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Thursday, December 30, 2004

Does the National Association of Associations know about this?

While visiting my brother's family in Virginia for the Mormon baptism of my oldest nephew — where, incidentally, I was conscripted at the last minute to play two hymns, reprising a role I have played in Mormon and Unitarian settings since 1982! — I picked up the Washington Post and found a marvelous throw-away article that will undoubtedly interest my fellow Unitarian Universalists: "Instant Community: No Assembly Required." Mark Leibovich writes:

These are rough days for the "rat-terrier community," the "heavy-metal community," the "porn community" and the "arms community," among other communities in the world's expanding community of communities.

But these are bright days for "community" in general, the term if not the concept. . . .

The journalism community loves communities, or at least calling things communities, no matter how tenuous or irrelevant these designations might be.

"Speaking as a member of the journalism criticism community," says media critic Bob Garfield, "I find that calling something a 'community' is yet another journalistic crutch that leans heavily on a foundation that doesn't really exist."

Garfield, who is a host of National Public Radio's "On the Media" and a columnist for Advertising Age, also identifies himself as a member of the "why-do-we-even-answer-phone-calls-from-annoying-reporters community."

As a member of the red-headed post-Mormon Christian Unitarian blogger community, I urge you to read the rest of it, even if you're a member of some other community.

Posted by Philocrites, December 30, 2004, at 11:17 PM | 3 comments

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

First draft of UU Blog Award categories.

Over at Coffee Hour, I've posted my list of award categories for the first annual Unitarian Universalist Blog Awards. Please suggest refinements and additions and thoughts over there. My hope is to open nominations for the awards next week.

Posted by Philocrites, December 28, 2004, at 11:07 AM

'All the planet is vibrating.'

I'm simply astonished by the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in Asia. Through Mrs Philocrites' church, we know Sri Lankans and Indians from Kerala; another friend is in northern Thailand with a group of students on a study-abroad program, and he wrote to say he felt the quake but happily was not near the coast; and other friends have lived in or visited Indonesia and Thailand. I can only begin to imagine their dismay. But reading the news accounts and seeing the photographs of so many devastated lives boggles the mind. Today's New York Times puts the story in stark, heart-breaking terms: "A Third of the Dead Are Said To Be Children." Here's the AP list of aid agencies where you can send money to help.

Posted by Philocrites, December 28, 2004, at 10:25 AM | 2 comments

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Most visited entries of 2004.

Not everyone wants an editor's choices; some people just want to know what got the most traffic. So here are the most-visited entries of the year, in reverse order:

10. Guugle (9.13.03): 652 visits
9. Next 20 fastest growing UU churches (1.6.04): 652 visits
8. Modern theology 101 (6.2.03): 669 visits
7. Unitarianism and early American interest in Hinduism (a Div School essay, 1.14.99): 694 visits
6. Unitarian Universalism: In search of a definition (11.16.03): 811 visits
5. The Rev. George W. Bush (2.11.03): 860 visits
4. Is disenchantment the end of religion? (a Div School essay about Max Weber's secularization thesis, 1.25.00): 1,253 visits
3. Sixteen fastest growing UU churches (1.3.04): 1,710 visits
2. Christians for Kerry (10.4.04): 1,863 visits
1. Guide to UU blogs (1.3.04): 2,250 visits

As of today, the real traffic champions, however, are the two rss feeds that allow readers to subscribe to Philocrites. We're deep in tech jargon now, so if you're like me you'll simply marvel at these numbers: In 2004, the .rdf feed — highlighted on the front page as "Syndicate this site (XML)" at the bottom of the sidebar — was accessed 91,726 times. Another form of syndication, the .xml feed, was accessed 10,294 times. This really only means that lots of people keep track of what's new at Philocrites using services like Kinja and Bloglines. The front page at Philocrites, meanwhile, has been visited just under 50,000 times this year.

Posted by Philocrites, December 26, 2004, at 02:26 PM | 0 comments

My ten favorite entries of 2004.

In chronological order (although I'm going to cheat and treat a few related posts as individual entries):

How interesting that I didn't write anything interesting over the summer. My brain apparently still follows the academic calendar.

Posted by Philocrites, December 26, 2004, at 01:44 PM | 0 comments

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Icons and iPods.

Johann Sebastian Bach, by Robert LentzMy, my! Thanks to some very generous and thoughtful relatives, I have joined the ranks of the iPodians — although I haven't yet figured out how to use the cute little thing — but the musical theme of this Christmas also included a particularly wonderful item from Mrs Philocrites. (Her Christmas was about as Anglican as they come, complete with a festive St Nicholas figure, The Study of Anglicanism, two icons, and Robert Alter's translation of the Pentateuch. And, yes — thanks for asking! — her Christmas Eve pageant was lovely. I'm sure the ceramic Virgin Mary crèche figure can be glued back together.) She gave me my very own icon of Johann Sebastian Bach, the fifth evangelist. If I can figure out how to get my iPod set up, I may load the "Christmas Oratorio" to bless it.

Posted by Philocrites, December 25, 2004, at 12:28 PM | 5 comments

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

'Rome's day is over.'

Ah, Christmas: a reprieve from politics! Except, wait — I guess everything is political now. Oh yeah, and there's also the fact that the earliest stories about the birth of Jesus were politically explosive from the start. James Carroll writes in his Boston Globe column that we tend to gloss over or ignore the explicitly political dimension of the Nativity:

The child who was born in Bethlehem represented a drastic political challenge to the imperial power of Rome. The nativity story is told to make the point that Rome is the enemy of God, and in Jesus, Rome's day is over.

The Gospel of Matthew builds its nativity narrative around Herod's determination to kill the baby, whom he recognizes as a threat to his own political sway. . . .

