ways.
("Revelations: The story behind Messiaen's 'Quartet for the End of Time,'" Alex Ross, New Yorker 3.22.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 16, 2004, at 08:44 PM | 2 comments

Please come to our church!

bouncer.jpgThe Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that three denominations have launched major TV ad campaigns. The United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the United Methodists are taking to the airwaves in the hope that they can build some brand recognition and reverse declining memberships and the economic pressures that come with it.

Despite ever-slimming budgets, each of these three denominations hired professionals to market their denomination, through focus group research and targeted slogan-writing to strike a chord with the public. The religious body would be sold to the masses just like any other product except in one regard: This product would have to overcome a bigger than usual image problem.

"They [at the ad agency] told us they'd never had a product that conjured up so many negative feelings" as the idea of "church," Mr. Buford said. Many in focus groups said they'd felt hurt or rejected by the church, so "unconditional acceptance" became the target message.

("Mainstream churches take a leap of faith into TV advertising," G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Christian Science Monitor 3.16.04)

I have to point out, however, that contrary to the claims in the article, the Unitarian Universalist Association did not launch a national ad campaign this week, although it has prepared ad materials for regional and local use. I can't find a link to its TV ads. And although I don't personally fancy the Unitarian Universalist "Uncommon Denomination" ads (scroll to the bottom; the Uncommon Denomination site has lots of material), I hope all three campaigns do very well.

Be sure to check out the UCC's church-bouncer ad and its cool accompanying Web site, "God is Still Speaking," (flash req'd). The comma is part of the name; click here for the lo-tech version.

I haven't spent any time examining the Methodist campaign, but I have been following the UCC's efforts.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 16, 2004, at 07:34 PM | 11 comments

Monday, March 15, 2004

Up next: 'Who Wants to Unmarry the Neighbors?'

E.J. Graff, author of What Is Marriage For?, writes a great (not to mention funny!) op-ed about San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom's surprise move authorizing same-sex marriages. Newsom's stunt, which made many long-time gay-rights activists cringe, may have decisively turned the tide in favor of same-sex marriage. First she offers a bit of history:

A social movement makes its plans, hold its rallies, introduces legislative proposals, brings its meticulously planned court cases, issues press releases and argues its position in endless briefs and talk shows, books and articles. Then an outsider steps in and — for his own reasons — changes the script, and by doing so turns up the debate's volume dramatically. For lesbians and gay men, this scenario is reminiscent of the breathtaking year that ran between June 1992 and June 1993, when Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton started openly courting our votes and donations, declaring ours a just cause — and in doing so pushed us into the mainstream media spotlight.

Clinton, of course, made some missteps: Any experienced gay activist could have told him that military service was too volatile an issue to start with. But even though the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy ultimately implemented wasn't an improvement — it resulted in more discharges (especially of lesbians) than the policy of uneasy coexistence that preceded it — Clinton's push dramatically improved the political climate for lesbians and gay men.

In retrospect, June 1992 to June 1993 was an annus mirabilis, the first political Year of the Homosexual. Never before had lesbian and gay rights been treated as public-policy issues deserving serious political consideration. Now — consolidated in everything from the sweep of workplace domestic partnership policies to pop culture phenoms like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye" — that attitude is impossible to roll back.

She says that Newsom has humanized and personalized what used to be an "issue":

Before Newsom's Winter of Love, the same-sex marriage debate was about abstractions. On the one hand, same-sex couples and their lawyers were begging to be let into the institution; on the other, anti-gay forces were insisting that doing so would end civilization. Natural human caution put the burden of proof on the potential newcomers.

But now every American with a television has seen hundreds of boringly ordinary couples — often with strollers, flowers, parents, siblings and old friends in tow — waiting giddily in the rain for their public moment of joy and civil recognition. Who knew, besides a few lesbian and gay activists, that thousands of such people had been waiting 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years to pay $82 for a license to take care of each other for the rest of their lives?

Opponents now have to play their part on a very different political reality show: Who Wants to Unmarry the Neighbors? As a result, the burden of proof has shifted to them. Most of the political humor I've seen, from editorial cartoons to Comedy Central jokes, has poked fun at same-sex marriage's opponents (my personal favorite is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoon in which a cave full of Al Qaeda operatives declare that they know how to destroy America: Sneak in and marry each other!). I've seen very few sneers about men in wedding dresses, the denigrating joke that would have been de rigueur just 10 years ago.

