Saturday, November 21, 2009

List #20: 5 Films I Saw in November

Between a couple of trips to the movie theater and a subscription to Netflix, here are five movies I watched this month:

1) Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
This Spanish-language film had been on my list of films to see since it was released. Set in a village in the Spanish countryside during the Spanish Civil War, this experimental film follows two divergent narratives. In one Franco’s army wages a brutal war against the resistance. In the other, the young step-daughter of an army commander enters the fantasy world of Pan’s labyrinth where she confronts a series of tests. I found myself disappointed with the way the two narratives fail to cohere.
Grade: B-

2) A Serious Man (2009)
This Coen brothers film follows a man whose world is imploding. The movie is perfectly set in a Jewish community in a Midwest college town in the late 60s where nothing is going right in the life of the protagonist, a college physics professor. His wife is leaving him for another man. His son is on drugs. His neighbor bullies him. The Columbia Record Club is sending their collections department after him. His brother has legal troubles. His struggle to receive tenure is going off the track. And, nobody pays him any respect. He goes looking for answers from the three rabbis at his synagogue. The movie is a brilliant adaptation of the story of Job.
Grade: A

3) Wholphin Volume 9 (2009)
Wholphin is a quarterly DVD of short films from the great folks at McSweeney’s. Unfortunately, this was the weakest release in the series thus far. This volume lacked the handful of simply stunning films that can be found in each of the eight previous volumes. The highlights of volume 9 include a film adaptation of an Elmore Leonard short story and a short animated film called “Skhizein” about a man who is hit by a meteorite and winds up 91 centimeters away from himself. (It sounds confusing but it really is quite clever.)
Grade: C+

4) The Proposal (2009)
I ordered this movie from Netflix in order to prepare for the film (#5) I went to see last night. In this romantic comedy misfire Sandra Bullock plays a Canadian citizen working as a high powered literary editor for a New York publishing house. Facing deportation she blackmails her secretary, played by the irritating Ryan Reynolds, into agreeing to marry her so she can avoid losing her position and having to return to Canada. With immigration officials breathing down their necks, the two head to Alaska for a long weekend where Reynolds’ grandmother is having her 90th birthday. Comedy ensues. Their relationship, based on contempt and mutual exploitation, is yet another reason why arguments against same-sex marriage don’t have a leg to stand on.
Grade: C-

Let me pause for one moment to make an observation. If you follow movies you are probably aware that Sandra Bullock gets cast in the same role over and over again. Bullock’s characters are always graceless, awkward, and insecure. Casting her this way is odd because Bullock conforms to the Hollywood stereotypes of beauty. Yet, her roles have included playing a lonely subway token taker (While You Were Sleeping) and a socially unrefined police officer (Miss Congeniality) among so many other unflattering roles. So, it was a bit of a revelation when I saw the previews for the movie The Blind Side

5) The Blind Side (2009)
I read Michael Lewis’ book The Blind Side last December. The Blind Side tells the unbelievable yet true story of a young man named Michael Oher who grows up extremely underprivileged in the Memphis ghetto. Oher never knows who his father is and is removed from the custody of his crack-addicted mother. He bounces from couch to couch and from school to school. And then he winds up at an entirely white elite Christian prep school in Memphis where he is admitted in order to boost the fortunes of the school’s football team. Oher enters the school illiterate, homeless, and carrying a GPA that starts with zero. Oher is also a high school student who stands 6 foot 6, weighs over 300 pounds, has the agility of a ballet dancer, and carries his size in muscle, not fat.

The movie version is a semi-faithful adaptation of Lewis’ book. Oher is taken in by a super-wealthy, evangelical Christian family. Sean Tuohy played college basketball at the University of Mississippi, married a cheerleader, owns close to 100 Taco Bell franchises, and is an announcer for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team. He and his wife Leigh Anne are also big donors to the Christian prep school their children attend and Ole Miss. Living with the Tuohy’s, Oher finds a new life. He gets more than regular meals, a wardrobe, a car, and a personal tutor. He gets a family. It is the meeting of the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. After starting out sleeping on the couch Leigh Anne remarks that she’ll have to get Oher a bed or else he’ll “ruin a $10,000 couch.”

The movie oddly takes the focus off of Oher, played by 6’ 10” actor Quinton Aaron. Instead, the focus falls on Sandra Bullock who is a revelation playing Leigh Anne Tuohy. For the first time in my memory Bullock plays a role that calls on her to be graceful, composed, and confident. Bullock is barely recognizable playing the Southern Belle interior decorator.

On the whole, the movie is more good than bad, although it has a little bit of both. The film comes across as preachy at times and takes the low road in overplaying stereotypes of the Memphis ghetto. Also, the movie chooses to present a watered-down version of the Tuohy’s evangelical Christian faith. However, despite these flaws the story is just too good. The story withstands the movie’s attempts to undercut it.

Both Lewis’ book and the film adaptation touch on a part of the Michael Oher story that needs to be asked. By taking Michael Oher in were the Tuohy’s living out their faith or were they “investing” in the life of a potential star football player for the University of Mississippi and a future NFL first round draft pick? (Oher went on to be picked 23rd in the first round by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft and signed his first contract for a little under $14 million.) The answer to this question might be found in the credits to the film, where real life photographs of Oher and the Tuohy’s are flashed on the screen.
Grade: B+

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book Review: "The Almost Church Revitalized" by Michael Durall

A publication date has been announced for my first book. The Growing Church: Keys to Congregational Vitality will be released by Skinner House Books on January 15, 2010. It is currently available for pre-order through the UUA Bookstore. Click here to pre-order.

