May 2, 2014
Did you notice the religious themes in The Lego Movie? There is nothing very deep, nothing one could call systematic theology. But the movie makers were consciously playing with religious ideas.
Obviously the movie begins with the now well worn messiah theme; there is a mysterious prophecy (which, the prophet says, “is true because it rhymes”) about a chosen hero who is “the most special, most talented, most extraordinary person in the universe”. I have heard UUs repeat this very American ideal that everyone is the most amazing, special and even prophecy fulfilling person in the universe. For example, think of Sophia Fahs’ words, “Every night a child is born is a holy night…”. Also, I must admit that I have heard UU sermons extolling the idea, stated by Emmet late in the movie, that a prophecy, or religious story, can be both completely made-up and completely true.
Then, as the characters are sailing on a sea of Lego bricks, “Wildstyle” says something about “The Man Upstairs”. We can assume (until the big reveal near the end) that this is a reference to the kid who plays with the Legos. But it is also an obvious insertion of God language. As a UU minister my ears perked up. I first wondered if there was some traditional Christian theology being slipped in. Then I thought about the Hindu notion of Lila where the entire universe is an expression of divine play. I wondered, where are they going with this?
The central theme of the movie is about control and creativity, the tension between “fitting in” and “being special.” At the beginning the main character, Emmet, is trying to “be part of the team” by conforming. In the end, his ability to follow directions is what makes him a unique part of a team. This theme takes on theological tones especially after Emmet “dies” and passes through a tunnel of light to a meta universe, where the greater truth of reality is revealed.
My impression of the movie as vaguely religious was reinforced when I came across an article titled Lego Movie’s Got Religion. The authors note that the name Emmet, in Hebrew, means ‘truth’. Also the name of Emmet’s guide and inspiration is Lucy, which means ‘light’ (as in Saint Lucy, or Santa Lucia).
The “truth” that Emmet uncovers is pretty humanistic, especially when the man upstairs turns out (spoiler alert)to be an actual man with a big Lego set and alienated from his son. Only vague echoes of the Christian Father and Son here. I could argue that through the reconciliation between father and son, and between Emmet and Mr. Business, that the movie sides with a theology of God as Inclusive Love, or agape.
In the end the Lego Movie is simply a bunch of animated fun and silliness, and an hour and half advertisement for plastic building toys. I liked it, and the Movie’s light religion added to my enjoyment.
April 7, 2014
Recently someone asked me about two details in the new Russell Crow movie, Noah. They wanted to know what was up with the strange glowing skin, and were “the Watchers” from the bible or somewhere else. Here is the results of my quick research, drawing on an interview with one of the script writers, some Jewish bible commentary pages, and of course Wikipedia.
The glowing snake skin is from an interpretation of Genesis 3:21. After Adam and Eve make clothes out of leaves, God gives them some clothes made of skin. Some Jewish commentators Thought this might be snake skin, cast off from the Serpent. The Serpent was an original creation of God, which he said was “good” in the first chapter (6th Day). So the movie makers decided to make it glow with God’s good light. In the movie the people pass it on down from generation to generation as a reminder of their creator and original goodness.
The term Watchers as a reference to certain angels comes from som of the Jewish books that Christians and later Jews did not include in the canon. The idea is that the Nephilim in Genesis are a class of angel that fell from heaven for standing against God on behalf of humanity. In the movie their stone skin comes from a possible root of the name ‘nephilim’. When they sacrifice themselves in defense of Noah, then they are forgiven and return to God as glowing light.
March 17, 2014
Minister’s Column – April 2014
I now serve in the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis. In 1922 a child of our church, who had grown into a significant adult poet, wrote:
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
These lines, the beginning of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, capture the ambivalence of this month. Always it is a mixture of ice and heat, sprouts and snow. The point, I think he meant to say, is not that April is cruel but that all life is a difficult mixture. The poem as a whole speaks to the uncertain inconsistency of human existence.
