"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Holy Obscenity! (Sunday, September 25, 2011)

            Have you ever had the experience of feeling like you’re the last person to know about something? I mean, like everyone in the world seems to know about something new, something state of the art, cutting edge—that everyone knows about it, except you?

            I had that experience last spring when I first heard about The Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical, not the religious text, which I’ve known about since (at least) theological school (or since Mormon missionaries started showing up on my doorstep, whichever came first).
            I was in the car, listening to NPR (many great discoveries, for some of us, come while in the car, listening to NPR)— it was Weekend Edition, maybe; or maybe it was Terrie Gross and Fresh Air; I’m not really sure of the program. But they started talking about the “new Broadway musical based on The Book of Mormon”, and I was intrigued. Maybe it was because, back in my Commie days (a long time ago, I hasten to add), I attempted to set The Communist Manifesto to music. “How clever,” I thought; then, “How weird.” So I brushed it off as another arcane NPR story, like the one about a guy who wrote a book exploring the religious underpinnings of (say) the music of Bruce Springsteen. That’s just the kind of stuff they talk about on NPR sometimes.

            But then, the nice person at NPR went on to say, this Book of Mormon musical was a tremendous hit. The reviews were almost uniformly raving. Some were calling it “the greatest musical of the century” (admittedly, the century is only 11 years old, but that’s still something). They were talking about how it had re-energized Broadway, how it had redefined musical theater, how every performance of it was sold out for more than a year, and about how it had been nominated for a record smashing 14 Tony awards (it eventually won nine). The Book of Mormon was, apparently, the “Big Thing” of the moment, as far as American popular culture was concerned.

            I felt like Rip Van Winkle, just waking up from a long, long sleep. Where had I been when all this was happening? Now, I don’t claim to be the World’s Biggest Expert on pop culture. The only post-2000, non-PBS television series I’ve ever watched on a more-or-less regular basis was House, and I haven’t watched that for about two years. I was a big fan of L.A. Law, which shows you how far out of the loop I am as far as current television is concerned. But at least I’ve heard of (say) American Idol. I know that there is a show called Two and a Half Men (I even know that Ashton Kutcher took Charlie Sheen’s place on it this season, too. I even have heard of Ashton Kutcher.)

            But about this Book of Mormon musical, I had heard nothing—nada. Until NPR (may its name be praised) enlightened me.

            And then, I was hooked.

            I read all about it. Watched a couple of snippets from it on Youtube. And, as soon as the original cast album (why do we still call them albums?) was released, I ordered my CD from Amazon. And started listening… and listening… and listening…

            It soon became the CD I listen to most—in the car, while cooking supper, and so forth—rivaled only by the original cast recording of the 2010 Passion Play at Oberammergau (which has, perhaps, better music, but is not nearly as funny). Sometimes I listen to one, then the other—which does lead me to ask some Very Deep Questions about what exactly is going on inside this head of mine, but I digress.

            But I was hooked from the get-go. The Book of Mormon had me at “Hello!” (which is the first song in the show). And now, sort of like a Mormon missionary I guess, I want to share this Good News with you—for I think The Book of Mormon  is very good news, although you might not think so at first glance, or first listen.

            That’s because The Book of Mormon was co-created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (along with Robert Lopez)—those same guys who gave the world that high and ennobling cultural exemplar, South Park.

            Which means that it’s crass. And rude. And irreverent. And pokes fun at just about every racial and social grouping on the planet. And is full of (quite literal) potty humor. And references to various body parts. And, in parts (numerous parts), it’s obscene. Very obscene. Full of language and vernacular that I shall hereupon avoid with the proverbial Ten Foot Pole.       

            So why on earth are we talking about The Book of Mormon in church this morning? That’s a good question!

            The answer is, that, for all of its raucousness and its rough exterior, The Book of Mormon presents, really, a very sweet story—with a happy ending; in which people of different backgrounds and from different societies manage to come together; in which people of faith are the “good guys”, doing their best, trying to use the tools they have at hand to fashion a better, more humane world. It has been described as “an atheist’s love letter to religion”, and I think that description is apt. I also think that it might well stir up within those of us who might consider ourselves people of faith a few deeper questions about how our religious beliefs operate, within ourselves and within the world.