Two years ago, in November 2007, I was one of the twelve ministers to participate in the UUA Growth Summit held in Louisville, Kentucky. The next spring, the UUA released the Listening to Experience DVD which featured the twelve of us engaged in conversations about leading growing congregations. A little over a year ago Skinner House Books approached me and asked me to write a book as a follow-up. I conceived the form of the book, wrote two chapters, and edited 8 other chapters. I am extremely proud of how The Growing Church came together. The book features an All Star line-up of contributors: Ken Beldon, John Crestwell, Liz Lerner, UUA President Peter Morales, Christine Robinson, Victoria Safford, Michael Schuler, and Marilyn Sewell. The Growing Church also features a foreword by Alice Mann of the Alban Institute and an introduction by UUA past-President Bill Sinkford.

As I approach the end of my sabbatical I have been working on a trilogy of essays that I plan to publish on my web-site. These essays, or “thought pieces,” address current-day Unitarian Universalist congregational life. “Having it Both Ways” is an examination of practices of congregational staffing. “95 Theses on Membership & Leadership” is what it sounds like. “Dancing on the Heads of Pins; Stepping on Toes” is an exploration of what lay members of congregations say and mean about the role of UU clergy.

As I have been working on these essays I’ve also picked up books on church leadership. The first book I decided to tackle was the newest release by church consultant Michael Durall, The Almost Church Revitalized: Envisioning the Future of Unitarian Universalism, a follow up to his previous book, The Almost Church.

Back in 2004, Durall published The Almost Church. Five years later, he explains in the Introduction to his new book,

“This is an uplifting book. Most readers of The Almost Church found my challenges to Unitarian Universalism’s sacred cows engaging and thought-provoking. But others felt I was negative, not offering suggestions about how to do things better… [This book] is all new, not a reworking of the previous edition.”

I remember when The Almost Church came out. Some ministers and lay-people gobbled it up, thinking it was the best thing in the world. Others considered it little more than a rant. Still others read the book and were confused. To some, his prescription for Unitarian Universalism was so removed from the reality they were used to that they felt disoriented. A visionary chapter at the end of The Almost Church in which Durall imagined future UU worship as resembling a rave in a large warehouse with messages delivered in several different languages was just one example that made readers wonder, “What is this all about?”

Michael Durall is somewhat of a polarizing figure. Dozens of UU churches have used him as a consultant to help them realize their future. Others have been incensed by what he has written. While I do not agree with every idea that Durall pushes, he makes many points in his newest book that I heartily endorse. The most essential chapters in this book are his chapters on leadership, membership, and making the annual pledge drive obsolete. Of particular interest is his “Covenant of Leadership,” a prescriptive job description for lay leaders and his list of 8 characteristics of ministers who lead successful congregations.

Durall has been accused of being combative, of being prescriptive in a way that is perceived as bossy, and of having an axe to grind. I think that these criticisms are often projected onto him. At the same time, anyone who hopes to help others to change needs to do far more than have great ideas. They need to present those ideas in ways that are compelling and convincing. The truth of many of Durall’s points could stand to be introduced using compelling stories.

The Almost Church Revitalized still has too many places where Durall comes across as a loose cannon. For example, on page 23 Durall makes the sweeping claim that “when a board president’s term expires, he or she should not remain on the board as past president.” He justifies this idea by claiming that the past president probably introduced some new initiatives and that the new board will be hamstrung in altering and adapting those initiatives when the owner of those initiatives is sitting in the room. In the congregation I serve I’ve worked with 7 past presidents and this dynamic has never surfaced. And even if it did I’m not sure that the prescription would be the right cure. Rather, I could easily jot down a handful of pros and cons of having the past president attend board meetings. But that is not really the point. The point is that Durall seems to make some rather knee-jerk decisions on really small matters like this one and doing this undermines a dozen other points he makes in this chapter on leadership that I find to be extremely important.

One of those points – which I plan to make in a slightly different way in my "95 Theses of Membership and Leadership" essay – is that effective congregational leaders need to avail themselves of church literature. Durall is really making an impassioned plea for the continuing education of leaders.

If you are a leader in your congregation and you are interested in a piece of church literature to read for your continuing education you might find Michael Durall's The Almost Church Revitalized to be insightful and provocative. Or, allow me to present another suggestion.

[You can read about other books I've read in 2009 here.]

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lecture #10: "The Future History of Unitarian Universalism"

[Before I left for sabbatical I posted the first 9 of the history lectures I delivered last July at the Unitarian Universalist Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin. Here is an expanded version of the tenth and final lecture in that series. I have kept the tone the same as if I were delivering it to MWLS students.]

I believe in Unitarian Universalism. I have faith in this faith.
I believe in this faith because I have received its blessings.
I believe in this faith because it has transformed my life.
I believe in this faith because it has nourished me.

Yet, I believe in this faith despite so much evidence of its failings.

I believe in this faith despite the fact that there are the same number of UUs in the United States today as there were when our two movements merged in 1961, though the population of the United States has grown by 125 million since 1961.

I believe in this faith despite the fact that it continues to be as predominantly Caucasian as it has always been while our nation grows increasingly racially diverse every day.

I believe in this faith despite the Garrison Keillor jokes about us, jokes that share similar punch lines and whose “humor” lies in the assertion that Unitarian Universalism is not a “real” religion or not even a religion at all.

I believe in this faith despite the thousands of Unitarian Universalists who talk and act as if their own religion is not a real religion.

I believe in this faith despite an interview with the star actress Ginnifer Goodwin in W Magazine in which she talks about her spiritual life, says that she grew up going to UU Sunday school and that she “doesn’t go to church but considers herself a Unitarian.”

I believe in this faith despite the number of UUs that statement describes.

I believe in this faith despite so much, but still I believe.