The Gospel of Luke puts an even more political cast on the story. The narrative begins with the decree of Caesar Augustus calling for a world census — a creation of tax rolls that will tighten the empire's grip on its subject peoples. It was Caesar Augustus who turned the Roman republic into a dictatorship, a power-grab he reinforced by proclaiming himself divine. . . .

When the angel announces to shepherds that a "savior has been born," as scholars like Richard Horsley point out, those hearing the story would immediately understand that the blasphemous claim by Caesar Augustus to be "savior of the world" was being repudiated. . . .

In modern times, religion and politics began to be understood as occupying separate spheres, and the nativity story became spiritualized and sentimentalized, losing its political edge altogether. "Peace" replaced resistance as the main motif. The baby Jesus was universalized, removed from his decidedly Jewish context, and the narrative's explicit critiques of imperial dominance and of wealth were blunted.

Read the whole thing. ("The Politics of the Christmas Story," James Carroll, Boston Globe 12.21.04)

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

Monday, December 20, 2004

Thinking with James Luther Adams.

Although I contributed two essays to the latest issue of UU World, readers of this site won't find a lot new in "Our Power Problem," which introduces two essays in the magazine's cover package of stories on Unitarian Universalists' complicated feelings about social and political power. (I especially recommend Rob Eller-Isaacs's essay, "We the Powerful.")

Transforming LiberalismWhat I would like to draw attention to, however, is my review of George K. Beach's new book, Transforming Liberalism: The Theology of James Luther Adams. It's a significant book for theological liberals — not just for Unitarian Universalists — and I will be returning to themes from the book over the next few months. If you order a copy in the next few weeks, we could read through it together in easily digestible sections over the next few months. I only had space in my review to discuss a fraction of the themes that Beach explores in Adams's thought. I'm looking forward to discussing many more.

Posted by Philocrites, December 20, 2004, at 10:32 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Authentic fake holidays.

Christmas not your thing? Did you somehow miss Hanukkah this year? Maybe you need to try one of the nouveau holidays like Chrismukkah, HumanLight, or Festivus.

Depending on where you live (and whether you are "a bright"), you may still have time to celebrate HumanLight: "HumanLight presents an alternative reason to celebrate: a Humanist's vision of a good future." Today, for example, there's a five-hour celebration in the Parsippany, New Jersey, Hilton Hotel, and in Phoenix, Arizona, Humanists are offering a $12 brunch buffet, auction, and rummage sale!

Meanwhile, if highmindedness isn't what you require of a winter holiday, Chrismukkah not only is this year's media darling but has the best product tie-ins.

If you'd prefer airing grievances and feats of strength, there's Festivus: Allen Salkin writes in the New York Times that the fictional Constanza family's made-up holiday — "A Festivus for the rest of us" — is being celebrated by a growing number of people seven years after its debut on "Seinfeld." Even more, the fictional holiday is based on an actual ersatz holiday invented back in 1966 by the father of one of the TV show's writers!

Posted by Philocrites, December 19, 2004, at 10:33 AM | 4 comments

Thursday, December 16, 2004

'Counterintuitive joy.'

From a sermon about "counterintuitive joy" preached this past Sunday by Beth Stroud, the United Methodist minister defrocked by the denomination for her open lesbian relationship in spite of her own congregation's support:

Early last week, I got an e-mail from a member of this congregation who had gone to the mall on Sunday afternoon to do some Christmas shopping with his daughter. They were both wearing their “Beth is my pastor” badges. A young couple at the mall recognized the badges from TV and angrily took issue with the view they represented: that Christianity has room for gay and lesbian families. Now, this is a person who has a temper. I’ve been on the receiving end once or twice. But on this occasion, as he felt his anger rising, he did the Christian thing and walked away, not even responding when the couple called out after them, shouting a very un-Christian antigay epithet. When I read his email, I was amazed at how this heterosexual man’s simple expression of solidarity with his lesbian pastor had become so much more, as he literally made himself vulnerable to the same suffering gay and lesbian people experience and fear every day. Perhaps the trial helped members of this congregation enter into a deeper solidarity with one another, truly sharing one another’s hurts as the church is called to do.

Here’s what I think makes me appreciate God’s sense of humor the most: Listening to members of this church talk about their experiences over the past two weeks, I realize that if Fred and Melody and I had worked for six months to come up with a plan to force you to talk about your faith and your congregation in your schools and workplaces, we couldn’t have done any better. This experience of the trial has made evangelists out of all of you, and you don’t even like the word “evangelism.” How funny is that?

I could give you more examples, but these will give you some idea of the window God opened for me in the middle of this trial, and the counterintuitive joy God gave me.

I can see God’s future as clearly as if it had already happened, even though it is clearly still very much under construction. I see a United Methodist Church that could be a meeting ground for people with different experiences and theologies, rather than a battleground. I see sacred space for real, deep, true, compassionate listening to one another, which can lead to conversion and transformation. I see the possibility of the kind of growth and vision that we experienced when FUMCOG became a Reconciling Congregation, only on a much larger scale, through which some of the very people who have the most questions might become the staunchest advocates of a fully inclusive church. I can see the day when people will recognize that God blesses all loving families. It might not come today or tomorrow, but it will come.

Four years ago, when Chris and I had our commitment ceremony, Patricia Pearce, the pastor of Chris’s church, reminded us that Jesus commanded us to rejoice. She told us:

“You see, people for the most part don't care much for alternate realities. They like what they're comfortable with, and because of your relationship you will challenge some people's comfort level and elicit their disapproval or even hostility. There is only one thing you are commanded to do when that happens. Go out dancing. Or partying. Or gather together in the company of friends to share a meal and laugh together. Celebrate your relationship. Rejoicing in the face of persecution is the ultimate subversive act, because it is the way you reclaim the truth that you are blessed and that you are not alone.”