In my last year of high school, I stood with some UU youth looking at a particularly lovely sunset. The colors, twilight blue, saffron and electric orange, layers of black and yellow, all moved me. I said that it seemed as though I had lived my life just for the chance to be part of that beauty and peace. A good friend of mine scoffed and said “That is ridiculous.” I realized then, though I was content and looking toward college, he was not sure he could even endure another month with his abusive father and alcoholic mother. As I saw the poignant beauty of life in balance, he saw life tipping toward the fearful darkness and cold of winter. Seeing the change in my face, he said, “You don’t need me as a friend. I will just pull you down.” Although I could not find the words to say it, I knew I needed him. I realized how he deepened my happiness. He made my joy in life saner and more grounded. I hoped my friendship helped him also, to see something beyond his own circumstances into the larger circles of hope.
This is how it is. While some look forward to blossoms and new life rising in Saint Louis, like people in most cities, we know there are also bullets planted in guns that will end someone’s life this spring. While some are facing homelessness and endings, others are riding the slow wave of a growing economy. That is why the UU church exists, to bring us all together in community in order to find true beauty beyond mere prettiness.
So may it be, that we find with each other, a rich and poignant and fearsome wholeness. Or, as the poet William Blake wrote several hundred years ago, “Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine…”
March 2, 2014
Since I was a youth four images of The Beginning have lived side-by-side in my thoughts. All weave together fact and fiction into the mythos of the genesis of all things. I quote them here in order of influence:
The first is the Jewish, as adopted by Christians and translated in the NIV:
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
The second is from the Dao De Ching as I have memorized it:
1- The Way that can be told is not the eternal Way. The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name. Named, It is the beginning of ten-thousand things. Nameless, it is the beginning of heaven and earth. Ever desiring we know manifestations. Without desire we know mystery. These two are different, but arise from the same source. This source is called darkness. Darkness within darkness. The gateway to all understanding.
The third is from Christian scriptures, the “Gospel of John,” NIV:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The fourth is my summary of various science sources:
In the beginning was the singularity. The singularity was without form, or time or space. Any description of the singularity is not the singularity. Then, the singularity moved, and it expanded into a universe. At first this expansion was immensely rapid; gravity and particles were formed, radiation and elements, then it slowed to dust and heated to stars and cooled to planets and vast spaces, and the wonder of life.
January 21, 2013
This past Civil Rights Sunday I decided to speak about gun violence. It seemed a clearer and more relevant topic than MLK, theology, race and identity. I am glad for my choice, but the matter of “where do we go from here” as UUs on matters of race still remain pressing and must be addressed.
So, I start publicly writing on that subject here to see if I get any good responses and to help clarify my thinking. Many UUs may be familiar with the fact that both Martin King Jr. and Barak Obama both attended Unitarian churches for a while. Both knew Unitarians, wrote and spoke about Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist people that they knew. In another world, either might might have become a UU. They both chose a more “Baptist” religious identity and community.
In brief, there are two centers to my thinking on this subject of why we are so far short of our vision on matters of race and a beloved multicultural community. These centers are our theology and our identity.
In King’s Doctoral Thesis he judged both the theologies of Lutheran (or Protestant) existentialist Paul Tillich and Unitarian Process thinker Henry Wieman as inadequate. He did this primarily on ‘Personalist’ grounds, insisting that God had to be a person as far as Christians were concerned or else God could not truly care for us or know us or be in relationship with us or choose to act on our behalf. Now, I don’t think he is correct in his thinking here (I think he is choosing a rather limited and narrow set of definitions) but I do think he showed his resonance with a more popular way of thinking. While King chose to align himself with a rather common and civic notion of a personal God he was certainly in line with Unitarians like Theodore Parker, but with not the majority of Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists. As a movement we chose a heavily Humanistic, Existentialist, and sometimes atheistic theology.
Likewise, Barak Obama did not get from the UUs he knew a sense that our faith was a powerful way to affirm individual worth and dignity, nor a movement dedicated to bringing justice, equity and compassion into human relationships. Though he has Lincoln’s and King’s paraphrasing of Rev. Theodore Parker preaching on his oval office rug, for Senator Obama (in Dreams of My Father) modern Unitarianism was merely a world-religions smorgasbord that practiced radical tolerance of belief. When he went looking for a source of spiritual solace and challenge, and a faith to sustain his political engagement, he did not look to us.