We have come to the last lecture in this series on the history and theology of Unitarian Universalism. Over the previous 9 lectures I have covered the rich history and theology of our faith in the broadest of strokes. The time constraints, as well as the constraints of my own knowledge, have limited us. Instead of spending a part of each day together for a week we could spend lifetimes studying our history and theology. My hope is that some of you will go further and deeper in the study of our roots. My other hope is that you will bring some of what you have learned back to your congregations.

In this last lecture I want to talk about the future history of Unitarian Universalism. (This is an easy lecture to deliver because I can basically make up whatever I want.) What I hope to do is cast a vision and say some things about what the future of our movement might be.

I am chastened in delivering this lecture by some of the comments made by Rev. Ian Evison in his Leadership Development presentations this week. Rev. Evison has spoken about the tendency for many of our leaders, lay and ordained, to embrace faddishness. We have placed our beliefs in small things believing those things will bring great changes, to loosely paraphrase a statement made by Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs in a lecture he gave to the Pacific Southwest District of the UUA in 2004.

Earlier this week Rev. Evison mentioned fads ranging from Rogerian psychology to Policy Governance. “If only we developed the ability to listen to one another with greater empathy…” “If only we adopted a new governance model…” This is not to say that deeper listening or the organizational principles of John Carver are bad things, far from it. It is to say that the future of our movement and of our churches depends on doing more than adopting the latest trends. This also means that in this lecture I need to do something more than to feed you a few new fads.

From time to time I have been guilty of the kind of faddish thinking which I just described. After my second year in the ministry I spent a great deal of time studying Emergent Christianity including several visits to Kansas City’s most successful Emergent Church. For a time I was deeply convinced that this form of “doing church” could be adapted to Unitarian Universalism with great benefit to our movement. I actually learned a lot including some small things that I applied successfully in the congregation I serve, but I did not discover the cure for all that ails Unitarian Universalism.

I want to present one of the main problems that I see facing Unitarian Universalism through the telling of a rather extreme story. Tom Monaghan was the founder of the Domino’s Pizza, a chain that he sold for approximately $1 Billion in 1998. Monaghan is a conservative Catholic and sunk a lot of his fortune into the building of a conservative Catholic university, Ave Maria, and the development of a town near Lakeland, Florida. Monaghan attracted a great deal of media scrutiny when he claimed that the town he was developing would be a conservative Catholic utopia. He claimed that cable television would not carry adult films, pharmacies in the town would not carry contraception, and that abortion would be unavailable within the town’s limits.

Whether Monaghan’s Catholic utopia actually materialized according to plan or not, the sheer idea of this town raises significant questions. A town, in its classic sense, is a mixture of public and private space. In a classic town individuals and families own residences and businesses—all private in nature. However, the town also contains public space: parks, schools, public buildings, and conservation areas. Even the roads and the sidewalks are public. The town’s population gets to vote on issues that impact public spaces and “public works.” They get to elect representatives. Monaghan’s town would be quite different. The town would exist as a quasi-corporate space. People’s houses, perhaps, might constitute private space, though I am led to imagine that there would be less privacy even within the home.

While Monaghan’s Florida town may be extreme, it may bear some startling similarities to the suburban landscapes that surround most large urban areas. It may come down to a matter of semantics to try to decide whether a subdivision or a gated community counts as corporate space or private space. This question may be largely academic as long as the corporate developer is driven by profit and not by a socio-religious ideology. However, one thing I might point out about many suburban environments is that they lack public space. The architecture of many suburban homes emphasizes the back deck instead of the front porch. Larger and more expensive homes may contain a “home theater,” an exercise room, or even a basketball court—and I mean an indoor basketball court, not a piece of wood and a hoop attached above the garage where neighborhood kids gather after school.

What I am getting at here is not a point about wealth but a point about community. Where do people gather? Where do people meet? In most parts of the world the public square is used. In the Joseph Priestley biography, The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson writes about how public meetings and the salon culture in Europe contributed to everything from momentous scientific discoveries to the development of political philosophy. (As I traveled in Ecuador and Peru in September and October of 2009, I saw people gathering in public spaces everywhere I went.)

Too often our American landscape is lacking for public space. Judging from stories that parents in the congregation I serve have told me about their 5th graders playing town league soccer games that start at 10:30 at night because of a lack of available fields, much of our public space is inadequate. What does it mean that the mall—a corporate space—is a favored place to hang out for so many youth?

Let me bring the discussion back to churches. Many suburban mega-churches feature coffeehouses, fitness centers, gymnasia, sports fields, rock climbing walls, and other attractions. I think it has been the tendency of many religious liberals to scoff at these features as nothing more than marketing tools designed to seem appealing to the secular masses. However, in light of my observations about the paucity of available public space, I could argue that these churches are filling a need that is not being met in the larger community.

Now, allow me to bring the conversation back to Unitarian Universalism. I believe that Unitarian Universalism needs to have a voice in those areas where public space is especially threatened. Unfortunately, it is in these suburban and exurban areas that our churches are too rare. Though we have had various church planting movements in the last six decades — A. Powell Davies’ success at planting churches in the Washington D.C. area in the 1950s, the Fellowship Movement from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, the Extension program more recently — we do not come from a church planting tradition. Alice Blair Wesley has pointed out that Unitarianism in America did not begin; it became. Unitarianism, as we learned, had its origins in the shifting theology of the Standing Order Congregationalist churches in the Northeast. Unitarians did not start those churches; those churches became Unitarian. I, for one, am not content to sit around waiting and hoping that other religious movements adopt the commitment to justice and the commitment to theological pluralism that our congregations embody.

About three years ago I authored a thought piece entitled “Other Impediments to Growth.” This essay circulated widely on the internet. UU consultant Peter Bowden reprinted it on his website with my permission. My thought piece was read by the UUA Board of Trustees who later sent a team of several board members to interview me about my thoughts on growth. That essay was premised on three suppositions.