            Here’s the plot:

            A group of young Mormon men are about to be sent on their two year missions (something that’s required of all young Mormons, because, as the song says,  “God loves Mormons and he wants some more.”) Two of these young men—Elder Price and Elder Cunningham—are sent, not to nifty places like France or Japan or Norway like the others-- but to Uganda, in deepest, darkest Africa.

            Kevin Price is an Eagle Scout of a Mormon missionary: He is eager, intelligent, industrious—and terribly self-absorbed. He has something of a messiah complex, and wants to be “The Mormon who saved all of mankind.” On the other hand, his mission companion, Arnold Cunningham, couldn’t be more different. He’s short, overweight, rumpled—the only wrinkled Mormon in history, perhaps; he’s also a chronic underachiever, who likes science fiction and has a propensity for stretching the truth.

            The two set off for Africa, where they are immediately robbed. They finally meet some local Ugandans, who burst into a song called “Hasa Diga Eebowai” which sounds like a cheery, upbeat version of Disney’s “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King:

            “There’s isn’t enough food to eat,

            Hasa diga eebowai,

            And people are starving in the street,

            Hasa diga eebowai…”

            Cunningham enthusiastically joins in—until he finds out that the song is actually an expletive hurled at God!

            Along with other Mormon missionaries in the area, Price and Cunningham set about trying to convert the natives, but to no avail. The villagers, you see, are under the thrall of a vicious warlord (with an absolutely unutterable name), who threatens murder and mayhem at the smallest transgression. Discouraged by his failure, Price dumps Cunningham as his companion, and sets out to escape to Orlando, which is where he had prayed to be sent in the first place. All alone, Arnold  decides to “Man up”—take the bull by the horns, and do the best with an absolutely awful situation. As the first act ends, Cunningham sings:

            What did Jesus do when they sentenced him to die,

            Did he try to run away, did he just break down and cry?

            No Jesus dug down deep, knowing what he had to do,

            Faced with his own death, Jesus knew he had to…

            Man up!

            As the second act begins, Cunningham finds that he has a gift for embellishing Mormon doctrines with references from Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings that appeal to the downtrodden Africans. They seem eager to hear about this “new religion”, and in spite of imagined warnings from the angel Moroni, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, his own father, and a bunch of Hobbits—and even Yoda from Star Wars-- Cunningham presses on:

            I’m making things up again, kind of,

            But this time it’s helping a dozen people,

            There’s nothing so bad, because this time

            I’m not committing a sin just by making things up…

            Then, he exults:

            Who would have thought I’d have this magic touch?

            Who’d have believed I could man-up this much?

            I’m talking, they’re listening,

            My stories are glistening

            I’m gonna save them all with this stuff!

            Meanwhile, Elder Price has been wracked with guilt about abandoning Cunningham and his mission, and finds himself in the midst of a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”, with the likes of devious fiends like Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer—and Johnny Cochran. (Actually, Mormons do believe in hell, but only for the really, really bad. Almost everyone else gets “saved”, they say.)

            Price then rededicates himself to his cause and his faith in the stirring credo, “I Believe”—and sets out to convert even the evil warlord (with the name we can’t say).

            But things don’t go easily, as the Mormons and the warlords struggle for the hearts and minds of the villagers. When dozens of Africans follow Cunningham’s (very creative) exhortations and are baptized into the church, word gets to Utah, and the Mission President flies to Uganda to congratulate Price and Cunningham for their great success. But when a group of villagers perform a dramatic skit (“Joseph Smith, American Moses”) based on Cunningham’s “revisions” of scripture, the President is livid, and angrily tells the Africans that they are not really Latter Day Saints, but no better than a bunch of heathens.

            Deeply hurt, some of the villagers cross over to the side of the war lord; others try to continue living according to Cunningham’s neo-Mormonism. Finally, Elder Price rallies the troops with a stirring oration, reminding them that “We are all Latter Day Saints”, and that even if we change some things, and don’t necessarily believe everything—that what really matters is working together to make the world a better place:

            I am a Latter Day Saint, I help all those that I can,

            I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

            Who cares what happens when we’re dead?

            We shouldn’t think that far ahead.

            The only latter day that matters is tomorrow!

            All come together. Even the warlord is converted. Peace reigns. The villagers change their tune from “Hasa Diga Eebowai” to “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai”—“Thank you God!”-- and set out on their own mission to lead people to their faith and make the world better.