After the trial, we did that. We obeyed Jesus’ commandment to rejoice. The night of the verdict and the penalty vote, my family and I went out to dinner with a few of the people who had given literally days and weeks and months of pro bono work to craft my defense. It was an evening of eating great food, telling family stories, and laughing together as we shared our various experiences of the trial. Fred was with us, and as we gathered there was such a spirit of joy and optimism in the room he said, “If this is losing, what does winning feel like?”

I won’t say I haven’t felt sad, or frustrated, or disappointed, or angry. But through it all God has also given me a sense of counterintuitive joy. My prayer is that you can experience that joy as well, and this joy will be a source of strength and hope and perseverance for all of us.

(Thanks for the link to Michael Povey's Rector's blog, via Mrs Philocrites.)

Posted by Philocrites, December 16, 2004, at 10:21 PM | 0 comments

Ever heard of a church that turns people away?

Bob Chase, director of communications for the United Church of Christ, writes:

[S]ome groups, specifically the Association for Church Renewal and the Institute on Religion and Democracy—widely identified with the religious right—are calling our ad, "dishonest and insulting to other Christian churches."

The ad is clearly allegorical. In the same way Jesus used startling symbols in his parables—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven—it contains arresting imagery, taken from the point of view of those who have felt excluded. In focus groups held in preparation for the production of this ad, non-church goers cited again and again that the reason they didn’t attend church was because they had been wounded or rejected in the past. We are simply trying to reach out to this group in a language they can understand and invite them to give the church another chance.

Were our focus groups on target? Have you been hurt by a church? Your stories will help illustrate the need for inclusion and highlight the importance of our message. The attacks on the UCC’s campaign deny the truth that many people face. Please post your stories as comments as a way of serving witness to the truth. We’re interested in your experience as a way of personalizing the realities our ad reflects.

Share your stories over at the UCC's Accessible Airwaves site.

Posted by Philocrites, December 16, 2004, at 05:34 PM | 4 comments

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Comments restored!

Updated post: Thanks to what I assume was a clever but slightly intrusive bit of reprogramming by the company that hosts this site, comments are back. Hopefully the change will deter spam robots for a while. Now, let's get back to brainstorming the first annual UU Blogging Awards.

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, December 15, 2004, at 08:21 AM | 1 comments

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Lest all our entries be forgot.

Over at Coffee Hour, I have invited Unitarian Universalist bloggers and their readers to help create the first annual UU Blogging Awards. Phase One involves brainstorming the award categories — Best New Blog, Funniest Entry on a Religious Theme, Most Splenetic Rant, that kind of thing — and will give us something to do until the end of the year. (Since Phase One doesn't involve research, but just a lot of free association, it should be doable even in the midst of the holiday frenzy.) Then we'll refine our list of categories and start Phase Two shortly after New Year's: inviting nominations of blogs and blog entries. Then, near the end of January, we'll vote!

What kinds of blog activity should we honor in the Interdependent Web in the last year? Comments welcome — but please take them over to Coffee Hour.

Posted by Philocrites, December 14, 2004, at 08:33 PM

'As the clock is to time.'

James Carroll provides a nice twist on the old Divine Watchmaker doctrine by offering this analogy about religion:

Religion is to God what the clock is to time. Religion participates in the mystery of what it represents but does not embody that mystery. Not even Christianity, with its self-understanding as a religion of the incarnate Word, does more than enshrine that Word in symbol and sacrament. Indeed, "Word" is the clue, since all religion, however infinite the object of its worship, remains bound by the finitude of language — and language always falls short of its purpose. That truth applies to religion and science both. Words are to what they aim to express as the clock is to time.

("God's Clock," James Carroll, Boston Globe 12.14.04)

Posted by Philocrites, December 14, 2004, at 08:41 AM | 0 comments

Swing, Pedro, swing!

Pedro Martinez has decided to work on his batting game, sources say. Meanwhile, in our favorite recurring series — the Red Sox Theology Watch — will Johnny Damon's The Last Supper drop in value when people realize it depicts Pedro as the Beloved Disciple and David Ortiz as Judas. Hey!

Posted by Philocrites, December 14, 2004, at 08:32 AM | 1 comments

What's up with Kinja?

If you have become as dependent as I have on Kinja's digests for keeping up with your favorite blogs, you may have been experiencing a sort of deja vu this week. The UU Blogs digest, which I set up to track new entries on the Unitarian Universalist-themed blogs, currently features seven-month-old entries from Step by Step and three-month-old entries from Coffee Hour. As LiveJournalers like to put it: Current mood: Annoyed.

Posted by Philocrites, December 14, 2004, at 08:17 AM | 0 comments

Monday, December 13, 2004

What's wrong with this survey question?

This is a purely diversionary entry: I just completed on online survey for a magazine I read regularly, and found myself stumped by the illogic of the following question:

Click to continue . . .

Posted by Philocrites, December 13, 2004, at 05:35 PM | 1 comments

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Democrats need some 'thick we's.'

So much of the chatter about why Democrats need to pay more attention to churchgoers misses the most important point. The Democrats don't need to sound like the Moral Majority and they don't need to bother trying to pry votes away from the Christian right. (After all, those dyed-in-red-wool traditionalists account for a mere 12.6 percent of voters.) How liberals talk matters a lot — just not quite so much as panicked secularists who are anxious about the prospects of a Democratic altar call have led us to believe. From a political standpoint, it's not the lingo or the credo that matters; it's congregational life itself — communities of people who know each other, share commitments, interact regularly, and influence each others' choices — that makes religious communities powerful and that made Republican religious outreach so effective this time around. You might say that while Democrats were finessing "message," Republicans were working the coffee hour.