There's more, of course. Check out "An Outsider Steps In and Changes the Script," E.J. Graff, Los Angeles Times 3.14.04, reg req'd. (Thanks, Matthew Yglesias!)

Posted by Philocrites, March 15, 2004, at 05:12 PM | 0 comments

Civic paganism!

In honor of today's perfectly spring-like weather (and in defiance of tomorrow's snow storm), I salute this charming story in the Boston Globe about Rutland's "Central Tree" — which residents claim stands on the exact geographical center of the state. No one really knows whether it's true, but residents really love their tree:

At the Rutland Historical Society — where you can purchase blankets, plates, and note cards depicting the Central Tree — written accounts refer vaguely to a survey of what was then called the Hardwick Turnpike during the "early days" of the town, which was incorporated in 1722.

"No one has ever challenged us," says the society's curator, Irene Amsden. "And if they did, we'd tell them they were wrong."

Local belief in the centricity of the Central Tree runs deep. "People here have always said it is the center of the state," says Ugo Alinovi, who has lived in Rutland for all of his 83 years and who has served as police chief. "But I don't know where that information came from. No one does." . . .

The current maple dates to 1980, when it replaced a sickly sycamore that had been planted in 1975 and that had lasted only about a year. The sycamore itself had replaced an aging and diseased elm tree that had been removed in 1966. (Thus there was no tree between 1966 and 1975, as well as between 1976 and 1980.) This tree, often referred to as the Central Elm, is considered the town's Holy Grail. Three small pieces of it, along with a goblet that was made from its wood, are preserved at the Rutland Historical Society.

The Central Elm survived the infamous 1953 Worcester Tornado, and as far as Sherry Blair is concerned, the spot has remained something of a beacon for foul atmospheric conditions. "I think it attracts bad weather," says Blair, who, with her husband, Joel, and their three children, lives next door to the Eckhardts. "We get two to three more inches of snow up here than at the bottom of the hill," she says, pointing a half-mile down Central Tree Road toward the Rutland/Holden town line. "And when it rains at the bottom of the hill, it snows up here. People laugh, but it's true."

("Town is rooted in tree's history," Nathan Cobb, Boston Globe 3.15.04)

If you have examples of civic paganism in your neck of the woods, tell us about it in the comments!

Posted by Philocrites, March 15, 2004, at 08:13 AM | 0 comments

Sunday, March 14, 2004

Swedenborgian mobster?

Want your church in the news? The Swedenborgian Church on Beacon Hill shows you how to arouse the interest of investigative reporters on the front page of this morning's Boston Globe: There's schism, full college tuition for members, lawsuits, racketeering charges, a sudden spike in membership, a convicted swindler as treasurer, a minister who excommunicates his in-laws, dreams of new church programs, and millions and millions of dollars!

Edward J. MacKenzie Jr. is a man of parts — many parts. A convicted drug dealer, he is the author of a maim-and-tell memoir about his years as a legbreaker for South Boston gangland leader Whitey Bulger.

He has been, as he describes himself, a man almost irresistibly drawn to cons and scams. He recently admitted to filing phony worker's compensation claims and is awaiting trial on charges of swindling $200,000 from an elderly woman. And he faces charges in another court that he threatened to kill his ex-wife by chaining a cinderblock to her leg and throwing her off a bridge.

He is, in short, a busy man.

But he finds time for church. Indeed, within months of joining, be became part of a new leadership circle that is shaking the rafters at Boston's Swedenborgian church — and raising doubts among some about how the church's wealth is being spent.

Upfront about his prolific rap sheet, MacKenzie has won an ally in the church's longtime pastor, the Rev. G. Steven Ellis, who sees him as a man who turned his back on crime, a sinner seeking spiritual sanctuary. Ellis, a Bible scholar who has been pastor of the Boston church for 22 years, has sided with MacKenzie against church elders, who are skeptical of MacKenzie's conversion and worried about his motives. Ellis did more than take MacKenzie's side. He nominated him for church treasurer, pushing aside his own mother-in-law.

And so in September, MacKenzie took office. It seemed like a very auspicious move.

For while the Bowdoin Street church is poor in numbers, it is rich by any other measure — and may soon become much richer. The church owns an 18-story apartment building above its chapel that churns out more than $1 million a year in clear profit, according to an October audit by the church's accountant. And a plan has been floated in Boston real estate circles to convert the building to condominiums, a move that the church estimates could yield as much as $75 million.