First, churches that have ministerial leadership from the beginning tend to be more successful than those that bring in ministerial leadership later in the process.

Second, it is easier for a 550 member church to become an 850 member church than it is for a 350 member church to become a 550 member church. It is easier for a 350 member church to become a 550 member church than it is for a 200 member church to become a 350 member church. It is easier for a 200 member church to become a 350 member church than it is for a 100 member church to become a 200 member church. And, it is easier for a 100 member church to become a 200 member church than it is for a 50 member church to become a 100 member church. As churches grow larger, their growth tends to come more easily.

Third, our current system of ministerial preparation offers no incentives for ministers who wish to plant churches. In fact, our current system of ministerial preparation disinclines ministers who may have an interest or a vocation for church planting from pursuing this avenue. I can point to only two Unitarian Universalist ministers in the last decade who have planted churches that were not heavily subsidized with hundreds of thousands of dollars of start up money. The two are Rev. David Owen-O’Quill who has launched Micah’s Porch in the Wicker Park area of Chicago and Rev. Ron Robinson who has launched an organic church plant called The Living Room in Turley, Oklahoma.

I will spare you a rehashing of that thought piece for now. Instead, let me share the conclusions I reached. I concluded that we will have to change the way we train and form many of our ministers. I argued that our insistence on a learned clergy was outmoded. I called for large congregations to train prospective ministers in house while making use of various educational and developmental opportunities that probably will not resemble the semester based residential seminary model. I called for our large churches to send out the ministers they have trained (with ideally 200 parishioners) to start a separate congregation in the same metropolitan area where the large church is located.

Under this plan the new church would begin at a size that is larger than the plateaus that smaller congregations get stuck at. The previous church would regain members quickly; the larger you are the easier it is for you to attract new members. This minister leading the new congregation would continue to be held in care by colleagues as she or he continued on a plan of professional development that would include eventually earning a Masters of Divinity degree. However, the ultimate judge of fitness for ministry would be how well the minister fared in nurturing and growing a religious community, not whether she earned a diploma or satisfactorily completed the process established by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

You can read that thought piece for yourself. Rather than predict what Unitarian Universalism might look like five years or ten years or fifty years in the future, I want to make several bold assertions about what I believe Unitarian Universalism needs to do if it is to have a future. These assertions reflect my best thinking about our movement. Whenever possible I will link the ideas I share to pieces where my thinking is more fully developed.

First, I believe it is imperative that we adjust assumptions about to whom our faith is able to speak. One way of thinking about growth has been to attempt to attract more people like the people already in our pews. It has been said that Unitarian Universalists are most demographically similar to the average NPR listener. Therefore, our best growth strategy is to purchase NPR’s mailing list and send postcards, or just to buy advertising space during NPR programs. Unfortunately, this is self-limiting. Just as our nation is changing demographically and geographically, we must learn to speak of our faith in new ways. Our faith is impoverished if we believe that we can only speak to those with doctorates and advanced degrees. We must change the ways we speak. A major way to do this might be to change the sense that our churches are places where “like-minded” people gather to the sense that our churches are places where people with similar concerns gather to effect changes in the world. In this way the Standing on the Side of Love campaign is a step in the right direction. The invitation to stand on the side of love and to work with us for justice is not an invitation that excludes based on education, ethnicity, race, or socio-economic class. However, one criticism of Standing on the Side of Love is that it may not have articulated itself as well as it could have. Standing on the Side of Love for Marriage Equality is awesome. Our work does not end with marriage equality any more than Martin Luther King’s work ended with desegregating the Montgomery buses. Standing on the Side of Love is not about the changing of this law or the overturning of that statute. It is about the work of human liberation that is at the heart of all prophetic religious traditions.

Second, I believe it is time for Unitarian Universalists to reexamine and to revisit our relationship with the larger culture. Unitarian Universalism’s relationship with the larger culture is a bit tricky to pin down. On one hand, we do not think of the secular world as the realm of Satan as many conservative Christian sects teach. On the other hand, many Unitarian Universalists adopt a counter-cultural stance, opting to pursue lifestyles that eschew consumerism and materialism, for example. I think there are realms where Unitarian Universalist congregations can and should challenge the dominant culture, especially around the time pressures that the culture imposes on so many of us. It is truly countercultural to choose to defy the dominant culture in a way that provides more family time.

Third, I believe that new Unitarian Universalist congregations of the future may look significantly different from those that exist today. Some congregations may not function under the model of Congregational Polity. Some congregations may not count members or even have a concept of what membership means. Some congregations may follow the model of our congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and explore the variety of ways of being a multi-site congregation. One congregation may decide to embed another congregation within it. Future congregations will structure themselves in ways that I cannot even imagine.

I thank the members of the Midwest Leadership School for attending this series of lectures and also thank all those who have taken the time to read these lectures on this blog.
I believe in the future of our faith.
I know that it has changed the course of history and believe that it can have that power again.
I know that is has saved lives and believe that it is continuing to save lives even as I speak and write.
I know that our congregations provide, as our new UUA President puts it, “a home for the spiritually homeless.” May our doors open ever wider.
I believe in our power to shape the future of our faith in ever more hopeful ways.

List #19: The 5 Loudest Bands I Have Ever Heard

“Kerouac’s in a little bar in Mexico. He says that was the only time he ever got to hear music played loud enough – in that little bar in Mexico. It was in On the Road. The only time he ever got to hear the music loud enough. I always remember that.”

The quotation above comes from Annie Dillard’s father. He is quoted towards the very end of Dillard’s An American Childhood (see book review #38) as she recalls dancing with her father in the living room with the record player turned up all the way. When I read this passage I got the idea for this list. Here are the loudest bands I’ve ever heard.

