Category Archives: This is Worker Speaking

What Does it Mean to be a Unitarian Universalist? (part 2)

It’s a fiendish question, really.

I’m going to break it down into at least a few parts. At least as I see it. At least during the course of this series of posts. So first: why it needs to be broken down, and why it’s fiendish. It’s fiendish because Unitarian Universalist seems to mean something other than it seems to mean, and that’s why it needs to be broken down.

Also, aside from all those links in the last post (and all the other on-line resources I have consulted, several plenty of times, but didn’t link to), there are books. Scads of books. For now, though, I’ll be working through A Chosen Faith, a more-or-less official UUA book about being a UU. I’ll get back to the more-or-less official part at some point. On to the breaking it down!




First, there’s the Unitarian side of things.

  • Then there’s the Universalist side of things.
  • Then there’s the consolidation side of things, which might, itself, need some breaking down.
  • Then there’s the contemporary UUA side of things.
  • Then there’s the congregational side of things.
  • Then, and maybe this should be first, there’s the individual, singular, personal person side of things.

That last one might be first in rank order of importance.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  We’ll see when we get to it.

Here’s the plan.  I’ll talk crazy talk about each of this items up there based on what little I know at the time, incorporating whatever I’ve read in A Chosen Faith (if I feel like it), and filtered through the two-part question:  What Does it Mean to be a Unitarian Universalist, and am I one?

(Note on old UU posts.)

What Does it Mean to be a Unitarian Universalist? (part 1)

And am I one?

In the last year or so, we (my wife, young son, and I) have been attending a small UU congregation in northern Michigan.  It’s a good, open place where religious exploration is at the top of the agenda.  But the meetings are twice monthly, the service area covers hundreds of square miles, and, really, there’s only so much they can offer in a congregation numbering in the tens.  So, of course, I go to the internet.  Welcome to the Future!

There are plenty of on-line resources out there for exploring UU.  The UUA website, and its various subpages.  There are blogs, and there are congregational web pages.  There are podcasts and video channels.  My explorations have been, in the main, the UUA pages and some blogs I’ve come across with Google searches.

That’s probably where the problem I’m having comes from.  A lot of what I’ve read comes from an inside the club perspective.  There was a dust up a few months ago about congregational polity.  Lately there’s been some talk about Universalism, and what it means for UU’s that some conservative Christians have gotten all worked up about it again.

I want to keep this post short, so I’ll close here with the thing I find weird, which is that problem I mentioned at the beginning of the previous paragraph.  I’ll get to why in a later post.  What I find weird is this–a major (possibly predominant) thread in UU discussions is the … um… atomistic self-definitional color of the conversations.

I’ll come back to the question “am I one?”  I promise.

(Note about old UU posts.)


Departing The Little World (for a little while)

The Little World of Don Camillo ended, not as it began, with a gentle tale of the spitefully loving relationship between our hot-tempered priest, Don Camillo, and his equally hot-tempered antagonist, Mayor and Communist Party chief, Peppone. Rather, the novel ended with a multi-part tale of mayhem, murder, attempted murder, vigilante action–all unresolved–and a Christmastime scene of our two heroes, for they are both heroes and they need each other, quietly contemplating the Christ child after working together to spruce up the parish’s creche.

I wasn’t sure I would read any more Don Camillo any time soon, since the tales fit a certain comfortable pattern. Things at the end were much the same as at the beginning, with Don Camillo and Peppeno in a cautious truce, and hiding the assistance each offers the other. But with the cliff-hanger (who’s the shooter?) I think I must.

I am looking forward to re-reading Comrade Don Camillo, which is about how our priest finagles a trip to the USSR as part of the Mayor’s visit to the Communist promised land. I don’t recall much of that book. There’s a trip to a collective farm, I think there’s something to do with a cosmonaut, and on scene on a train… Don Camillo has disguised his Bible as a book of communist propaganda, and when he is finished reading it, he fixes his hair, checks the button on his blazer, the wipes off his left lapel, and then his right lapel, much to the consternation of his commie host.

The Scandalous Conclusion of My Time with Gomes

Well, I got about halfway through The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus and realized two things.

The first was one that I’ve already mentioned, but which got increasingly important as the book went on. This is a book by a believing, committed Christian. This observation is not a criticism. It is, however, a fact which I kept noticing, and which kept surprising me.  It shouldn’t have. The fact that it did is really my problem, and not a problem with the book. But it was, increasingly, a distraction for me. To be clear, Peter J. Gomes was not only the Rev. Gomes, but also a Baptist minister, professor at Harvard Divinity School, advisor to The Harvard Ichthus, and so on.