Oh, there's so much more! Not only did the church secede from the tiny Swedenborgian denomination, it revised its bylaws in astonishing ways:

Under a new set of church bylaws drawn up in November, it became much easier, and much faster, for new members to join. Ellis was given complete discretion in deciding who would be confirmed and how. Newcomers can now be admitted by a simple majority vote of existing church members; before, a two-thirds vote was required. Required doctrinal training, emphasizing Swedenborg's writings, was eliminated.

Gone, too, was a provision that any sale of church property be approved by two-thirds of members, and one that barred individuals from enriching themselves with church assets. A new provision calls for the expulsion of members deemed unworthy by a simple majority.

Wow. Excommunication by majority vote! Swedenborg must be rolling in his grave.

("A tiny church, a pot of gold, an ex-con spark a bitter feud," Kevin Cullen, Boston Globe 3.14.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 14, 2004, at 10:12 PM | 1 comments

Damn with effusive praise.

The Boston Globe published several letters about The Passion of the Christ today — including a good one from Unitarian Universalist minister Erik Walker Wikstrom, author of Teacher, Guide, Companion and a recent UU World cover story about Jesus — but this one is much more revealing than the writer knows:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, March 14, 2004, at 09:58 PM | 1 comments

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Episcopal diocese affirms same-sex marriage.

At a special diocesan convention today, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts affirmed the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry, making it the largest mainstream religious body in the state to come out in favor of same-sex civil marriage.

The bishops' letter about the resolution describes the convention debate and acknowledges that the resolution refers only to civil marriage and not to the sacraments of the church:

Todayís discussion was respectful and spirited and reflected the diverse opinions held by Massachusetts Episcopalians on this issue.

Many told personal stories and spoke with emotion in support of the need for securing full civil rights for all of Godís children. Several spoke to what civil marriage would mean to them, to their long-term committed partnerships and to the communities of worship that support them. It was also recognized in the discussion that the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and the Book of Common Prayer specify Holy Matrimony as a "physical and spiritual union between a man and a woman." At this time in the life of our church, clergy cannot solemnize Holy Matrimony for people of the same sex. And yet it was noted that it is appropriate that the church speak to matters of importance in our society as it has done throughout its history.

Close observers of the debate over same-sex marriage in Massachusetts will be particularly intrigued to know that Rep. Byron Rushing (a state legislator from Boston and long-time advocate of gay and lesbian rights) was the convention parliamentarian!

Posted by Philocrites, March 13, 2004, at 07:01 PM | 1 comments

'We were all on that train.'

REUTERS/Luis CorreasThe banners carried through the streets by grieving Spaniards yesterday really do speak for us all. Terrorism assaults the basic condition of life in a community: our exposure to and vulnerability among others. As a subway rider, I don't think a day has gone by since 9/11 that the nightmare of an attack on the train I'm riding hasn't crossed my mind. And since I depend on the subway, I do my best to suppress the thought. (Oddly, I think of it more during my morning commute.) But I not only want to live in a city, I want to be with other people. So just as I say perish the thought that I might die with neighbors and strangers in a terrorist attack, I also share the compulsion to be with other people in grief. Seeing this picture in the Globe this morning brought back powerful memories of going out night after night after 9/11 to join people I didn't know in public expressions of grief and solidarity. My thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Spain.

Posted by Philocrites, March 13, 2004, at 01:08 PM | 1 comments

'Our Whole Lives' in the news.

The sex-ed curriculum "Our Whole Lives" developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ is featured in an Oregonian article, "Sex Classes at Church Mix Faith, Knowledge" (3.11.04).

Posted by Philocrites, March 13, 2004, at 12:04 PM | 0 comments

Friday, March 12, 2004

Tomorrow's prophetic Episcopalians?

Could it be that the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts will really adopt a resolution at their convention tomorrow that says:

Resolved, that this Special Convention of the Diocese of Massachusetts join with its Bishops in affirming its commitment to civil rights by recording its support of the Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court's holding in Goodridge v The Department of Public Health, that to deny same-sex couples the right of civil marriage is unconstitutional in this Commonwealth . . .