In terms of identity, to put it very simply Unitarian Universalists are aligned with an intellectual minorities, but not racial or ethnic ones. In American racism, the fact is that who you identify with determines who you hang out with and who sees you as “one of us”. Martin King Junior knew that if he was to be a leader in 1955 it would have to be as a Negro in the Black Church. Likewise Barak Obama came to realize that, though he would represent the needs of everyone as a politician, he would still have to do so as ‘a black man’. As Dr. mark Morrison-Reed pointed out, Unitarianism, Universalism and UUism all rose as part of a racialized and segregated society. In that context we developed a white identity. We have striven against that in the past two decades to some degree or other, but in the end we have not become truly multi-cultural as a community. Perhaps some day, but not yet.
So, that is the outline of my thinking. Is this the beginning of a good sermon yet?
August 27, 2012
I have spent a portion of my adult life learning and telling First People stories. Some of these stories are about Rabbit. Rabbit, like Coyote and Raven and Bison, are not about rabbits and ravens and such, but about the spirit powers that shape us and those creatures to this day.
These stories are inspired mostly by Native American stories that I find in books, and other folktales. I tell the stories has having occurred when the world was “made but not yet finished”. This is a way of saying they did not happen in any literal, historical time, but also that they are happening right now. I tell the stories not as “Indian” stories or as “African” stories, though I do tell what my source was. But I tell the stories as Unitarian Universalist stories as a U. U. Minister. They are very important to my theology in that they are reminders that human animals and other animals are all related. They are reminders that the same forces that created us are involved in creating everything else. They remind us that no matter how smart we think we are, we still make mistakes and need to learn. I tell these stories to remind my people that the imagination is always running, always powerful, always a part of the religious and spiritual life. Furthermore most of the stories remind us to not take everything so terribly seriously, but to laugh in through our tension and dream through our trials.
Rabbit was a very powerful figure in many parts of North America before it ever had that name. He was “tricksy” and clever, and a bit more powerful than Bugs Bunny, but not too different from him. My favorite story of Rabbit starts when he steals from Lynx, and then is chased through the woods. Each time, before he is caught he takes on a disguise, such as an old grandmother with two long braids, or a shaman with two stretched out earlobes, or a young warrior with two tall feathers in his hair.
So it is with some interest one day while I was touring Washington University, thinking about how that school was founded by the first Unitarian Minister of Saint Louis, I noticed Rabbit sitting and thinking and looking both serious and silly, as well as a little creepy:
This sculpture is titled “Thinker on Rock” by Barry Flanagan.
The mascot of the University is a bear, like those on the state flag. So why was Rabbit so much more prominent on the campus. His sculpture is even more striking than that of George Washington nearby:
I then saw Rabbit dancing in downtown Saint Louis next to the Scottrade Center arena. The sculpture there is called “Nijinski Hare,” also by Barry Flanagan.
Only a few blocks from there Rabbit takes a very sedate and even cute pose as “Two Rabbits” by Tom Claassen in the City Garden. These “light” sculptures are made of bronze!
And then there he is as “Earth Rabbit” meditating on “emptiness”. This likeness is by Catharine Magel:
A few steps away he is amorously entangled with a bird playing the saxophone. I could not find a good photo of this sculpture, “After Hours” also by Catharine Magle.
So, there he is. Old Trickster Rabbit, even in a town named for a French King, causing smiles, eliciting thought, and reminding us that we are all related.
August 9, 2012
I post here an excellent opinion column from Eboo Patel:
“Imagine the terror.
You are in a temple, a safe, sacred place, preparing for a morning service. In the kitchen, you are busy cooking food for lunch, while others read scriptures and recite prayers. Friends begin to gather for the soon-to-start service.
At the front door, you smile at the next man who enters. He does not smile back. Instead, he greets you with a hateful stare and bullets from his gun.
Such was the scene Sunday at a Sikh gurudwara in Oak Creek, Wis., just south of Milwaukee, where a gunman, Wade Michael Page, killed six and critically injured three others before being shot down by law enforcement agents.
As Page began his shooting spree, terrified worshippers sought shelter in bathrooms and prayer rooms. Rumors of a hostage situation surfaced, and those trapped inside asked loved ones outside not to text or call their cell phones, for fear that the phone ring might give away their hiding place.
The first police officer to arrive on the scene stopped to tend to a victim outside the gurudwara. He looked up to find the shooter pointing his gun directly at him, and then took several bullets to his upper body. He waved the next set of officers into the temple, encouraging them to help others even as he bled.