The second item is that, despite the title, there is not all that much gospel in the book.

There is, however, a whole lot of Gomes. Most of the subsections, sections, chapters, and conceptual divisions, consist mainly of Gomes talking about sermons he’s given or conversation he’s had. This would be OK if these anecdotes had linked back, on a regular basis, to the gospel, and to Gomes’s central thesis: that the gospel of Jesus calls us to a radical restructuring of our way of being in the world.

The book starts out strong, with the observation that much of mainline Protestantism preaches The Bible, and not so much Jesus. Jesus is awkward, especially in a world where Christians are not an embattled minority in the world, but the powers in the world, literally or (even merely?) culturally. The gospel elevates the underclass, the poor, the despised.

Gomes doesn’t spend much time with these people, and he doesn’t spend much time explaining the call of the gospels. Anyway. I got about halfway through the book. Maybe I’ll come back to it some day. Or maybe I’ll pick up some other Gomes title at some point.  But this book isn’t the one I was expecting from the title, so I’ll set it aside for now.

The Scandalous and The Little World

Mostly the little world.  The Little World of Don Camillo, to be specific.  I’m working my way through this book again, after not having read it in something like twenty-odd years or more.  The Little World was written by Giovannino Guareschi in 1948, and follows the titular Italian country priest in his on-going battles with the local Communist mayor Peppone.

But first, a bit more on The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus by Gomes.  It appears he is some sort of universalist.

As I understand it, there are lots (and lots) of flavors of universalist.  The essential claim is that everyone, all of creation, will be reconciled to God.  Yet even that formulation is probably problematic.  “Reconciled”?  What if all of creation isn’t estranged from God?  And it’s the piling on of “what ifs” that lead to all the flavors of universalism.  In fact, it’s probably the piling on of what ifs that make for all the flavors of Christianity.

But back to Gomes for a moment.  He presents a hard Christianity.  Not one of fire and brimstone, sin and redemption.  No.  It’s a much more difficult path he shows that Christians must follow.  The question is not “What would Jesus do?” but rather “What would Jesus have me do?”  The answers involve the love of God being greater than we can comfortably stand, expanding our humanity to all of humanity, and reconciliation of all of creation (I’ll stick with “reconciliation” since I’m too lazy to come up with another word).

And now back to Don Camillo.  This novel is a collection of short chapters, like short stories loosely connected.  The stories are full of good humor.

Don Camillo is typically in the wrong, though local communist leader (and town mayor) Peppone is usually just as wrong.  The two characters need each other, and know they need each other to keep the town running smoothly.  So they suffer each other, and allow their relationship to carry many of the small grievances which need to vent so they don’t fester and tear the town apart.  Peppone has his band of fellow travellers, being Communists.  But Don Camillo has Christ.

Don Camillo talks with the crucified Christ in his church in order to find the perspective he needs in his dealings with Peppone.  Just because he needs the Mayor doesn’t mean he’s fully aware of the fact all the time.  Christ talks with Don Camillo, gives him guidance, and gently reminds him that His concerns don’t always coincide with Don Camillo’s or with what Don Camillo thinks are those of the Church, or even himself.

Christ’s advice is generally along the lines of, “stay calm.”  And, “don’t punch Peppone.”  And, “don’t shoot Peppone.”  And, “don’t embarrass Peppone.”  (However, Peppone gets punched pretty regularly, as does Don Camillo.)  And the tone seems to be one of, “these are all my children, and they are already saved–don’t mess it up for them, OK?”

Scandalous Gospel: Reader’s Response

I’m reading The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s so Good About the Good News? these days.  Peter J. Gomes died recently; I had never heard of him–not that I know of, anyway–but his passing was mentioned by a couple of bloggers I have come to take seriously.  I won’t bore you by pretending to know anything substantial about him, except to note what might be the most important fact about him in this context.  He was a believing Christian.

I’m not far into it, but that’s what I do.  Read a bit, begin to respond, read a bit more and so on until I’m finished.  And then, when I’m not finished any more, come back and repeat the cycle.  So anyway, Gomes is a believer, and I’m the guy who talks so much.