            Hello! Our church is growing strong!

            And if you let us in we’ll show you how you can belong.

            Join our family, and set your spirit free.

            We can fully guarantee you that

            This book will change your life!

            This book will change your life!

The Book of Arnold.

            And so, yet another interesting new faith is born!

There is, I think, more to this little musical than might first meet the eye, or the ear. If we dig down beneath all the obscenity and absurdity, even beneath the really catchy music which both pokes fun at and reveres nearly every major musical trend of the last fifty years, what does The Book of Mormon teach us, if anything?

            First of all, I think it’s a story of faith. About the willingness of people of faith to stick it out, in a place that has been abandoned time and again, and rendered redundant in the eyes of the world. Inspired by their faith, Cunningham and Price even risk their own lives to do battle with an evil warlord. How cool is that?

            The Book of Mormon also declares that, the only measure we can use to judge the religions of others (and maybe our own religious faith) is by the fruits they produce. “By their fruits you shall know them.” In judging the religions of others, that needs to be our first and last word. Religions always look funny—strange and incomprehensible—to people on the outside looking in. The Book of Mormon (the musical) pokes fun at numerous aspects of The Book of Mormon (the religious text): at its angels appearing in the biblical lands of Upstate New York; its golden plates; some of its arcane doctrines, like both God and Jesus having their own planets off in the heavens.  But are these aspects of the Mormon faith inherently any stranger than particular aspects of other religious faiths? Not at all.

            The Book of Mormon also never disparages the basic decency of Mormons as people, their tenaciousness, their willingness to put themselves on the line, and—in the case of Price and Cunningham and their confreres—to help other people build more decent lives for themselves. “We’re fighting for a cause, but we’re really, really nice,” the missionaries sing near the start of the musical. There are worse ways of co-existing in this world of ours. (It also is interesting, I think, that of all the rogues gallery running for the Republican nomination for President, the [only] two non-scary candidates [in my opinion] are both Mormons. But maybe that’s a different sermon, and I’ll drop that point right there.)

            We in this church are a naturally skeptical people. That is, in the main, a good thing, I think. It keeps us humble in matters of belief. It keeps us open to new voices, new perspectives. It demands of us that our faith make sense. All those are precious legacies. (Though I don’t think there will be a Broadway musical about Unitarian Universalism any time soon.)

            But we do need to ask ourselves if, in fact, this world is made a better place because of our skepticism? Does skepticism alone build anything? I have no answer to that question now, but it is on we need to ask.

            Life is strange. Who would have thought that this crass and rude musical comedy could, in truth, be a gateway to the better angels of our nature? But such is the glory of living in a free society. Such is the treasure of this holy gift of imagination, which always calls upon us to see “divine things well enveloped,” as Walt Whitman wrote. There is always space for wonder and surprise—and serendipity—unexpected treasures-- in this amazing life. And, as a person of faith, it never ceases to amaze me how the same God who gave us the power to laugh at ourselves, also gave us the power to love (and to work for justice).

            And maybe—who knows?—even to write a musical based on The Communist Manifesto.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Can Church Ever be Cool? (Sunday, September 18, 2011)

            Sometimes, I worry that I am going to click on a web link, and read my own obituary. Well, not mine, necessarily—but certainly that of my profession, or of the church I serve, or of churches in general.

            Times and trends change so fast. Who would have imagined back in (say) 1993—the year I came here to Stoughton—the kind of list we shared earlier: Twenty Things—once very important and “cool” things—that have became irrelevant (or nearly irrelevant) in the years since: everything from VCRs to watches, from travel agents to bookstores.

           Remember when Borders was the epitome of “cool”? You could buy books (hardcover ones, not digital editions) and CDs (that’s another thing that’s going fast) and—yes—videocassettes—and sip an overpriced cappuccino to boot. It didn’t get any cooler than that!

            Now, it’s bye-bye Borders: the last Boston store closed three days ago; the last few remaining stores anywhere are slated to close down by the end of this month. If I were the CEO of Barnes & Noble, I don’t think I’d be getting very much sleep these days.