That magnanimity is a common theme among the stories of victims and survivors of the Wisconsin shootings. Amidst terror and confusion, Sikhs offered food and water to the growing crowd of police and news reporters outside the gurudwara as part of langar — the Sikh practice of feeding all visitors to the house of worship.
We now know that Page was part of a neo-Nazi movement. But let us not take these moments to look into the heart of hate. May we instead shed light on a religious tradition of peace and generosity, the kind of generosity that inspired distraught worshippers to feed others just minutes after they had been brutally attacked.
The Sikh community has been one of welcome and hospitality since its founding in India 500 years ago. With their belief in a supreme Creator and a deep respect for all human beings, Sikhs place strong emphasis on equality, religious freedom, human rights, and justice.
Sikhs from India began immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century, and currently the Sikh popuation numbers about 314,000 in America and 30 million worldwide. Today, Sikhs are successful business people, active community members, and advocates for social justice.
Their love for all humanity inspires the hospitality we witnessed so vividly outside that Oak Creek gurudwara, though it has not protected them from being the targets of numerous post-9/11 hate crimes.
In living out that hospitality, Sikhs remind us of our own quintessentially American generosity. A core American idea is that we welcome contributions from all different groups and build cooperation between people of diverse backgrounds. It’s the theme of my new book, Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.
While today we hear news stories of division and hate, American history tells a different story.
The shooting in Oak Creek reminds us that the forces of prejudice are loud. They sling bigoted slurs and occasionally bring 9mm guns to places of worship. But we are not a country of Wade Michael Pages.
We are a country whose first president, George Washington, told a Jewish community leader that “The Government of the United States…gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
We are a country where Jane Addams welcomed Jewish and Catholic immigrants streaming in from Eastern Europe in the 19th century as citizens, not as strangers.
We are a country where a young black preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., learned nonviolence not only from Jesus Christ, but also from an Indian Hindu named Gandhi and from a Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.
And we must be a country where a new generation of leaders rises up to write the next chapter in the glorious story of American pluralism, or else we will forfeit the territory to those who would shoot at our neighbors while they worship.
Already we see the forces of pluralism in action. Donation sites for families of the victims have sprung up, and supporters have updated their Facebook profiles with pictures saying “I Pledge Humanity.”
Groups in Madison, Minneapolis, and Detroit have held vigils in solidarity with those affected by the shooting, and survivors of the recent shooting in Aurora, Colo., have reached out to Sikh victims via social media.
As Sacred Ground discusses, there have been periods in American history when the staunch opponents of pluralism have won the battle. But they didn’t win the war, because irrepressible people of good faith refused to surrender their nation to such fear and hatred.
Let us remember that we cannot cede this moment in our history to the forces of intolerance. And may we draw inspiration from our Sikh neighbors as we build a world where people of all backgrounds are honored for their unique contributions to America.”
Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation. His blog, The Faith Divide, explores what drives faiths apart and what brings them together. His latest book is Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America.
October 18, 2011
I was reading some articles on Universalism and found an article written about the Schuylkill Unitarian Universalist Church.[STAFF WRITER, MARK GILGER JR.m MGILGERJR@REPUBLICANHERALD.COM)Published: October 17, 2011] This is part of what the reporter said:
“The Unitarian Universalism Association was formed in 1961 with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. It promotes the tolerance of all religions and respect of all religions writings.
Congregation members vary in their religion and personal beliefs and ideas, but they share the concept that individuals have their own path of fulfillment. The goal of the church is to help them find that path.
“We talk a lot about ideas because everyone’s beliefs are valued and their ideas are respected,” said Miller. “We believe in the community and the ability of people to come together to do good things.”
There are more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America alone, consisting of more than 205,000 members.”
It made me reflect on the fact that many UU congregations have as their primary goal something like “to help individuals on their own path of fulfillment”. As a mission that seems a little thin to me, and too self-centered. The article also talked about the congregation’s tolerance and creating “A place for people of differing beliefs to dwell together”. Coupled with a belief that all people can come together to do good things, this could be a powerful vision of the Whole World at Peace, but it is often the expression of a much narrower sanctuary for a small and edgy few to do small works of kindness and limited generosity. I don’t mean to say anything negative about the Schuylkill congregation, I know nothing about them other than they fed a reporter rather bland lines.