Gomes’s belief, while certainly more complex than I’m going to get into, is that the good news is radical.  One is tempted to add superlatives, but they aren’t necessary.  The upheaval of the world proclaimed by the gospel of Jesus is total, as Gomes presents it.  In this Gomes sounds quite a lot like John Dominic Crossian.  Who knows how either of them might feel about that.  I like to think ‘probably ok’ since neither of them, in their writing, seems awfully concerned about stuff like that.

In any case the good news is a hard thing for for the conventional. Gomes quotes from Luke, Chapter Six:

How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep!

How terrible when all men speak well of you, because their ancestors said the very same things to the false prophets.

Not much comfort there.

Rango and running on and on…

I wasn’t sure I was gong to have anything to say about Rango. Turns out I did, in a comment to this blog post (Note: broken link as of Jan. 7, 2018. -SM) discussing the (possibly) racist shading in the movie. I’m putting it here, too.

(lightly edited) I don’t agree that the movie is racist. That’s a pretty heavy charge to lay on a movie. Comedy deals in types, and in the dissonance between what’s expected and what happens. My perspective on this is informed by my time founding a student humor magazine. When I first saw Wounded Bird, I thought something along the lines of, “eesh, another Magical Native American.” But with dialog like this:

Rango: (as Wounded Bird scatters feathers into the wind) I see you’re communicating with the great spirits.
Wounded Bird: No. I’m molting. It means I’m ready to mate.

…it’s difficult for me to see the character as a stereotype. The other characters, particularly Rango (who’s pretty unaware about most things, except after the fact), tend to see Wounded Bird in terms of the stereotype, but the movie itself presents him as something more. At least as much as such a thing is possible for a second- or third-tier character.

The Mayor, as a tortoise, is presented as the only one who was there before there was even a town. He’s older than Dirt, you see. (Of course you do.) He’s both very old, and he’s in a wheel chair. It’s unclear to me why these facts about the character have to be an –ism of any stripe. Neither his age nor the fact he’s in a wheel chair prevent him from pursuing (and nearly attaining) his goals. Why is he in a wheel chair? We don’t know, since there’s no in-story explanation. My suspicion is the movie put him in a wheel chair, at least in part, to short circuit any easy jokes about slow-moving tortoises. (And I think Tom in a comment above makes a good point about Mr. Potter.)

It’s a movie that takes place in the American southwest, right? There’s a mariachi band and an armadillo, and they speak with Mexican accents. Is there more to the stereotype in the presentation than the way they speak? Is the failing that these characters aren’t major players in the story? The owls are a chorus, and the armadillo is an animal guide/wisdom elder ala Campbell. But you know these things. In this case, you’re seeing stereotypes where I see archetypes.

Throughout the movie, the owls are telling us that it’s Rango’s story. When Rango leaves town and finds the Man With No Name, er… The Sprit of the West, he learns the lesson: nobody can leave his (her) own story. As you point out, it takes heroism on the part of lots of characters, and no less from the women in the story than from the men. But it’s Rango’s story, and his journey—an incomplete one as he’s still pretty much as unaware at the end as he his at the beginning—is the story we’re dealing with. This is a parody of the Man With No Name movies (perhaps most directly High Plains Drifter, with overtones of Chinatown), not a parody of The Magnificent Seven (or of The Seven Samurai).

Rango ends the story pretty self-absorbed, but he also ends the story with a dawning understanding that if you put yourself out there and people come to rely on you, then you have to be willing to see it through. Again we viewers are confronted with a situation where Rango has one view of things and we viewers have the rest of the movie telling us that there’s more going on. Indeed, Wounded Bird actually has the line: after the plan of the moment goes wrong, Wounded Bird says something along the lines of what a bad idea it was. Of course he’s the one who actually gets shot, so that actually plays into the stereotype…

Could the movie done better with its types, or challenged its premise or the viewer more? Probably. But I’m not arguing that it’s not as good as it could be, I’m arguing that it’s not racist. Of course you could have been saying that the character Rango (rather than the movie with that title) is racist. In which case, I’ll just say he’s stupid.

(Update 3/9/2011) See also this post from Big Media Vandalism.

When the Tar Baby sequence started, I got nervous. But when I saw what the Tar Baby looked like, I said “OH COME ON, PEOPLE!” Here I was, expecting it to look like Wesley or Miles Davis, and the damn thing doesn’t even look like a person, let alone a Black person. The Disney animators make it react as if it were actually made out of tar. Its movement, and subsequent destruction, become a surreal image that, at least for me, did not evoke anything human.

That’s probably enough.