Saturday, December 1, 2012

Pop Culture and UU's III

So how should UU's connect with pop culture?

For a start, individual UU's can connect with pop culture anyway they want. A commenter on yesterday's post wrote that it sounded like I thought all UU's are disconnected from pop culture. I know that is not true. However, Tandy Roger's original post was more about how can UU congregations or UU's as a movement connect with pop culture and still honor their values.

Pop culture is vital, and connecting but it can also be crass and distracting. It really isn't just one thing.

Here is where we could use pop culture to increase our vitality as a movement:

Social Media: So many people are on social media that no UU church should be ignoring it. They should all have facebook pages, and probably twitter accounts (I don't have one yet and have never tweeted, so I am not saying these things in a holier than thou way. It is truly hard to keep up with our culture!).

Technology: worship services should be exploratory in how to use multimedia and the web. Again, hard to do. Ministers need to know what is legal in using clips from the internet and also have technology that works when they need it. Nothing is worse than waiting for a projector to go, or a computer to connect. I have read about services where there is interactive back and forth between people on their smart phones and the minister. I can imagine doing something something like that, especially around a second service because not everyone would like it. Technology is not exactly pop culture, except I notice at Thanksgiving how much my family talks about technology, things they have watched on the web, etc. I notice it then because my parents never got a computer or a fancy cell phone and I see their faces look bored and/or confused as we chatter about this important aspect of our lives.

Sermon topics: This is the easiest way to connect to pop culture. Bring it into the sermon, and especially have it in the title. Recently my minister did a sermon on Star Wars. Fun! but even better would be a sermon on something playing right now like Skyfall or the Life of Pi. Do up Zombies. Or something to do with gaming (hard again, how many minister's play video games, and then how many of the older people in the pew, would know what you were talking about and yet, everyone under a certain age, especially guys, play games and play them a lot.)

Music: Another easy one, and one my own congregation is good at. One thing my congregation still needs to watch is the generation gap. Most of the pop music we use is classic pop.

Local Pop Culture and DIY: Portland has its own something I call "local pop culture". It kind of brings the whole DIY movement into pop culture. So there are singalongs to, say, The Sound of Music and something I really want to see, live productions of classic Star Trek episodes that are put on in the summer in the parks. DIY is congruent with our values and we could be doing more to foster it. This just seems like a fruitful area where UU congregations could be involved in pop culture. The scale is right for congregational involvement, but I am not sure how to do it.

Comic Books: I would love to see comic books on Emerson and Thoreau!! and my favorite swashbuckling hero of the transcendentalist movement, Theodore Parker! Didn't he get excited once and bring a gun to an abolitionist rally? There are all kinds of hero's and heroines we could do them on. We could also do comic books on theology, really everything! All we need to do is write them -- get them inked and colored -- how fun would that be.

How to discern around pop culture: People want help interpreting their lives. We need to give them a nuanced message around how to manage technology and pop culture. Part of connecting with it is limiting it and knowing what to think of it. I think that is a very important part of the UU message.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Pop Culture and UUs II

I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote yesterday. It didn't quite capture the UU relationship with pop culture.

Then on my bicycle today, cranking up busy 122nd street, something I do as quickly as I can because it's five lanes with semi's and kind of scary, I thought, "it's id, pop culture comes right out of the id".

Back on my computer, I found this definition :
The id acts as the driving force behind personality. It not only strives to fulfill our most basic urges, many of which are tied directly to survival, it also provides all of the energy necessary to drive personality.
Pop culture comes out of the collective unconscious of mass culture. It's not good or bad just intent on surviving and feeling good. It's vital and all over the place expressing whatever it wants. Nowadays there aren't many limits to it. Turn on the tv, sign on to certain tweets and you get a fire hose of everything society wants or is anxious about! Get rid of it though and you lose the energy that drives everything.

What I wrote yesterday was about how UU's generally feel about pop culture. They distrust it, want to detach from it, and would probably abolish it if they had half a chance. The trouble is to deny pop culture too much is to flip into the shadow side and to cut off access to messy, messy life. And that is what UU's do sometimes, and then we get characterized as nerdy religious people who don't connect to Spirit and want to set up panel discussions. People yawn and walk on.