Such a resolution — from one of the two largest Protestant denominations in the state — couldn't come at a better time. But I hope the delegates spend a little time refining the resolution. They should especially amend the resolution's explanatory section to be a bit less triumphalistic. [Clarification 3.14.04: I should have noticed that the passages I raise concerns about below are all confined to what is basically a separate document — the explanation offered to the delegates in support of the resolution by its sponsors. The resolution itself is great, and as adopted by the convention doesn't include any of the passages that concerned me. So here's my discussion of what's wrong with the explanation:] It starts out well:

As Christian people, we are mandated to stand for justice in our common civic life, and we vow in our baptismal covenant to "strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being." The status of legal marriage confers on those who freely accept its commitments and responsibilities substantial legal and economic benefits. Therefore, as Christians we are called to extend these rights to our gay and lesbian citizens.

I'd think they'd want to insert at least a comment or two about the public good that results from enabling people to take on the commitments and responsibilities of marriage before they suggest that "as Christians we are called to extend these rights." I agree that the cause of dignity is one good reason to extend the rights of marriage to all couples who want to take on that responsibility, but the church should be advocating for more than the "substantial legal and economic benefits" of marriage and the dignity that flows from legal recognition; the church should also emphasize the civic good that results from strengthening and supporting stable relationships and families. Go ahead: Make the conservative case for same-sex civil marriage.

The resolution goes astray in its next passage:

Scriptural condemnations of homosexual acts emerge from a society ignorant of the realities of sexual orientation. Contemporary scientific findings support our modern understanding that sexual orientation is fixed. To deny gay and lesbian couples full equality under the law on the basis of their genetic destiny does not fulfill the Scriptural mandate to seek justice and to love mercy.

Oh, come on. Setting up a contrast between "ignorant" biblicism vs. "contemporary scientific findings" is the wrong way for a mainline denomination to try to bring some moral clarity to the debate. This is where the resolution gets unnecessarily triumphalistic. It's almost a tautology to say that "contemporary scientific findings support our modern understanding that sexual orientation is fixed." When Christians talk about "genetic destiny" rather than, say, personal discernment or the diversity of the gifts of grace, I think they're turning into bad Unitarians. Seeing the good in gay and lesbian relationships isn't rooted in recognizing that they're genetically predisposed; it's rooted in seeing that certain forms of those relationships demonstrate the grace of love, creativity, and civic virtue. A lot of things may be "genetic destiny" that we happily restrain or even ban.

And rather than over-historicize the biblical texts — those old-fashioned, benighted biblical people with their primitive, completely wrong ideas! — wouldn't it be much better to start with Jesus' example and teaching? Wouldn't it be more effective (and truer to the gospel) to emphasize how the living witness of scripture in the life of the church today enables us to see past our own cultural boundaries? Strangely, there is no mention of Jesus' example or teaching in the explanatory section of the resolution. My friends, the Bible is on the side of justice; go on, let people know that.

Finally, the resolution says:

The Anglican Church has a proud and compassionate tradition of reforming our understanding of sacramental inclusivity. We now commonly welcome infants and children to receive the Eucharist before they are confirmed. We now welcome divorced persons to remarry in the Church. We now ordain women to the priesthood and we have recently consecrated our first openly gay bishop.

Since I'm not an Episcopalian, I'm tempted to keep out of this — but if the church is expressing its support for a ruling by the secular courts regarding a purely civil act, why bring up the question of "sacramental inclusivity" unless you are simultaneously trying to push the church to celebrate same-sex weddings? Don't get me wrong: I think the church needs to be thinking about this prospect, but tomorrow's vote could be more successful if the church could keep its eyes on the task at hand — which is specific to Massachusetts and to the civil-marriage statutes.

Sometimes, pushing the envelope is most effective if you focus on one thing at a time. I hope to be able to report tomorrow evening that the Diocese of Massachusetts has urged the legislature not to amend the Constitution in a poorly conceived effort to bar same-sex couples from civil marriage. That would mark tremendous progress. But trying to do too much at once — and with some misguided theological reasoning along the way — would be a terrible waste of a great opportunity.

Posted by Philocrites, March 12, 2004, at 10:25 PM | 5 comments

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Today's 'Phoenix' coverage...

. . . of the constitutional convention is here.

Posted by Philocrites, March 11, 2004, at 06:13 PM | 0 comments

Competing theologies in Boston.

It's impossible to take in all the signs that hundreds and hundreds of people have been carrying outside the Massachusetts State House all day as the legislature debates amending the Constitution to block same-sex couples from marrying, but a few stand out. My favorite is "I gave up hate for Lent."