5) The Architects: This band hails from Kansas City and just released their fourth album. I’ve been to hear them a half-dozen times. Sometimes they headline and sometimes they open for national touring acts that come through Kansas City. With a mix of blues, punk, and straight-up rock & roll they embody Kerouac’s line better than any other band on this list.

4) Hum: Hum was loud. They were loud in a way that transcended sound. They were loud in a way you felt through your entire body. I went to hear Hum in Portland, Oregon, in 1998 when they played a venue called La Luna. It has been said that one of the aesthetic innovations of 90s alternative rock was that bands played loud music without the showmanship of metal bands. Hum was loud without makeup, without hair gel, and without tights. They were loud without a wardrobe fashioned out of leather, chains, spikes, and spandex. They were loud without laser light shows and pyrotechnics. Indeed, the members of Hum looked more like members of a math club than rock musicians. “I come to you all dressed in sound,” sings Hum front man Matt Talbot in the opening line of one of their songs. Their music dressed the listener in sound. It penetrated the fibers of your clothes, your skin, your skull, your ribcage. Hum was loud.

3) C.C.C.C.*: When I was 19 I had a musical experience… I think. I went for the first and only time to hear a noise band play in the Reed College student union. Noise bands experimented with musical minimalism at maximum decibels. They attempted to answer the question, “What would happen to music if you removed rhythm, melody, harmony, structure, tonality, and instruments?” For the performance the floor of the Reed College student union was filled with couches, easy chairs, and coffee tables. At one end of the room a young man furiously ground a microphone into a mason jar full of sand. Another young man shook a black box with a dozen guitar pickups inside. A third young man received the inputs and passed the digital signal through a tall stack of sound equipment. Speakers poured forth sound, noise as thick as pea soup. Students lounged on couches and easy chairs and let the sound wash over them.
* I may not have actually heard the group C.C.C.C. I think the noise band I went to see might have had another name. Possibly they had no name at all.

2) National Fire Theory: Another Kansas City band, the now defunct National Fire Theory never failed to play catchy rock songs at high volume. They never produced the viscous sound that a group like Hum or a noise band managed to, but they never failed to play guitar in a way that sent shivers down your spine and drums and bass that you felt in the marrow of your bones.

1) Dinosaur Jr.: I have never heard a band as loud as Dinosaur Jr. No band’s volume level has ever been so uncomfortable. In 2006 I went to hear Dino Jr. play at Liberty Hall in Lawrence, Kansas. I had been waiting for this chance. After nearly a decade apart the band had reunited. I should have known I was in for trouble when I saw the setup for front man and guitarist J Mascis. He employed three full amplifier stacks; one amp stack faced the audience and the other two faced in at modest angles. He stood at the center of this wall of sound. In went my earplugs. Before the end of first song I was standing at the back of the room. Then I was standing out in the foyer. I actually tried listening from one of the venue’s bathrooms. I actually listened from out in the street with my earplugs still in. Half an hour later I was listening to a Dinosaur Jr. CD (in my car and at a reasonable volume) while driving home from Lawrence. Would Jack Keroauc have stayed and listened? Or would he have gotten back on the road?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Book Review: "Republican Gomorrah" by Max Blumenthal

[This blog entry may appear more political than any I’ve posted. At the end of this post I will argue that appearances are deceiving.]

Four months and two days ago I had an experience that I’m still trying to make sense of. On that day – on July 4, 2009 – I walked down to the park by the J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Plaza in Kansas City and walked around amidst a “Tea Party” protest.

“Tea Party” protests began, if I am not mistaken, on April 15, 2009. The protesters used “Tax Day” to protest government spending by the Obama administration. The widespread Tea Party movement is an example of “Astroturfing.” In other words, it is a faux-grassroots movement. The protests present themselves as coming organically from the people but are organized, orchestrated, and funded by wealthy anti-tax activists.

In any event, when I decided to head to the Plaza on the Fourth of July I was curious about what the “tea partiers” would say to me face-to-face. I would estimate that about 100 “tea partiers” had come out on Independence Day. A lot of the signs called Barack Obama names, either directly or indirectly. The signs called him a communist, a socialist, a Marxist, a fascist, and “Hitler.” Signs also called him a Muslim, a terrorist, and an “illegal alien.” Signs carried slogans in opposition to government spending and health care reform. A number of signs were anti-immigrant. I would estimate that one out of every ten members of the crowd carried a copy of Glenn Beck’s Common Sense.

I decided to start some conversations. I asked people about health care. My questions really missed the mark. I approached these conversations as too much of a minister. I framed my questions using the language of moral obligation and love of neighbor. This was the wrong approach. I received several responses that amounted to, “Tough luck: If you can’t get health insurance, that’s your problem, not mine. You have no right to take my money to pay for health care for somebody else.”

When I used the word “neighbor” one young man took my question too literally. “All my neighbors have health insurance. I’ve never met anyone without health insurance.” Still others argued that taxation for the purposes of social programs was a form of coerced charity. The argument followed that taking care of each other was a matter of individual choice and that if taxes were abolished people would take care of each other.

Next I decided to speak with a man holding a sign with a derogatory comment about immigrants. I decided to ask him a charged question, “Looking around the crowd here, I notice everybody here is white. Do you think that sign makes people of color not want to come?” The man assured me that everybody was welcome. “Blacks would be here if they weren’t so lazy.” Later, another man informed me there weren’t any “blacks” here because “every black person in America has health insurance – they get it for free from the government.”