All religions have to negotiate this connection to popular culture. Ironically, we may be more like very conservative Christians at times. They also find popular culture pretty crass and warn their members about it.

The trick would be to connect with pop culture, know that you are doing it, and try and maintain some sense of control or balance. Not all pop culture is created equal. Tomorrow, Pop Culture III will be some ideas of where UU's can connect and a little differentiation in the big, big world of pop culture.

Yeah, like I am an expert!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pop Culture and UU's I

Tandy Rogers asks in her UU Growth blog "how do UU's engage with pop culture"? Her post is unintentionally funny because the UU's she queried could only think of pop culture in terms of TED talks and other high brow phenomena. Are TED talks pop culture? maybe, sort of.

She points out that when we do turn up in popular culture it's often as a joke. UU's are popularly portrayed as the nerds of religion. We are the one's who pray "to whom it may concern", and set up a committee or a panel discussion at the drop of a hat (no wonder we love TED talks!).  Not necessarily so bad -- but not so sexy either.

So what about UU's and pop culture? Well it's love and hate baby -- just as it is for all religions in America.  

On the love side, we want to warm our hands on the flame of pop culture. Here we UU's are,160,000 strong, and a tweet by Justin Bieber gets read by millions, possibly billions. Justin, can't you just give us a little of that action? It isn't just the numbers either, it's the attention, the interest, the immediacy of pop culture. Although what we watch on our many screens can be crude, it draws us together into a shared experience and gives us a common language. Not usually deep, its like the weather, something we all know and can react to.

But the hate side is pretty strong also. UU's are not so different from their far right brethren in that we go to church partly to get away from the degrading influence of popular culture. We are counter to that culture and proud of it. Pop culture is consumer culture. It asks us to buy and want things we don't need. For the most part pop culture isn't TED, it's a wide swath of the good, bad and degrading. It's strong, seductive, and we are looking for a way to tame it, protect our children from it, and get our lives back.

So how should UU's engage with popular culture -- and especially to spread the word about our faith tradition?

That will be Part II

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Moral choices

Lot's of people embrace grand ideals or all explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that, they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.
David Brooks is as close to conservative as the New York Times allows on their staff. He isn't standard issue conservative -- not no tax or die, not libertarian -- but some free third way that will not accept the tropes of the left or the right. He is pro-science and pro-community with an emphasis on not throwing out tradition -- but allowing tradition to thicken, branch and change when it needs to.

I loved this quote about politics that I took from a column he wrote about the new Lincoln movie. The way he uses the word "moral" here is striking. As he presents it morality is a grown-up concept that can survive complications and power. Rather the moral politician draws into him or her self what is needed to alchemize a solution -- and morality looks complex and adult-- without absolutes. In fact often the next problem gets set up, and you have Johnson, signing a bill for voting rights and knowing he is losing the South for Democrats.

In thinking about the moral strands that come together at such times, it seems natural that such people would attract assassination. They attain a status where they become religious figures. Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi did great things but died by assassins after them for "morally infantile" reasons.

These are important ideas to keep in mind as we, Unitarian Universalists, often on the religious left's far margins, often being advocates and staking out territory that isn't mainstream, move in the world. We need to remember that compromises are needed.We need to sometimes stop and pray for our leaders and opponents, even when they do not do what we want. We need to avoid small 'm' morality that insults the opposition and isolates us.

We need to keep our balance in this complex world.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Love of Place

Max Ehrmann composed the Desiderata, the poem/poster that was so popular in the seventies. I confess I used to make fun of it as a teenager, it was just everywhere. But I love what he says here about his home country of Terre Haute, Indiana which reflects my own feelings of the sacred ground of home, and my own love of place:
It seems good to be here on this spot of earth, not far from where I was born, where I have lived and worked nearly all my life... I would that all persons might find some such loved spot of earth. It is a spiritual possession no less valuable than solid masonry. To belong somewhere, to be known somewhere, to labor somewhere to have ties somewhere that the years have endeared--these are not the least among the durable satisfactions of life.
Love of place is a Yin feeling that doesn't need much talk behind it. The place is its own reward, and feels like an ancestor surrounding you. Living in the same place adds layers of meaning to your life over time.