            And what about the U.S. Post Office? Never exactly “cool” perhaps, but certainly important—indeed, a cornerstone of our nation for many, many years. The Post Office teeters on the brink of insolvency, and some seriously question whether it will even survive. All because of the changing habits of the past ten or twenty years: no more first class letters; no more postage stamps; no more Post Office. Chalk it up to email and digital messaging-- and a good stiff dose of more efficient competition.

            So, where does that leave the church?

              The church in which I grew up (and where, actually, I began my work in the ministry and was ordained), the First Universalist Church in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, doesn’t exist (as a church) any longer. A few years ago, with its congregation dwindling to just an increasingly elderly handful of the steadfast; its endowment just about all dried up; the community in which it existed completely changed from what it once was—the people of First Universalist in Woonsocket sold their building to another civic organization, the American-French Genealogical Society, which (as the name implies) houses archives and records for the rather sizeable Franco-American community in Woonsocket, and throughout the area.

            It is a most worthwhile organization, which offers some excellent programs, and does some very good work. Indeed, Elizabeth and I are members (though I admit that the name “Symynkywicz” sticks out like a very un-French sore thumb among all the “Lamoreauxs” and “LaPlantes” and “Lamontaignes” on the membership list!) But Elizabeth has some interest in studying her French-Canadian roots (if not enough time to pursue it in as much depth as she might like), and I really enjoy tagging along and browsing through the archives at the society. So we’re members—and we have visited the headquarters of the society—the old Universalist Church in Woonsocket—on several occasions.

            And whenever I am there, I am struck by how familiar that space feels, even after all these years. I remember the floor plan of the building, down to each nook and craNny, each closet and stairwell. I didn’t have to ask where the men’s room was—or the kitchen—or the fire extinguishers, for that matter, in case there was a fire.  I just remembered; I just knew.

            That’s because we spent an awful lot of time at that church when I was growing up. Not because my family was especially religious (we weren’t; we were Universalists, after all—then Unitarian Universalists, and “religiously fanatical Unitarian Universalist” is about as close to a perfect oxymoron as you can get!) Not because my father was a minister or a “pillar of the church” (he wasn’t; indeed, his Sunday religion of choice was golf; he was a Golfitarian, I guess.)  Not because I was being raised for the ministry, or because of some other special calling to be at church.

              No, we spent a lot of time at church because, simply, that is what (many) people did in those ancient days, forty or fifty years ago. Besides home or school, it was probably the place I was most likely to be on a given day or evening. I don’t think my experience was all that unusual. Churches were a focus of community life in those days:

                Just about everyone went to church on Sunday; there would even be lines of cars backed up, waiting to get into the parking lot of various churches around town. Men wore suits and women wore hats and (often) gloves, simply to show what an important part of their lives going to church was. Just about everything was closed—and the few business that did open on Sunday—drug stores, movie theaters, a few restaurants—stayed closed until Noon—until after church was over. Every day of public school began with the Lord’s Prayer; on Wednesdays, Catholic students were let out of school in the morning to attend religious education classes at their churches (which meant that we few Protestant kids had the whole school to ourselves). No one would have thought of scheduling football games, or soccer practice, or what have you, on a Sunday morning. It just wouldn’t have been done—because everyone was at church.

             But then, the world changed. Today, Sunday is just one more day of the work week for many; one more day of soccer practice; one more day to go to the mall. Moreover, Sunday represents a big chunk of whatever “discretionary” time the over-stressed, hype-busy families of today have.

            So, how is the church doing in the face of this radically changed world? The results are mixed.

                  Some churches have seen the bottoms fall out, as far as their membership numbers are concerned:

Between 1960 and 2005, the United Methodist Church lost about 24% of its members; the Episcopal Church about 33%; the United Church of Christ about 36%; membership figures for the Disciples of Christ declined by about 55%. Not a very pretty picture.

             But, on the other hand, some churches seem to be doing fine, or at least holding their own. During that same time period (1960 to 2005), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), almost tripled their numbers: from about 1.5 million members to about 5.6 million. The Southern Baptist Convention grew by 67%. For all of its newsworthy travails, membership in the Holy Roman Catholic Church in the United States increased by about 58% (fueled largely by an influx of immigrants from various countries).

               What about us? What about Unitarian Universalism? How is it doing in the face of these societal trends?

                Not too well, if the truth be told.