But here are two from the news wires that capture some of the competing theologies on display:

REUTERS/Brian Snyder"Gay marriage opponent Leonard Gendron, a local pastor, holds a sign reading 'Homosexuals are Possessed by Demons' outside the Massachusetts State House in Boston March 11, 2004 where the Massachusetts Legislature is debating an amendment to the state's constitution banning gay marriage." Haven't we met "Pastor" Gendron somewhere before? Why, yes! Here he is being nasty to clergy exiting the Rev. Gene Robinson's consecration as bishop of New Hampshire last November, in a Boston Globe story:

"You liar. You thief. You whore. . . . You liars with your white robes and your dark hearts," Leonard Gendron called to one. Gendron said he is pastor of a church called The Secret Place in Lawrence, Mass.

Ah. (Feel free to speculate.) But there were better theologies on display today, too.

AP Photo/Julia Malakie"Laure De Vulpillieres of Somerville, Mass., leads a pro-gay marriage crowd in a chant outside the Statehouse in Boston, Thursday, March 11, 2004." Her sign — "Stop using Jesus to justify inequality" — is actually pretty good gospel. ("Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Matthew 25:40.)

Which reminds me of a story I recently read about a minister testifying before a legislative committee on same-sex marriage. He told the panel that he would read them everything that Jesus had said on the subject of homosexuality. He then opened the Bible, sat back in his chair, and said nothing.

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley's op-ed in the Globe this morning makes me hope that he spent some time today seeing what his side of this debate looks like. He wrote: "The church does not countenance hatred of homosexuals or violence against them. We invite all people in the church to unite in discipleship and fidelity and to work for the common good in society." That's sure a nice sentiment, but I'd like to see him prove that "not countenancing" hatred goes a bit beyond "not countenancing" abusive priests. Some of what pretended to be Christianity outside the State House today looked much more like hatred.

Update 3.12.04: The Boston Globe's Scott Lehigh also met "the putative pastor" Leonard outside the State House:

A moment later, up walked a man who identified himself as "Pastor Leonard" from Lawrence. He expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage but professed his love for the gay men standing nearby.

When Robert Vetrick, one of those men, accused him of hypocrisy, the putative pastor responded: "Would I be standing here with a sign like this if I didn't love you?" Now, perhaps I'm not versed enough in religious matters to judge, but given that the sign in question read "Homosexuals are possessed by demons," I can understand how Vetrick might have formed a different impression.

("Signs of war at the State House," Scott Lehigh, Boston Globe 3.11.04)

And Sean Ferrier of Allston writes a great response to Archbishop O'Malley's op-ed:

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley did not elucidate Saint Augustine's call for "freedom in nonessential things" in his op ed piece "Charity needed in debate on gay marriage" (March 11). Consequently, it is hard to see how the legal matter of an alleged "redefinition of marriage" is so essential that it demands unity from Christians. Surely the issue belabored by O'Malley is considerably less essential to Christian belief than, for instance, the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Moreover, in speaking nebulously about the "institution of marriage" in general, O'Malley risks confusing it with the narrower issue decided by the Supreme Judicial Court, which is civil marriage. Civil marriage is certainly no more essential to faith than common-law marriage, which, in states that recognize it, requires no particular ceremony or even witnesses to become legally valid.

The love and respect of others enjoined by Christianity require more than merely wishing people not to hate or mistreat others; Christianity also asks us to consider whether our activities further this end. Unfortunately, O'Malley's willingness so far to form alliances with some groups that uncharitably exploit people's fear is unlikely to bring about the elimination of prejudice from people's hearts.


Posted by Philocrites, March 11, 2004, at 06:00 PM | 15 comments

Beacon Press missionary.

Globe Staff Photo†/†John TlumackiThe highly regarded independent publisher Beacon Press, which is owned by the Unitarian Universalist Association, likes to advertise itself to Unitarian Universalists as "Unitarian Universalism's Voice for Good in the World." Tom Hallock, Beacon Press's marketing director, takes that role seriously: Here he is on the front page of this morning's Boston Globe: "John Duncan (left) of Athens, Ga., demonstrating against gay marriage, drew a dissent from passerby Tom Hallock of Brookline outside the State House." Go, Tom!

Posted by Philocrites, March 11, 2004, at 08:40 AM | 1 comments

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

'General Assembly' or 'GA'?

As perhaps the most emphatic opponent of acronyms at my place of work, I lobby for naming things even when they have lapsed into acronymity for most people. Among Unitarian Universalists — "UUs" — that means I'm willing to waste my breath (and inches of type) on phrases like "religious education" (instead of "RE"). But when it comes to our sacred annual convention, what's an anti-acronymist to do?