Much social action is quite Yang, you are going out into the world and changing it. You are speaking truth to power and generating a great deal of Will. You WILL do this you say and then write letters and show up at hearings. It is all action, strength and passion. Someone who does social action can become finally, a shouting head -- or just very tired.

Its different when you do the action because of  a love of  place. The Yin and Yang complement each other. Love of place can give strength to social action.

The Max Ehrmann quote is one I found while reading Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt. Its a book about the religious left and the history of spiritual seekers in America. The take away from the book is that many famous American spiritual seekers were grounded in scholarship, community and had a strong social conscience -- unlike their reputation which is that they are flaky, self-centered and not grounded in tradition. Max Ehrmann was a surprise profile -- a sensitive seeker who wrote from home town in Indiana while he worked as a lawyer.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What we do my friends..

What we do, my dear friends, in the world, after all, does not amount to much;one of the thing we have to get over thinking;is that we are here chiefly to do something. In God's providence, we are all here to be something, and what we are speaks and does more than the things we call actions.

Thomas Lamb Eliot

I got a card from a roomful of people the other day.  You, know, everyone signs it and some of them know you well, some not at all.  Some of them love you and some of them are kinda glad to see the back of you. Still I love getting those cards. I read them, hoping to find something interesting, some insight into how others see me.  One sentiment was from a friend who is as busy as Thomas Lamb Eliot was (see previous post). She wrote "thanks for all you do." I fell that tiny little stab of disappointment when a compliment misses the mark. 

Yet I know I have written that on people's cards under similar circumstances. I wrote it as a compliment and a way of saying, 'I noticed how much you do.' One of the things that happens in the world of do-gooding and community engagement is no one usually DOES notice.  So I have given it out as a compliment. But, no more.

If you are someone who obsessively does things, then you don't need to be encouraged in your mild derangement. If you aren't, you do it as an expression of who you are, then you would like to have your shining self noticed once in a while. Next time, I am going to say 'thank you for your wonderful self.'  or 'I love your wisdom and understanding.' or even ' I am going to miss your beautiful smile."

TLE wrote the above words at his retirement celebration after a lifetime of being celebrated for all he did.  He did a lot, but he had come to see that the doing was not what it was about.  He was a mature minister formed in the fires of his work and when it was all done, he was more then that work, and he knew it.

Blessings on what we are.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dead Guys I Think About

It's more than think . . . . I find myself connecting emotionally, imaginatively, across the years to dead people. Mostly guys. I am finishing up an MDiv program and often we are asked to research someone. Usually they are men because history, regrettably, erases women from the scene. The research often leaves me with a trace of emotional connection like that hint of scent through a window on a warm summer night.

The most recent of my dead guys is the Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot, 1841-1936. I discovered Eliot before I wrote a paper on him. Every once in a while someone writes an article about his accomplishments. He lived in Portland, Oregon for seventy years, was the first Unitarian minister in the Pacific Northwest, and must never have slept because his list of accomplishments is ridiculously long: Forest Park, the Boys and Girls Aid Society, Portland Parks (he was the one who brought in the Olmstead brothers), Superintendent of Multnomah County schools, The Oregon Humane Society (first in the nation), Portland Association of Charities, Portland Historical Society, Portland Library Association and Portland Art Association. Those are the easy to rattle off items, but he was also involved in suffrage for women, city charter reform, prison reform, mental health reform and, really, any progressive cause that fell like a beaten horse across his path. 

I easily identify with his activism. I love civic activism and engage in it as a religious practice. I can feel the web of support being created through boards and positive political influence. My tradition however has a tendency to go for the long bomb. It wants to end poverty, end racism, perhaps change our economic system for something resembling the Kingdom of God. Nothing big mind you, just everything.

In the currency of good work, I can wave Thomas Lamb Eliot around like a thousand dollar bill. See, I want to say, civic engagement IS a proud part of our tradition.