We remain small because our vision and mission is small. To serve a few overly educated people is nice, but to change the world and capture the imagination, passion, and commitment of at least one in every thousand people requires a deeper purpose: to create deep peace in individual hearts and in human relations, to nurture virtue: courage in hard times, hopefulness for humanity’s future, compassion for other beings, transforming love in action, a fusion of science and faith.
My previous church said its goal was to create for all humanity, yes all humanity, an ever greater heritage of freedom, justice love and mercy. I would like to see those words appear in articles about UU congregations, or words like them, more often than our diverse beliefs, tolerance of beliefs, and vagueness of belief.
Do you agree?
June 23, 2011
I have had the pleasure of being part of study group with a great group of clergy, mostly Baptist. We have read some wonderful books and talked about them, mostly encouraged each other that we were not alone in enjoying these books. We read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” and decided that we were all willing to call Rob and ourselves universalists, even if Rob was afraid of that label. We went on from there to read the much more dense, or at least wordy, theological work of N.T. Wright “Surprised by Hope” which we also liked. Wright is an Anglican Bishop, but we won’t hold that against him. He is a good, creative and Universalist Christian who affirms the bodily ressurection as literally as possible.
After the great food and good conversation the Baptists gave me a certificate as a parting present naming me “An Honorary Baptist” and I conferred on them all honorary UU status.
Looking back over Wright’s writings I came across this quote:
“Just as many who were brought up to think of God as a bearded old gentleman sitting on a cloud decided that when they stopped believing in such a being they had therefore stopped believing in God, so many who were taught to think of hell as a literal underground location full of worms and fire…decided that when they stopped believing in that, so they stopped believing in hell. The first group decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of God, they must be atheists. The second decided that because they couldn’t believe in childish images of hell, they must be universalists.”
— N.T. Wright (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)
It made me laugh. In part because after the meal one of the Baptists told me that in all the decades of his ministry, in several different cities, he had heard of Unitarian Universalists but he had never met one. “Never met one” were his exact words. It seemed sad to think of how many opportunities had been missed over the decades because UUs who should know that the light shines everywhere had not reached out to find this person who had been for me an ally and friend. Through these sorts of ecumenical groups I always find that the Beloved Community has more members than we usually can see. From Anglicans to Baptists the universalist spirit lives. If we have that spirit then we all have the right stuff.
June 14, 2011
Be bold my friends…
This past Sunday was our “Animal Blessing” Sunday. The title of the day is a pun on the fact that we bless the animals (show our approval of them and our hopes for their well being), and the fact that all non-human animals are a blessing on and for us. Our very dedicated Director of Youth Programs told the story of “St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio” (the saint helps a village and a wolf become friends) and she added many thoughts about animals in our lives. Then she went around and touched each dog, cat, rat, or etc. with a little water on the tips of her fingers. It was very positive and life affirming ritual. I was proud that my dog Socks was perfectly well behaved, considering he had a box of kittens sitting only three feet from his nose.
The sermon this day was given by the very talented and smart Rev. Barbara Child, visiting as our Ministerial Settlement Representative. The sermon was perfect ministry to me and the congregation facing our last Sunday together before I move to a new (to me) city and congregation. Her sermon was titled “Boldness in the Face of Uncertainty”.
In-between the ritual and the sermon I had planned a meditation, but the story and blessing of so many animals took longer than I had expected. So I moved on and let “Spirit of Life” be the time of meditation. Barbara also ended her sermon with a brief prayer/meditation also, so that was good.
But I missed sharing the meditation. As a bridge between the animals and boldness I chose “Bats” by Rev. Lynn Ungar. I know the original poem is set in the autumn, so I would have replaced “Certainly these days” with “It seems on some days”. Here it is as she had it published:
Perhaps you have not loved
this miracle–the bats
on their flickering wings
ushering in the night.
Certainly these days the darkness
comes too soon, and dimness
has outlasted color. But still,
there is the way they love
what you do not desire,
the way the appear, like stars,
without arriving. There is the
way their furred bodies shimmer
above the earth like angels,
the way they hear what we
have lost. Haven’t you always
longed for wings? Imagine
hanging by your toes in some
cave or tree or belfry,
how gently the darkness opens,
how the night is filled
with imperceptible singing.
Be as bold as bats, and as those who love the blessing of bats. Sing, even imperceptibly in your daily work, or be one of those who hear the singing and are lifted by it.