What Democrats need to do is recognize the importance of "thick we" voluntary associations in which people invest their time and generate social capital — and churches, synagogues, and other religious communities are perhaps the most enduring examples of the associations in which many Americans find themselves part of a "thick we."

Lizabeth Cohen hits a bulls-eye in her American Prospect essay on why Republicans' associational habits paid off in the last election. She puts it autobiographically:

Let me start with myself as one type of Kerry supporter to illustrate the problem. I’m not proud of it, but my husband and I spend most of our waking hours working, leaving little time for any associational life. Free time is reserved for our two teenage children. We participate in no organized religion, belong to few organizations outside of professional ones, and barely sustain ties to the town we live in. Our political activism mostly involves writing checks to liberal groups; our community consists of friends, co-workers, and family. We are charter members of Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” crowd.

How did it pay off for Republicans? She explains: "The historic Republican discovery in this election season was that all the sophisticated segmented marketing mattered less than face-to-face interaction with real members of a community." She writes:

[I]t may be less significant that Republican voters have a corner on religious faith and “moral values” than simply that they go to church. In rural and small-town America, churches are part of a network of viable community institutions and organizations — gun and garden clubs, PTAs, functioning neighborhoods — that are fast disappearing with the more hectic pace of life in urban and suburban America. The erosion of Democratic-oriented labor unions in these communities, then, is not only damaging to Democrats in and of itself; it is indicative of a larger decline in associational life in the heart of Democratic turf.

Where does she see opportunities for Democrats?

Democrats must give more attention to mobilizing voters within whatever local organizations still matter. Continuing to push unionization of the growing ranks of low-wage workers who did vote for John Kerry is a must. In particular, labor unions can provide a counterforce to more conservative pulls on Latinos, who fill many low-level service jobs. Even military families struggling with deteriorating conditions in the armed services might rally to Democrats trumpeting their plight. Furthermore, if busy working parents have time for any activity, it often revolves around their children’s schooling, making grass-roots coalitions for better education promising. And when aging baby boomers like me eventually have more time on our hands, who knows? We might start joining organizations and meeting our neighbors.

Memory is short! What's not on this list? You could also try going to church. That's right, folks: Although every religious community has its share of odd characters and peculiar habits, the fact is that there are probably more tolerant and friendly churches (or synagogues) in your area than you know. Church-shopping can be daunting, but for many reasons that go beyond the chances for a Democratic revival in 2008 or 2012, it's not just good for you: It's freedom of association in a powerful, community-building way. You might even find that being part of a religious community helps anchor and sustain your liberalism.

("Voting Alone," Lizabeth Cohen, American Prospect 12.6.04, sub req'd)

Posted by Philocrites, December 12, 2004, at 10:23 PM | 2 comments

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Emergent shul?

The New York Times this morning tells the story of a Jewish congregation of 18- to 35-year-olds here in Boston that began as a dinner mix-and-mingle and turned into a worshiping congregation in Beacon Hill's venerable Vilna Shul. Terry Mattingly will probably not find quite the yuk-yuk factor he longs for in coverage of non-orthodox religion, but here's the "emergent synagogue" story he asked for.

Posted by Philocrites, December 11, 2004, at 10:20 AM | 0 comments

Friday, December 10, 2004

Barred by TV networks, church goes after FCC licenses.

More on this story next week, but here's a quick update and a few links in the meantime: The United Church of Christ — which tried to air its 30-second Bouncers ad on CBS and NBC only to be turned down because the ad was "too controversial" and appeared (to CBS) to take a side on the issue of same-sex marriage — has struck back. Charging that the corporations that own CBS and NBC have failed to serve the public interest by arbitrarily limiting the range of ideas broadcast on the public's airwaves, a United Church of Christ advocacy organization on Wednesday announced that it is formally challenging the renewal of FCC licenses for two stations in Miami. One of the stations is owned by Viacom, which also owns CBS; the other station is owned by General Electric, which owns NBC. (But why Miami? With the FCC, all politics is local.)

This is actually a more complex story than I can easily summarize now, and it will be interesting to see what the news media pick up from this development. Here's where you can learn more: The UCC's advocacy organization, OC Inc, has set up a Web site about this campaign called Accessible Airwaves. They are asking for people to submit their own petitions to the FCC about the networks' behavior, and have set up easy-to-use forms for you. Please also consider making a financial contribution to this effort. (More than $8,000 has been raised toward the cost of this legal challenge in the first day of the campaign.)

PastorDan at Daily Kos has a cogent explanation; Frederick Clarkson adds some context; Chris Bowers at MyDD has been cheering (here and here); and Chuck Currie describes how you can get involved.

Posted by Philocrites, December 10, 2004, at 05:46 PM | 3 comments

Thursday, December 9, 2004

'Commonweal' blasts 'First Things' on the war.

The cover story of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal this week is extraordinary. I've been so preoccupied with it that I haven't yet read Peter Beinart's New Republic cover story that has liberal foreign policy circles buzzing — even though, as a Wes Clark guy and sometime liberal hawk myself, I'm probably predisposed to agree with large portions of it. However, theological reflection on just war principles comes before political grand strategy in my book, and so I've been reading "How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong" by Peter Dula, the Baghdad-based Iraq program coordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee. You should print out a copy and set aside some time for it: This is one compelling theological quarrel, well-written and thought-provoking.