I cannot conclude this mention of the “tea party” rally in Kansas City without mentioning the grown man walking around in a costume that looked like something one of the founding fathers would have worn while signing the Declaration of Independence. He looked terribly silly. However, the symbolic linking of what this group was protesting to the Boston Tea Party and the Revolutionary War is ignorant, disingenuous, and dangerous. The ignorance comes from a basic misunderstanding of what the Boston Tea Party was about. It was not about taxes on tea. It was about the principle of taxation without representation. It was not about lower taxes. It was about the idea that those who levy taxes, as well as make every other policy decision, should be accountable. The cry was not, “We don’t want to pay taxes!” It was, “We want to choose our government.”

This historical revisionism on the part of the “Tea Partiers” is very subtle but very important. Every single person there gets to play a role in choosing a representative government. They also, of course, have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances and the right to free assembly and I do not begrudge them those rights. But, by invoking the Revolutionary War, they are invoking a message of violence. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke openly of secession at an April “Tea Party.” That type of rhetoric – like the invective uttered against racial and ethnic minorities – implies the threat of violence.


I found myself turning to Max Blumenthal in order to begin to make sense of the experience. Max Blumenthal has posted a series of videos in which he has captured scenes at Gun Shows and Tea Party protests. His video footage captures exactly the same thing I had witnessed here in Kansas City.

After watching Blumenthal’s videos I decided to pick up a copy of his book Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party. His book is not about “Tea Parties.” (It is still too early to have published a piece of investigative journalism about this movement.) Instead, Republican Gomorrah tells the story of the rise of Christian Dominionism as a prominent ideology within the Republican Party.

Blumenthal’s book combines history and psychology. Blumenthal’s research is deeply indebted to the work of psychologist Erich Fromm, especially Fromm’s book Escape from Freedom, a study of what attracts people to authoritarianism. According to Fromm people will willingly submit to authoritarian figures when they believe that authoritarian leaders have the magic power to resolve their personal crises. The corollary to this is that authoritarian leaders have an interest in manufacturing crisis and promoting fear, hysteria, panic, and anxiety.

Fromm adds that authoritarianism breeds sado-masochism. In masochism, one derives pleasure from being hurt. After all, it is only when you feel pain that you can turn to the magical healing that an authoritarian figure can provide. Sadism is the experience of pleasure that comes from hurting others. Sadistic acts cause others to experience crisis and therefore leads them to be willing to submit to authority. Taken to an extreme, authoritarian rule depends upon the cultivation of the necrophilious character, a person who is drawn “to all that is dead, decayed, putrid sickly… It is the passion to tear apart living structures.”

Analyzing the Christian Dominionist movement, Blumenthal finds it to be a perfect case-study of Fromm’s theories. James Dobson’s book Dare to Discipline, first published in the 1970s, is a manual on authoritarian family life that produces sado-masochistic, anti-social, and dysfunctional behavior. The book’s title might as well be, Domestic Violence for Dummies. Blumenthal also details Dobson’s attraction to serial killers like Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz.

Republican Gomorrah derives its title from the bizarre, troubled, and destructive lives of so many of those connected to Christian Dominionism. He looks at mega-church pastors such as Ted Haggard and Robert Moorehead; major politicians like Larry Craig, David Vitter, Mark Foley; minor politicians like Bob Allen, Glenn Murphy Jr., Richard Curtis, Jim West; and an enormous group of political operatives and big donors. The list above is just a small sampling.

Consider the career trajectory of Claude Allen, an African-American from inner-city Washington D.C., who cut his political teeth working as an aide for Senator Jesse Helms, perhaps one of the most racist individuals to be elected to political office in our times. Allen distinguished himself for his strident anti-gay and anti-contraception politics and had his nomination as a federal judge withdrawn after Democrats threatened to filibuster. In 2005 Allen became President Bush’s chief domestic policy advisor, a position that paid him an annual salary of $161,000 and allowed him to do things like order the CDC to remove all information about condoms from their web-site. Within a year Allen had resigned his post embroiled in scandal. One of Allen’s favorite pastimes involved going to big box stores, purchasing hundreds of dollars of electronics on his credit card, placing the purchased items in his car, returning to the store where he picked out identical items off the shelves, and then “returning” those items and having his credit card reimbursed. He repeated this scheme at least 25 times before he was caught. What bizarre psychological state fueled these self-destructive, masochistic acts?

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Blumenthal’s reporting, but what is interesting is that the developments mentioned in Blumenthal’s subtitle have not occurred although they may be occurring at this very moment. Blumenthal closes his book with an examination of the 2008 election, especially McCain’s uncomfortable selection of a spiritual advisor (John Hagee) and his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Both choices, Blumenthal argues, were attempts to secure the support of Christian Dominionists. (Blumenthal claims that McCain wanted to select Lieberman as his running mate.)

The subtitle of Republican Gomorrah is "Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party." Blumenthal’s strong choice of words in his subtitle is bold. A couple of bad election cycles does not equal the shattering of a party, but there are some signs that ought to be worrisome for committed Republicans. 2006 and 2008 featured a purge of moderates such as Lincoln Chafee and Chris Shays. Arlen Specter decided to follow the Jim Jeffords path. Florida Senator Mel Martinez resigned from the Senate several months ago and a host of incumbent Republicans such as Kit Bond, Judd Gregg, and George Voinovich have announced that they will not seek re-election, perhaps because they do not want to face bruising primaries and the prospect of third-party spoilers in the general election.

There is a chance that in 2010 and beyond we may see a lot of races that resemble New York’s 23rd Congressional District. On Tuesday voters elected a Democrat to that seat, a seat that has been held by Republicans since 1871. The Republicans failed to field a candidate as the Republican in that race dropped out and endorsed the Democrat over a more conservative third party candidate.