                 At the time of the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961, there were approximately 265,000 adult UUs. Today, even though we are no longer hemorrhaging members like we were in the 1970s and 1980s-- there are only 165,000 adult Unitarian Universalists. Which, I’m afraid,  puts us down there with those other mainline denominations. Along with all other denominations, we’re also losing the battle for Sunday morning to the largest group of all—the approximately 100 millions Americans who are classified as “un-churched”—those who attend  no church whatsoever on a regular basis. The “un-churched” are now the largest single “religious” group in America—bigger than the Baptists, bugger than the Catholics, bigger than the Mormons, and a whole lot bigger than us.

               What is to be done, then, to stop “the church” from joining the next list of “20 Things that Became Obsolete in this Decade”? Is, somehow, a mega-dose of “coolness” in order to stem the tide of the church’s decline?

It’s tempting, certainly, for churches to give in to an “entertainment” mindset in order to be perceived as “cooler”—more relevant—more in touch with the world as it is today. One observer describes the scene:

             Three! Two! One! The countdown timer hits zero. The house lights go down. The stage lights go up. The screens flash an intro scene, and with a powerful riff from an amped-up band, the show has begun! Dozens of lights start criss-crossing the stage with electrifying movement. Colors undulate with the jolting syncopation of the drums. Spot lights blaze on the audience with blinding force. The pulsing rhythm, wild dancing, and screaming musicians have whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

            “But the show has just gotten started. Still to come, a comedy shtick from a funny guy, a dance lesson, a hilarious drama with a self-help theme, a few object lessons, and finally… the pastor comes whizzing in across the crowd from a zip line rigged from the rafters.

            “Welcome to the Entertainment Church.”

            “Church?” Tom Sawyer once exclaimed to his friend, Huck Finn. “Church? Why Huck, church ain’t shucks to the circus!”

            So in this age of cultural and social and political circuses, many people seem to believe.

            The temptation, then, may be for churches to try to become more like circuses—more “entertaining”, more “exciting”, more “relevant”.

            But, as another observer of matters religious has put it: “Relevance is a demanding lover. If you choose to chase after her, she will insist that the spectacle be bigger and better with each attempt to woo her or she’ll kick you to the curb… It’s getting harder and harder to keep her happy… With each passing Sunday, the show that [a church] has to put on to keep Relevance interested must be more flashy, and more glitzy, and more expensive…”

            I think that if churches pander to “Relevance”—to the need to be “cool”—they’re bound to fail. We can not meet this bread and circuses culture on its own terms. That’s not why churches are here.

            Which doesn’t mean that churches should (as they sometimes seem to) go out of their way to make themselves just as boring and detached and irrelevant as possible. That has certainly been the case of the mainline church (us included) too much of the time. Or. at least, that is how we are perceived.

            There is nothing wrong with creative worship experiences, engaging preaching, and good quality music and dance and artwork. That’s not pandering to “coolness”. That’s just trying to keep people awake.

            And remember: it’s a mixed bag, as far as church survival is concerned. Not all churches are in decline. For many people today, their churches matter as much in their lives as they ever did. Their churches provide, for many of these folk, the three R’s—three things so very important to modern men and women:

            They provide a sense of, yes, real relevance—of religion made real in their day-to-day lives.

They give people a sense of restoration. Our faith can restore our spirits. It can help us to get from Sunday to Monday; it can give us hope and courage and faith for life’s journey.

            And a living church can give its people a sense of relationship. It can provide some of that human touch in a world that has otherwise grown so cold and detached.

            Those are the three R’s of living, thriving churches—relevance, yes—but also restoration, and (most of all, perhaps) relationship. That is what churches need to flourish; not to be “cool” but to be real. That is what they need to offer to have a claim on surviving in this troubled, changing world.

            And those are not characteristics that are only for the Mormons. Or the Evangelicals. Or the Catholics. They can (and must) be part of our church’s calling, as well.

            That will take a willingness to embrace change in the ways in which we do things, and to learn to move much more quickly than churches so often do. Perhaps, we, too, could bear to remember the words of Pope John XXIII, addressed to his own church, at the Second Vatican Council: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.”

            A garden of life which will need all the seasons of life in order to grow: seasons of warmth, and seasons of coolness, and always, the full engagement of our hands and hearts and minds and souls.