I know there are more important things to think about today — but I'm still so cold from standing outside the Massachusetts State House with a candle for tonight's MassEquality candlelight rally for the full civil rights of everyone in the state — especially for same-sex couples who want to marry and for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people generally (otherwise known as "GLBT" in ecumenical acronymical circles) — that this is my one flash of insight for the evening:

From now on, I will say "General Assembly" when referring to the legislative body that gathers every June to conduct the business of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (This is what most of my friends and colleagues call the "plenary sessions," when they all flee the convention center and head out for coffee or a nap. I stay because, tedious as they can be, these meetings are the General Assembly.) But I'll stop trying to put up my picket fence against the avalanche of popular support for calling the five-day frenzy of workshops, hobnobbing, conventioneering, and chalice-wearing "GA." I'll call the event GA; but I'll call the assembly of delegates the General Assembly. How's that for clarity?

You can now register for this year's General Assembly, which will be held June 24-28 in Long Beach, California. See you there!

Posted by Philocrites, March 10, 2004, at 08:10 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, March 9, 2004

Like the phoenix, ConCon rises again.

That would be the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention, looking for ways to slap the Supreme Judicial Court for hurrying us along to same-sex marriage. (My fingers are crossed for a lot of hot air and gnashing of teeth and even a moving speech or two, followed by a lot of close votes, followed by a recessed convention and no decision. Voila! Marriage licenses will be available to any couple on May 17, and legislators can still claim to have voted the conflicted will of the people. But I'm not going to bet money on that outcome.) And who better to help us watch the ConCon phoenix rise from the ashes of its inconclusive February deliberations than the Boston Phoenix, which has assembled a fine page of resources.

The only problem is that many of the articles on the page are really old — though they're not dated — and the paper's coverage since the February convention seems to be missing. Never mind. I've retrieved the ones I've found most helpful from the depths of Google: Kristen Lombardi's guide to anti-gay zealots (2.12.04) and Kristen Lombardi's more recent guide to Christian opponents of gay marriage (2.26.04). Hmm . . . But Lombardi also gives a good preview of what to expect at this week's convention. I'm expecting a snowstorm and a media blizzard right outside my office.

Posted by Philocrites, March 9, 2004, at 07:54 PM | 0 comments

Gender and blogging.

The Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk published a fine article yesterday: The Blogosphere: Boys 'n' Their Toys. Brian Montpoli writes:

Men and women, recent studies show, blog in roughly equal numbers. A notable exception: Women are responsible for as little as four percent of political blogs — "sites devoted to politics, current events, foreign policy, and various ongoing wars" — according to the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE).

When it comes to politics and campaign commentary, in other words, the blogosphere looks a little like your high school chess club: Even though everyone's invited to join, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone posted a "No Girls Allowed" sign on the classroom door. . . .

Meantime, outside the world of political reporting and commentary, women continue to storm the barricades of journalism. These days, it's hard to find a mainstream media newsroom that isn't at least 25 percent female, and at several top newspapers the figure hovers around 50 percent. Nationwide, there are more female collegians studying journalism than males.

I like to think that among religion bloggers, the divide is not so stark as among political bloggers. And yet my Guide to UU Blogs currently includes 25 men, 9 women, one transgender person, and a group blog. Which makes me especially glad to welcome Anna's Call and Response. Please feel free to use the comments to this post to call attention to blogs by women that deserve a wider audience. And, as always, if you have a blog that discusses Unitarian Universalism or liberal religion, I'd love to hear from you.

Posted by Philocrites, March 9, 2004, at 05:39 PM | 1 comments

Monday, March 8, 2004

Don't settle for a 'Gospel for suckers.'

Krister Stendahl, retired bishop of Stockholm and professor emeritus of theology at Harvard Divinity School (where he remains a beloved and lively presence), has championed Christian-Jewish dialogue for many decades. From 1975 to 1985, for example, he was the moderator of the World Council of Churches Consultation on the Church and the Jewish People. So it was great to see him quoted at length on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in an article first published in Risen, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. (Amy-Jill Levine, one of the scholars on the now famous panel that challenged anti-Semitic and unhistorical aspects of Mel Gibson's movie, is also quoted at length.)