Dula takes papal biographer and just-war theologian George Weigel, smarty-pants theology editor Richard John Neuhaus, and their influential neoconservative theological journal First Things to task for theological error on the war in Iraq. Dula identifies more with theological orthodoxy than with theological liberalism, which makes his disappointment with First Things all the more acute. He grants Weigel's contention that "religious leaders [like the National Council of Churches] were not always the brightest or most articulate in the months preceding the war. In this case, though, the church’s pacifists and liberals proved right." Here's the main point:

Before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in its aftermath, Weigel and First Things promoted a reasoned debate about the war on terrorism. While the editors never wavered in their support for war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they opened the magazine to theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, and Archbishop Rowan Williams, who all opposed the war. This came as no surprise. First Things can rightly claim a distinct and important place in contemporary American religious thought. Throughout its fifteen-year history, it has, at its best, stood for more than just conservative politics. It has stood for a robust theological orthodoxy around which a great many diverse thinkers, Protestant and Catholic, clergy and laity, academics and nonacademics, were able to gather.

So it comes as something of a surprise, at least to me, that First Things has failed to follow through on another claim Weigel made in that essay. “Moral muteness in a time of war is a moral stance,” he wrote, “it can be a stance born of fear; it can be a stance born of indifference; it can be a stance born of cynicism about the human capacity to promote justice, freedom, and order, all of which are moral goods. But whatever its psychological, spiritual, or intellectual origins, moral muteness in wartime is a form of moral judgment-a deficient and dangerous form of moral judgment.”

I agree. In fact, a large part of my job as a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, is “advocacy.” I am supposed to write “advocacy reports” to the Mennonite Central Committee offices in Ottawa, Washington, and New York about justice and peace issues in the field. That is why I was in Iraq for ten months. Moreover, since I am a theology graduate student, I hoped to “think and write theologically” about what I had seen in Baghdad. I have done almost none of that. Trained to attend theologically and philosophically to texts, I have not proved a quick learner when it comes to attending to this kind of violence. So I have remained, for the most part, mute. It is a muteness born of fear and cynicism, one that is a deficient form of moral judgment. Contemplating what is happening in Baghdad from a fifth-floor hotel room, listening to the mortar rounds landing across the river, or from the street, peering into the crater left behind by what the security reports call a “vehicle-borne improvised explosive device,” will make people beyond bookish theologians too dizzy for clarity in a time of war.

Perhaps contemplating this carnage from New York is similar, and that is why First Things was virtually silent about Iraq between the summer of 2003 and October 2004. But I have serious doubts about that. It took until October 2004 for the most prominent journal of theological orthodoxy in the United States to say something about Abu Ghraib. First Things still hasn’t said anything about the Baghdad bombings of the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) headquarters in October 2003, or the March 2004 bombings in Karbala. Falluja, the Mahdi Army, and the bungled hand­over of authority from Paul Bremer to Iraq’s interim prime minister Ayad Allawi-all have gone unremarked on. . . . Even now, First Things has not conceded the full import of the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were discovered or that there was no link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. . . .

What I am most concerned with can be reduced to four points. First, Neuhaus and Weigel, like the administration they support, failed in the summer of 2003 to see that the war was far from over. Second, their faith in the competency of the Bush administration, and their contempt for religious leaders who disagreed with them, can now more easily be recognized for what it was: an attachment to a particular brand of neoconservatism overwhelming their attachment to the just-war tradition. Third, their scant attention to how the war was actually conducted (jus in bello), and their disdain for those who pushed questions about noncombatant deaths and proportionality, suggest the need for a reappraisal of the value they placed on the just causes (ad bellum) of the war. Finally, I would argue that their silence since the fall of Baghdad is more disturbing than their mistakes before and during “major combat operations.” The issue is not only, or not simply, that they were wrong. Perhaps they think they were right. The issue, especially in light of President George W. Bush’s re-election, is their current “moral muteness in a time of war.”

It's a remarkable essay. Do read it. ("The War in Iraq: How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong," Peter Dula, Commonweal 12.6.04)

I must confess to feeling implicated in Dula's moral judgment because, although I never endorsed Bush's war on Iraq, it would be fair to say that I was more focused on errors in judgment on my left than I was on the president's profound moral error. (I could also say that before the war, I had a total readership of ten.) If I were to offer a belated self-defense, I would only say that I had concluded that Bush couldn't be stopped with the left's conventional tactics, and so was trying pragmatically to urge my own tiny faction of the liberal community to take a different approach. I believed that an antiwar argument that had any chance of swaying public opinion in the United States had to be rooted in a worldview that could see war — even this war — as having some moral justification. But that's a pragmatic rather than moral argument. One thing you would search in vain for on this site, I'm sorry to say, is a crisp religious or moral denunciation of Bush's goals or overall policy in Iraq. It's implicit in many places, but I was always too generous with the benefit of the doubt before the war, and too cautious in judgment after the fact, and for that I do feel that I have been morally mute.

Posted by Philocrites, December 9, 2004, at 08:42 AM | 2 comments

100 days at St Albert the Great.

I meant to mention this story on Sunday (but that post was already getting too long): The members of St Albert the Great in Weymouth, Massachusetts, have occupied their church around the clock since August 29 in order to keep the Archdiocese of Boston from closing it. Without a priest, they've kept the church open and alive for 100 days, 24-7. (An unidentified person is supplying consecrated host for communion.) Bella English writes:

But for the absence of their former priest, Ron Coyne, the church looks very much like any other Catholic church during the Advent season. There are flowers on the altar. Two of the candles on the Advent wreath are lit. A Christmas tree at the front of the church bears name tags for needy children; piled beneath are dozens of gifts. A nearby basket holds grocery store coupons for the poor. The children of the church have made and sent dozens of colorful Christmas cards to local troops serving abroad. A collection is being taken to send them toiletries.

Outside, the creche is on display. On the front of the church hangs a new sign: "The Impossible . . . We Do Right Away. Miracles Take a Little Longer." The front doors are framed by huge wreaths, and an 8-foot outdoor Christmas tree was lit last night, followed by carols, cookies, and cocoa. Only the rectory next door remains dark.