However, when you connect with these dead guys from the past, the more you dig, the more you find the sweet, sad parts of their soul. Thomas Lamb Eliot's family was part of a moral aristocracy of well-educated, well-connected Unitarian ministers.The family believed in moral culture. It was what they did,  eminently. His cousin was president of Harvard, his nephew was T.S. Eliot.  His father was the first Unitarian Minister to start a church in St. Louis, Missouri. Father Eliot was also the most influential ministerial figure of his time in St. Louis and started Washington University (where Thomas Lamb went to school).

Thomas Lamb recapitulated his father's life! Everything he did in Portland his father had already done in St. Louis. His father told him "Do not change, stick to your post, and let your influence become cumulative." One sees immediately the good eldest son doing what his father told him to do without any rebellion. Some good son's are in competition to be as violent as their father, as strong, as ruthless, as controlling, as merciless, and we can only hope that they come up short. Thomas Lamb Eliot was in competition to be good, eminently good, and he somehow managed to pull it off, with a kind and thoughtful word to everyone who crossed his path.

His story contains some episodes of overwork and collapse -- the dark side of this story. He lived before ministers had to check off the box of 'self-care' to those who evaluated them. In spite of, or perhaps because of all he did, he lived a long time and spent his retirement working for a progressive Portland. 

In his farewell address to his congregation when he retired, he said: 

What we do, my dear friends, in the world, after all, does not amount to much;one of the thing we have to get over thinking;is that we are here chiefly to do something. In God's providence, we are all here to be something, and what we are speaks and does more than the things we call actions.

His words are a surprise when you consider his life of doing. I hope he turned those words toward himself in a small moment of benediction, of being, before he tackled the next good work. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Queer Eye for a Rite of Passage

I saw Queer Eye for the Straight Guy for the first time last night, through the magic of Netflix. About half way through the episode I sat up straighter; "oh my God, it's a rite of passage!"

The clueless straight guy gets the treatment because of his girlfriend. She calls in the Fab Five because she is turning 30 and as she says, "he keeps telling me he wants me to be his girlfriend forever, and I am not going to be his girlfriend forever." She has a lot of sass and her eyes are saying 'wife' or 'ex-girlfriend,' you decide.  The poor young man just doesn't know how to talk like a man -- he doesn't have the vocabulary. 'Girlfriend forever,' indeed!

At almost every turn someone is talking about how inappropriate straight guy's hair, his hygiene, his music and his decor are. The man/boy just hasn't grown up, and yet he is good looking, intelligent, sweet tempered and has a great job. He doesn't resist the gay men, he is absolutely delighted to follow their instructions. He needs to learn how to dress, how to decorate his apartment, how to cook for and entertain his honey. Finally they leave him alone, (with a camera?) and he looks a little panicked about having to perform on his own.

I guess you could call it an intervention, but I call it a 'rite of passage'. We may need more of them in our long lived technological society where adolescence can go on forever. How many stages are there?  I count three adolescence stages: 1) the pre-teen stage where one is awkwardly leaving childhood, 2) the high school stage that so many of us hated 3) the college stage that can last quite a while with apprenticeships, grad school and the various ways of living the young, single life. Then next stage is adulthood and the fast-food dinners and filthy bathrooms are starting to look a little sad.

Straight clueless man-child needed a whole minivan full of gay men to show him how to grow up.  It's rather sweet, and makes some odd sense to call on gay men. In that last transition into manhood, the boy/man needs to integrate feminine virtues. A young man spends all this time, being messy and not knowing how to nurture himself. During adolescence, it can be a point of strange pride to take poor care of oneself. Young men want to be all yang, and don't even know that they need to incorporate in some yin to be a whole person; an adult. What if you just don't know how; who is going to teach you; who, can you honorably learn from? Probably not a woman, that would be too much like listening to mom. Well, gay men are famous for integrating the feminine into their lives and in a stylish way!

I don't know how else it can be done. In our movies, traditionally meeting the girl has been civilizing. But lately meeting the girl in movies has been a stubborn jokey time of resisting mightily the call to grow up. Maybe we need a new set of rituals for moving into manhood.