Here's the core of Stendahl's comments. Note especially his three principles for living in community with people of other faiths:

Bishop Krister Stendahl of Harvard Divinity School spoke of how he had learned the Passion story growing up in the Church of Sweden. "It is not unsimilar to how most Christians at that time lived and related to that text. We understood 'Jew' = me = a sinner. We would sing, 'Tis I, Lord Jesus, I it was who denied thee. I who crucified thee.'"

"This way of reading," Stendahl continued, "has the advantage of having no anti-Semitism. But the irony is that this is achieved by reading the Jews and the Jewish community out of the book."

It was not until after World War II and the Second Vatican Council, Stendahl said, that "Christians began to learn how the things we say sound in the ears of the Jews. We have a new situation which calls upon us to make new attempts to help one another against the undesirable side effects of our devotion. The historical record is shocking."

The cross, he said, is a symbol of faith and hope for Christians. "But the Cross reminds Arabs of the Crusades. The Cross reminds the Jews of the Crusades and the pogroms (massacres). Historically, most attacks on the Jews in Europe took place in Holy Week, after the people in church heard the Passion narrative."

Stendahl suggested that, to live together, we have to practice three principles of communal living:

  1. "Let the Other define herself. 75% of what our tradition says of another tradition is bearing false witness."

  2. "Compare equal to equal. We all have our extremists and nuts. Don't compare ideal Christianity with the actual or distorted form of the Other."

  3. "We will never have good relations without an element of holy envy. Find something in the Other that is beautiful and meaningful and that tells you something about God. You are not called upon to absorb it or to pass judgment on it."

Stendahl said that, to him, the Gibson movie seemed like an obscene magnification of violence. "Violence is pornographic. I've always thought the suffering of Christ and the shout 'why have you forsaken me?' is the pain of the martyr — the pain of wondering was it all in vain, had it all been wrong. That's where the deep suffering is, not in the physical abuse." The way in which the movie describes the Passion, he continued, "is a celebration of suffering and death instead of a celebration of life and of the triumphal resurrection."

Stendahl noted that there is a positive side to the controversy about the movie. "At least we have woken up to the fact that our Christian tradition has caused us enormous pain, and that we need to do something about it."

Speaking of the attraction of the movie's approach, Stendahl said, "It feeds the hunger for simplicity and uncomplicated answers. It's a kind of power-grab. In response, we need to keep teaching and speaking and educating toward a capacity of living in a non-absolute world. Do not settle for this, which is really the Gospel for suckers."

("Rhode Islanders consider The Passion," Andrew Wetmore, Episcopal News Service 3.1.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 8, 2004, at 05:26 PM | 1 comments

Thursday, March 4, 2004

But before I go...

Do visit the newest addition to my Religion Blogs roster, Nate Knows Nada, by a fellow Cantabrigian who just happens to share my passion for faith and politics, but who shares my wife's faith. (I bet we've seen each other at the monastery.) Here's his review of Gibson's cruciflick.

Speaking of which . . . Chutney at makes my treatment of Gibson seem downright gentle; his commenters, however, take umbrage at the thought that an artist should ever be held even mildly morally accountable for their work. And for a minute there I thought art made a difference.

Posted by Philocrites, March 4, 2004, at 06:45 PM | 3 comments

On the road again.

I'll be away from a computer until Monday evening — part educational, part celebrational. The educational part is a day-long management seminar on Friday. The celebration part is my friend Paige Getty's installation as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland, on Sunday, which will double as a reunion with all sorts of friends. Coincidentally, I will manage to miss the chance to see my brother, who will be flying to Virginia from Seattle for a job interview just as I'm heading north again to Boston. I am, of course, not at all superstitious, but my fingers are crossed for him because I really really really would like to transplant some of my kinsfolk — not to mention the world's cutest nephews and niece — to my side of the country.

While I'm away, of course, you should all carry on using the words that Austin Powers taught us: "Oh, behave!"

Posted by Philocrites, March 4, 2004, at 05:51 PM | 1 comments

Wednesday, March 3, 2004

A hymn is born.

Mechaieh writes that Jason Shelton, the music director at her church,

was in Boston last Tuesday working on the new supplement to Singing the Living Tradition, and happened to be in the UUA president's office when Sinkford and his staff began drafting his response to Bush's endorsement of an amendment against same-sex marriage. When Jason heard Sinkford say, "We stand on the side of love," he started writing the hymn . . . and after he was done with the errand that had brought him to Sinkford's office in the first place, he went back to the hymn commission's meeting and eventually (after Leon noticed his distraction and said, "You're writing something, aren't you? Come on, let's hear it . . .") played it for his colleagues there.