But yesterday's church bulletin held a message from Coyne, who has returned to his family home in West Roxbury. "I miss all of you, the parish and the Church very much. I am in touch with your pastoral council leadership and am aware of all the responsibility you have taken in the St. Albert community. It reminds me of the early Church when everything was held in common and everyone used their gifts and talents for the good of all."

Those gifts and talents have indeed been put to use at the church, which has begun a plethora of classes, including knitting, holiday cake and cookie decorating, slate painting, Bible studies, yoga, and wreath-making. The knitting class is working on "chemo caps" to be donated to cancer centers. A book group is scheduled to start in January, and the health care ministry, run by the nurses in the congregation, has started back up.

That sounds like a lively church indeed. ("St. Albert's Parishioners Stay Vigilant," Bella English, Boston Globe 12.5.04)

Posted by Philocrites, December 9, 2004, at 07:56 AM | 0 comments

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Whoa! Who changed the site?

Just in case you need a place to praise, mock, or otherwise comment on the picture of your host over there on the front page sidebar, consider this your place to chat. (In other site news, I've also trimmed the list of blogs on the sidebar to reflect my reading a bit more accurately.) Your comments, as always, are very welcome.

Posted by Philocrites, December 7, 2004, at 09:39 PM | 2 comments

Monday, December 6, 2004

Hanukkah and Unitarian Universalism.

There's really no getting around the awkwardness of lighting Hanukkah candles in a church — no matter how gently or forcefully a Unitarian Universalist minister tries to acknowledge or honor the holiday. Sometimes the holiday is bent into almost unrecognizable shape as UUs shoehorn all the winter holidays into the same Jesus-free Dickens-Christmas humanitarianism. The Maccabees singing Kumbayah, and so on. Or there it is, an object on the altar: the flaming chalice replaced for a week by the menorah or chanukiyah, soon to be replaced by the Kwanzaa candles. No wonder some "JewUs" decamp to the synagogue or just stay home during December and around Easter — just as I tend to flee to Episcopalianism during those two seasons. There are times when being all things to all people just doesn't satisfy some of the people.

It's a dilemma I wish I knew how to address more fruitfully. It's an especially acute dilemma for Christian Unitarian Universalists (who often already feel a bit on edge in most UU churches) because our ongoing presence in the UUA can seem to threaten the possibility of the post-Christian Unitarian Universalism that post-traditional or Humanistic Jews and Jews in interfaith marriages find so appealing. Or, to put it simply, can a Unitarian Universalist congregation really celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas without alienating people for whom each holiday holds real meaning?

This week, as we anticipate the start of Hanukkah, the members of the UUs for Jewish Awareness e-mail list have been engaged in a thought-provoking conversation about Unitarian Universalist Hanukkah celebrations. You can sign up and read the messages starting December 3. I don't have any great insights to offer, but I'm committed to the conversation — as a liberal Christian who sees Christian anti-Semitism as an ongoing moral challenge I have to confront, and as a Unitarian Universalist who is deeply grateful for my Jewish friends and co-religionists. Listening, however, is always a good way to begin.

Posted by Philocrites, December 6, 2004, at 07:52 PM | 9 comments

Jesus' controversial 'message of inclusive love.'

A statement today from the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

During the recent election season, the airwaves were filled with advocacy ads on controversial issues. Given that, I was appalled by the refusal of NBC and CBS to run the new ad from the United Church of Christ on the grounds that it was an advocacy ad on a controversial issue. I was especially distressed by CBS's reference to the Bush administration's support for a federal amendment prohibiting marriage equality because the UCC ad makes no mention of marriage equality nor refers in any way to the civil rights of gays and lesbians. It was clear to me that the UCC ad was controversial only in its presentation of Jesus' message of inclusive love.

Last Thursday I spoke with the Rev. John Thomas, president of the UCC, to offer my personal support and that of the Unitarian Universalist community. Rev. Thomas expressed his gratitude for this offer and told me the UCC was discussing how best to organize the many voices of support they were hearing. Despite our opposition to the networks' decisions, it is obvious that the UCC and its message of inclusion have reached a far wider audience because of the recent publicity. In these deeply divided times, we welcome all messages of inclusion, love, and reconciliation.

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations have struggled with the issue of inclusion as well, but we can bear witness to the many blessings that bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender Unitarian Universalists bring to our congregations. No denomination does this perfectly, including our own. But the religious calling, and indeed the words of Jesus, demand that we all strive to open wider the doors of the church and to resist the all-too-human impulse to remain in our comfort zones. Our growth as people of faith depends upon this.

Meanwhile, J. Bennett Guess — whose editing and writing I really admire at United Church News — writes that members of the United Church of Christ have rallied to the "God Is Still Speaking," campaign . . . by buying lots of related merchandise!

"I've been here 17 years and I have never experienced excitement like this," says Marie Tyson, the UCC's distribution services manager at the denomination's warehouse in Berea, Ohio — a suburb of Cleveland, where the 1.3-million-member church is headquartered. "No one here is upset by the extra work. Instead, the excitement is contagious. We're just to the point where we're laughing, because of the sheer number of 'still speaking' orders."

If you want some merchandise, visit the Still Speaking Store. You can get involved in the UCC's protest of the networks' refusal to run its ad at the UCC Action Center.

Posted by Philocrites, December 6, 2004, at 07:36 PM | 0 comments

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Weekend religion round-up.

What a weekend for good reading about religion in my favorite “blue state” publications! Here’s a reading list with occasional tantalizing quotes. And, to facilitate your gift-giving, I’ve added links to books related to each article at Amazon, the Harvard Bookstore (my favorite independent bookstore), and Powells.

  • “The Rapture Debunked,” Christopher Shea, Boston Globe 12.5.04: A great story about a biblical scholar who shows why the theology of the Left Behind novels is wrong:

    The Rapture Exposed[Barbara R. Rossing, an associate professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago,] says she wrote her latest book, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, which came out earlier this year, because “more and more I was talking to Lutherans and evangelicals and even Catholics who had read the [Left Behind] novels and gotten the impression this was what the Bible teaches.” In news stories on the Left Behind juggernaut, she has been quoted condemning the ethical implications of the “beam-me-up” aspect of Rapture theory, which she says “invites a selfish nonconcern for the world.” But the heart of the book is Rossing’s effort to go toe-to-toe with the Rapture theorists in Scriptural readings.

    Buy The Rapture Exposed from Amazon, Harvard Bookstore, or Powells.

  • “Ashoka the Great,” Pankaj Mishra, Boston Globe 12.5.04: A mildly hagiographic introduction to the Indian emperor who tried to apply Buddhist principles to imperial governance only thirty years after Alexander the Great. Mishra is the author of An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World. Ashoka has some words for President Bush (and the rest of us):

    “One only notices one’s good deeds, thinking, ‘I have done good,’” he observed, “but on the other hand one does not notice one’s wicked deeds, thinking ‘I have done evil,’ or ‘This is indeed a sin.’ Now, to be aware of this is something really difficult.”

    Buy An End to Suffering from Amazon, Harvard, or Powells.

  • “God, American History, and a Fifth-Grade Class,” Dean E. Murphy, New York Times 12.5.04, reg req’d: Meet the California school teacher who has become “a folk hero among conservative Christians” because he treats every instance of God-talk in American history as evidence for his Evangelical beliefs — and who has, consequently, been asked to submit his class assignments to review by school administrators. Jeffersonian phrases like “Nature’s God” and “divine Providence” didn’t mean what 21st-century Evangelicals want them to mean, but until our culture finds better ways to talk candidly and critically about the religious dimensions of U.S. history, you can expect to see more fights like this.

  • “The Clash of Orthodoxies,” Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times Book Review, 12.5.04: Freedman gives capsule reviews of four books. He finds Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism limited by “a tone of victimology” and Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World hobbled by intellectual dishonesty about religious brutality. He finds much to praise about two other books, however, that I look forward to reading: Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History — “Wildly doubting texts can still be religious treatises,” she argues, “and the brilliant ones even shed light on belief” — and Philip Jenkins’s Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality, which really sounds interesting:

    Dream CatchersBy investigating the way American whites have appropriated elements of American Indian religion, he is trying to make larger points about culture, race and power. To do this, he has acquainted himself with the relevant historical materials and also acquainted himself with more New Age manuals, mantras and sales pitches than any human being should have to endure. This allows him to trace a striking shift in white attitudes, an exchange of one kind of willful stupidity for another. “At the start of the 20th century,” Jenkins writes, “a sizable number of Americans believed that the confrontation between Christianity and Native religions was a struggle between clearly defined good and evil. Christianity offered liberation from spiritual ignorance, from the ways of darkness and death. A hundred years later, a number of Americans believe similarly that the two traditions are far from equal, but now it is rather the Native faiths that offer liberation and healing, individual and global. The view of Native societies is utopian, while Christianity appears as a patriarchal blight.”

    Lest anyone think the American Indians themselves savor this sort of adulation, Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, shows how both well-intentioned naifs and calculating New Age entrepreneurs have whipped together swatches and strains of various Native American religious practices into a completely synthetic amalgam. This putative religion, in turn, has spawned its version of clergy, an array of bogus shamans and dubious healers working a lucrative circuit. Such abuses, Jenkins notes, led one tribe to form Cherokees Against Twinkies.

    Buy Freethinkers (Amazon, Harvard, Powells); Twilight of Atheism (Amazon, Harvard, Powells); Doubt: A History (Amazon, Harvard, Powells); and Dream Catchers (Amazon, Harvard, Powells).

  • The book I really want to read, however, is James M. Ault Jr's Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. Stephen Prothero reviews it in “Say Amen, Somebody” (New York Times Book Review 12.5.04).

    Spirit and FleshFundamentalism has been scoffed at more than it has been studied, and Ault would appear to fit the scoffer's profile. A preacher’s kid (his father is a Methodist minister) who traded faith for political radicalism during his undergraduate days at Harvard in the 1960’s, Ault began studying fundamentalists during the early 1980’s in an effort to understand the sources of the conservative pro-family politics he disdained. But Ault is no scoffer. He admires the nurses, factory workers and teachers who make up the Worcester, Mass., congregation he calls Shawmut River Baptist Church. And he is captivated by the Rev. Frank Valenti, its fire-and-brimstone pastor and the book’s most compelling character. . . .

    “Spirit and Flesh” takes its readers into the Bible studies, prayer breakfasts and schoolrooms of Valenti’s parishioners, but it focuses on their moral lives — how they use the Bible as a handbook for dealing with divorce, teenage pregnancy and alcohol addiction.

    The stereotype, of course, is that fundamentalists are Manichaean moralists. And the ethical rules they follow certainly seem to be black and white. In the application of these moral absolutes, however, Ault finds plenty of gray. Shawmut River functions like a close-knit family, he argues, and the brothers and sisters in that kinship network demonstrate a “situation-specific flexibility” in morality that is difficult to distinguish in practice from the situation ethics they so vehemently decry. Divorce, for example, is prohibited, and Valenti tries to talk his parishioners out of it. Yet when they call a marriage quits, he is the first to let bygones be bygones. “While fundamentalists’ timeless, God-given absolutes may appear rigid from the outside,” Ault writes, “within the organism of a close-knit community where much is known in common about persons and situations, they can be surprisingly supple and flexible.”