I haven't heard the hymn yet, but you can read the text at Measured Extravagance.

Posted by Philocrites, March 3, 2004, at 05:32 PM | 0 comments

Tuesday, March 2, 2004


For more — much more — on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, visit the New Testament Gateway Blog by British scholar Marc Goodacre. Best finds: The Society for Biblical Literature's SBL Forum on Gibson's film and the Guardian review of the film by one of the leading New Testament scholars, Geza Vermes, author of Jesus the Jew, Jesus in His Jewish Context, and The Changing Faces of Jesus. Vermes writes:

So, can the New Testament as such be blamed for fomenting anti-semitism? A nuanced reply is that its stories about Jesus were not originally conceived as anti-Jewish: they were meant to describe a family row between various Jewish groups. But in non-Jewish surroundings they were liable to receive an anti-Jewish interpretation. Anti-semitism is not in the New Testament text, but in the eyes and in the minds of some of its readers.

Gibson has repeatedly asserted that neither he, nor his film, is anti-semitic. The real problem is not with his attitudes or avowed intentions, but with the lack of appropriate steps taken to prevent visual images from inspiring judeophobia.

Vermes also mocks the linguistic "accuracy" of the film:

Not only are Pilate and Jesus(!) fluent Latin speakers, but even the soldiers of the Jerusalem garrison, who were most probably Aramaic- and Greek-speaking recruits from Syria, converse happily in a clumsy Latin with Italian Church pronunciation. I did not find it easy to follow the Aramaic which was mixed with unnecessary Hebraisms. One point is worth noting. It has been said again and again that the fateful curse "His blood be on us and our children!" has been cut from the film. This is not so. The Aramaic words are there; only the English subtitle has been removed.

("Celluloid brutality," Geza Vermes, Guardian 2.27.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 2, 2004, at 06:49 PM | 1 comments

'Nice is different than good.'

The Christian Century's February 24 article about a Duke Divinity School Pulpit & Pew study of the mainline Protestant ministry, "Assessing the Clergy Supply in the 21st Century", sums up the uninspiring conclusion in the headline: "Young, Male and Married: What Search Committees Want."

But I found this passage, quoting Anthony Pappas, an American Baptist area minister in Massachusetts, the most compelling paragraph in the story:

Pappas also declared that too many seminary students are being equipped to be "chaplains" for local churches rather than being prepared as "entrepreneurs." That conclusion, he wrote, came from seven years trying to place "some of the nicest, sweetest, caring-est persons God ever created into congregations that desperately needed total transformation."

I'm reminded of the lyric in Into the Woods, when Little Red Riding Hood is rescued from the wolf and announces her discovery that "nice is different than good." The Christian Century doesn't share its content on-line, so you'll want to visit the library and read pages 9 and 11.

Posted by Philocrites, March 2, 2004, at 06:07 PM | 5 comments

Monday, March 1, 2004

'Commonweal' on Gibson's 'Passion.'

From the editorial about Mel Gibson's movie in the February 27 issue of Commonweal, the lay Catholic magazine (now on-line, 3.9.04):

It is hardly surprising that Jews are made uncomfortable by, even deeply suspicious of, a movie whose dramatic logic and energy focus on the extreme violence of Jesus' death. Historically, who has been blamed for that death? It was only forty years ago, after all, that the church came to recognize that its supersessionist theology implicitly sanctioned discrimination and worse against those it belatedly embraced as our "elder brothers."

After the Holocaust, "silence, humility, and waiting together for God" are the best ways for Christians to live the gospel, [John] Coleman writes. The meaning of suffering, even Christ's suffering, can no longer be proclaimed triumphalistically. The church's contemporary teachings warn that too literal a reading of Gospel accounts of Christ's Passion can misrepresent the essential connection between Judaism and Christianity (see The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus, just published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). The bishops advise us that in pondering the mystery of the church and the salvation offered to all by Christ, Catholics will inevitably encounter the ongoing "mystery of Israel." One way to embrace the mystery of the church is to listen to what Jews are saying.

("Mel is as he was," editorial, Commonweal 2.27.04, pages 5-6)

The reference to John Coleman is to the magazine's cover story, "Mel Gibson Meets Marc Chagall," which is definitely worth reading. I'll try to quote a passage from the article — also not yet on-line — later this week. (Ed. note: Now on-line! 3.9.04)

Posted by Philocrites, March 1, 2004, at 05:55 PM | 1 comments

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