    Ault also takes on stereotypes about the subjugation of women in fundamentalist circles, and finds, to his surprise, that women in many respects rule the roost at Shawmut River. They make up the majority of the congregation (as they do in virtually every other American religious group). And though they adhere, at least in theory, to a stark division between the sexes, they use those sharp distinctions to their advantage. If the husband is, as St. Paul said, the head of the wife, the wife is, as Valenti’s spouse, Sharon, puts it, “the neck that turns the head.”

    Fundamentalists are people, too, Prothero moralizes — but the story of how a lefty found his own faith in a fundamentalist church sounds a lot more interesting than the moral Prothero attaches to it.

    Buy Spirit and Flesh (Amazon, Harvard, or Powells).

  • And, although it's not on-line, I highly recommend picking up the December 6 issue of the New Yorker for Burkhard Bilger’s “God Doesn’t Need Ole Anthony” (pp.70-81). Why? Here’s the story’s second paragraph:

    Anthony is the founder and president of the Trinity Foundation, a religious community in East Dallas that functions variously as a soup kitchen, a rehab center, a Christian publishing house, and a private detective firm. Trinity’s fifty or so active members (supported by some four hundred other donors) live in a row of creaky two-story bungalows with deep, shaded porches, along a dead-end street in a neighborhood known as Little Mexico. They take most of their meals in a communal dining hall and meet three times a week for Bible studies that have been closer in spirit, at times, to barroom brawls. The problem with the modern church, Anthony believes, is the church itself. So he has patterned Trinity on the underground Christian communities of the first century, before the denominations or cathedrals or the strict separation of Christian and Jew: a church before churches existed.

    Anthony’s private detective work is focused almost exclusively on the fraudulence of televangelists. Bilger’s article is an example of outstanding religion reporting — something the New Yorker has been doing quite well recently.

    Posted by Philocrites, December 5, 2004, at 05:14 PM | 3 comments

  • Saturday, December 4, 2004

    Hymns in the news.

    With Advent timeliness!

    Brian D. Mitchell [aka Isaiah David Emmanuel], who is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, was ordered to undergo a new round of competency hearings after he began singing yesterday in court. He sang, "Oh come, oh come, Immanuel," the name he used as a street preacher.

    (Sorry, can't find a permalink: It's the caption on the photo on today's National page of the New York Times Web site; I saw it on page A12 of the New England Final edition.)

    From Oremus — one of Mrs Philocrites' favorite Anglican Web sites — here's John Mason Neale's 1851 translation of the lyrics (the 12th-century "O Antiphons"), complete with sing-along music!

    Posted by Philocrites, December 4, 2004, at 10:40 AM | 1 comments

    Thursday, December 2, 2004

    UU blogger in Iraq.

    Here's something to watch — A Virginia UU in King George's War, a blog by a Marine Corps officer and Unitarian Universalist deployed near Baghdad. He plans to go to seminary to study for the UU ministry when he returns.

    (I've added it to the Kinja UU Blogs digest — where, incidentally, I notice that all sorts of very old posts from irregular bloggers have suddenly shown up as new. For a jubilant minute there, I thought long-silent voices had all suddenly decided to shout. But no. There's nothing truly new from The Edge, Facilitating Paradox, The Aerie, or Across Beyond Through, although I live in hope and expectation. It is Advent after all.)

    Posted by Philocrites, December 2, 2004, at 09:20 PM | 0 comments

    Meet your fellow Philocritics, part 6.

    Thanks to all the new links in November! Blogs that have added Philocrites to their blogroll in the past month include: Arbitrary Marks (short for "language games and miscellaneous arbitary marks," a Wittgenstein-inspired blog by CK in St Louis), Father Jake Stops the World ("the musings of an eccentric and sometimes heretical Episcopal priest"), Fundamillenium ("Welcome to the age of suck," says this despondent Utah UU — believe me, I know that feeling — but the copy editor in me asks, "Shouldn't there be another n?"), The Juggler (a pagan group blog), The Limited Modified Hangout (by Paul Deadman), Mere Sketches (featuring progressive politics and Torah study), Reading, Writing, and Ranting (by the blogger formerly known to me as "Spiritual Woman"), Where Left Is Right ("Catching liberals in the act of doing things right"), and Shadow of Diogenes (who dislikes cheese, France, and Michael Moore, among many other things). Thanks to each of you! I'm astonished.

    Our Thanksgiving poll revealed that about two-thirds of all Philocritics agree with Mrs Philocrites. That's right: She prefers Sunny Philo to City Philo, too. (Did she pay you all to vote with her? Just asking.) The picture will soon appear on the front page until someone with a digital camera makes me look cooler.

    Now for our next quiz:

    Click to continue . . .

    Posted by Philocrites, December 2, 2004, at 08:27 PM | 7 comments

    Wednesday, December 1, 2004

    United Church of Christ protests rejection of its ad.

    Here's the United Church of Christ Action Center, which will help you send your complaint about CBS/UPN and NBC's decision not to accept an ad from the liberal denomination. (The controversial ad says, "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we" — a perspective that apparently impugns the reputation of other churches, seems to welcome gay and lesbian people to the UCC, and conflicts with President Bush's views of potential constitutional amendments. The horror!) Here's the UCC's Action Alert about its "God Is Still Speaking" campaign, with talking points for your conversation with the networks and their local affiliates. One of the most significant things you can do is to contribute to the costs of the ad campaign: Buying network ad time would have been much cheaper than buying ad time in hundreds of local markets, but that may be what the UCC must now do to get its message out. Please consider donating to a good cause.

    Meanwhile, you can watch the news media discover this story at Google News, where I've already set up a simple search string focusing on the UCC ad campaign. Come back as often as you like, click that link, and watch the news coverage grow. This will be fun.

    Posted by Philocrites, December 1, 2004, at 11:19 PM | 6 comments

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