At the beginning of this post I commented about the political nature of this post. I’ve often repeated the explanation that the word “political” comes from “polis,” the Greek word for city. Political activity therefore is any activity that takes into consideration the affairs of the city. (And, since the city-state is no longer the system of how people organize, it is fair to accept a broader meaning of the term “political.”)

I’ve also frequently clarified the rules that churches are expected to follow as an exchange for being granted 501(c)3 non-profit status. The simple version of those rules is that churches are entirely forbidden from endorsing either a candidate for public office or a political party. Churches are allowed to lobby on issues as long as those lobbying efforts do not exceed more than 5% of the operating budget of the congregation. (Did you know that UU congregations in several states have banded together to form Legislative Ministries? The one in California is among the more prominent examples.)

This post does not come even close to the danger zone involving IRS regulations. But, I do want to conclude this post by musing. I think it may be time to ask the question, “Do the current IRS regulations only work within the context of a de facto two party system where both parties – Republican and Democrat – are ideologically broad?” For better or for worse there has been no viable third party alternative on either the left or the right. A Jesse Ventura only comes along once in a blue moon. Independents tend to be either billionaires (Ross Perot, for instance) or centrist figures who hold an appeal that exceeds their popularity in either party (Joseph Lieberman.)

But, what if the subtitle of Max Blumenthal’s book (Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party) was to come true and one or both of the political parties were to shatter? Would synagogues really be expected to remain silent if the American Nazi Party fielded a candidate who had a shot at being elected? Would Catholic churches be gagged from protesting a politician who cobbled together an Anti-Catholic Party? What would be the proper response from liberal, moderate, and mainline churches if a Christian Dominionist Party fielded a slate of viable candidates?

In other words, what would happen to the IRS regulations if political parties were to become ideologically narrow or singular?

Thursday, November 05, 2009

List #18: 101 Greatest Yankees of All Time

Since early 2004 I have been a frequent reader (but not a member) of an internet message board that hosts an ongoing discussion of the Boston Red Sox. Named for a one-time fan-favorite, Sam Horn, the message board prides itself on "serious discussion" and boasts of its high "signal to noise ratio." Indeed, many of the posters seem to be just as passionate about mathematics as they are about baseball. In statistical discussions you don't find a lot of discussion about wins, losses, hits, and batting average. Instead, the conversation is about Win Shares, Pythagorean records, ERA+, OPS+, VORP, and UZR. And those are just the statistics I understand! Many of the members of the message board track baseball players according to their own statistical models.

Over the last several weeks the message board has been having a conversation about the 100 best Red Sox players of all-time. They have picked the top 70 and are about to release the next 10 picks on the list.

I decided that I would create my own list, based on whichever team won the World Series. So, in honor of the Yankees winning the World Series last night, here is my entirely subjective list of the top 101 New York Yankees of all time:

101) Mickey Rivers (1976-1979) Speedy centerfielder played only 4 seasons with New York.
100) Don Larsen (1955-1959) Pitched perfect game in 1956 World Series.
99) C.C. Sabathia (2009-present) Went 19-8 in his first season with New York.
98) Oscar Gamble (1976, 1979-1984) Valuable DH and platoon player.
97) Chris Chambliss (1974-1979, 1988) Won a Gold Glove and earned an All-Star appearance.
96) Mark Teixeira (2009-present) “I before E except after C?” Key free agent helped NY to ’09 Championship.
95) John Wetteland (1995-1996) Saved 74 games in two seasons with the Yankees.
94) Wally Schang (1921-1925) Catcher received MVP votes in 2 of his 5 years with New York.
93) Clete Boyer (1959-1966) Third baseman for the Yankees through the early and mid-1960s.
92) Jim Bouton (1962-1968) All-Star and 20 game winner proved a better writer than pitcher.
91) Scott Brosius (1998-2001) Provided veteran leadership on 3 World Championship teams.
90) Jeff Nelson (1996-2000, 2003) Valuable middle reliever for the Championship teams of the late 90s.
89) Mike Stanton (1997-2002, 2005) Key set-up man for Mariano Rivera.
88) Ralph Terry (1956-1957, 1959-1964) Best known for giving up homerun in 1960 World Series.
87) Bucky Dent (1977-1982) Twice an All-Star shortstop, but remembered for that darn fly ball.
86) Chien-Ming Wang (2005-2009) Back-to-back 19 win seasons in ’06 and ’07.
85) Ben Chapman (1930-1936) Speedy outfielder stole 184 bases with the Yankees.
84) Joe Dugan (1922-1928) Third Baseman for the “Murderer’s Row” teams of the 1920s.
83) Ed Figueroa (1976-1980) Won 20 games in 1978.
82) Johnny Damon (2006-present) 77 Homeruns and 93 stolen bases in 4 seasons.
81) Jim “Catfish” Hunter (1975-1979) Finished his Hall of Fame career with the Yankees.
80) Roger Peckinpaugh (1913-1921) Shortstop for NY during the dead-ball era.
79) Billy Martin (1950-1957) With 15 homeruns and 75 RBI, his ’53 season was his best.
78) Alfonso Soriano (1999-2003) Twice a member of the 30-30 club with New York.
77) Fritz Peterson (1966-1974) Starter posted a 109-106 record with the Yankees.
76) Tiny Bonham (1940-1946) WWII pitcher won 79 games including 21 in 1942.
75) Robinson Cano (2005-present) Has hit over .300 in 3 out of his 5 seasons with New York.
74) George Selkirk (1934-1942) Posted an .883 OPS over 9 seasons in New York.
73) Snuffy Stirnweiss (1943-1950) Dependable 2nd baseman through the 1940s.
72) George Pipgras (1923-1933) Led league in wins and innings pitched in 1928.
71) Hal Chase (1905-1913) Stole 248 bases in 9 seasons during the dead ball era.
70) Willie Keeler (1903-1909) Lifetime .342 hitter played for Yankees in his declining years but still hit over .300 four times.
69) Wade Boggs (1993-1997) Hit .313 over 5 seasons in New York.
68) Wally Pipp (1915-1925) Played first base for NY until Gehrig joined the team.
67) Tommy John (1979-1982, 1986-1989) Back-to-back seasons with over 20 wins in ’79 and ’80.
66) Joe Pepitone (1962-1969) Gold glove first baseman and three time All Star.
65) Orlando Hernandez (1998-2004) Had a 9-3 record in 14 post-season starts.
64) Jason Giambi (2002-2008) Averaged 30 homeruns over 7 seasons in New York.
63) Tony Kubek (1957-1965) Bobby Richardson’s double-play partner and 3 time All-Star.
62) Allie Reynolds (1947-1954) Led league in ERA and shutouts in 1952.
61) Tommy Henrich (1937-1950) An .873 OPS over his 11 seasons in the Bronx.
60) Bobby Turley (1955-1962) Won the Cy Young award in 1958.
59) Sparky Lyle (1972-1978) Finished 348 games and recorded 141 saves for the Yankees.
58) Johnny Murphy (1932-1946) 12 seasons as a relief pitcher and 3-time All-Star.
57) Bob Meusel (1920-1929) Played the sunny side of the outfield to help protect Babe Ruth’s eyes.
56) Frankie Crosetti (1932-1948) Led league in times hit by pitch 7 times in 17-year career with New York.
55) Joe Page (1944-1950) Yankees’ leading relief pitcher in the 1940s.
54) Mel Stottlemyre (1964-1974) Won 20 games 3 times. Lost 20 games once.
53) Bobby Murcer (1965-1974, 1979-1983) Yankee’s centerfielder following DiMaggio and Mantle.
52) Carl Mays (1919-1923) Won combined 53 games in the ‘20 and ’21 seasons.
51) Rickey Henderson (1985-1989) Stole 93 bases in 1988.
50) Mike Mussina (2001-2008) Averaged 15 wins per year over 8 seasons in New York.
49) Bill Skowron (1954-1962) Five consecutive All-Star appearances in the late 50s.
48) Roger Clemens (1999-2003, 2007) Won the 6th of his 7 CY Young Awards with the Yankees in 2001.
47) Hideki Matsui (2003-present) World Series MVP in 2009.
46) Charlie Keller (1939-1949, 1952) Five time All-Star had a career .928 OPS.
45) Gil McDougald (1951-1960) All-Star middle infielder through the 50s.
44) Red Rolfe (1931-1942) 4-time All-Star 3rd Baseman.
43) Jack Chesbro (1903-1909) Won 41 games in 1904.
42) Phil Rizzuto (1941-1956) Was the 1950 American League MVP.
41) David Cone (1995-2000) Won 64 regular season games and posted a 6-1 record in the post-season.
40) Roy White (1965-1979) 15 year career as Yankee’s left-fielder.
39) Goose Gossage (1978-1983) In 6 seasons saved 150 games for the Yankees.
38) Ed Lopat (1948-1955) Recorded 113 wins and 59 losses with New York.
37) Tino Martinez (1996-2001, 2007) A team leader through the late 90s when NY won 4 championships in 5 years.
36) David Wells (1997-1998, 2002-2003) Win totals in 4 seasons with Yankees: 19, 18, 16, 15
35) Vic Raschi (1946-1953) An All-Star in half his seasons with New York.
34) Hank Bauer (1948-1959) Received MVP votes in 5 of his 12 seasons with New York.
33) Willie Randolph (1976-1988) Five All-Star selections in 13 years with the Yankees.
32) Spud Chandler (1937-1947) Won MVP award with 20-4 record and 1.64 ERA in 1943.
31) Waite Hoyt (1921-1930) Pitched for 3 World Championship teams in the 1920s.
30) Tony Lazzeri (1926-1937) Steady 2nd baseman and teammate of Ruth and Gehrig.
29) Thurman Munson (1969-1979) Won a Rookie of the Year award and an MVP.
28) Graig Nettles (1973-1983) Hit 250 homeruns with the Yankees.
27) Bob Shawkey (1915-1927) Won 20 games four times with the Yankees.
26) Paul O’Neill (1993-2001) Rightfielder hit .303 over his tenure with the Yankees.
25) Jorge Posada (1995-present) Has anchored the Yankees at catcher since 1998.
24) Dave Righetti (1979-1990) Won 74 games and saved 224 more for the Bronx Bombers.
23) Bobby Richardson (1955-1966) Slick-fielding 2nd-baseman had more walks than strikeouts 7 times.
22) Alex Rodriguez (2004-present) Average over first 6 seasons with New York: 40 HRs, 119 RBIs, $24.7 million.
21) Reggie Jackson (1977-1981) With NY: 5 seasons; 12 post season homeruns; 2 World Championships.
20) Herb Pennock (1923-1933) Played half his career in New York, recording 162 regular season wins and a perfect 5-0 record in the post-season.
19) Dave Winfield (1981-1990) An All-Star each of his first 8 seasons in NY.
18) Andy Pettitte (1995-2003, 2007-present) Rotation mainstay was 3 times a top 5 finisher for the Cy Young.
17) Elston Howard (1955-1967) 8 All-Star selections and an MVP.
16) Ron Guidry (1975-1988) In ’78 had a 25-3 record and a 1.74 ERA.
15) Roger Maris (1960-1966) Hit 61 homeruns in ’61 and won consecutive MVP awards.
14) Earle Combs (1924-1935) Scored 113 runs or more in 8 consecutive seasons.
13) Bernie Williams (1991-2006) 22 post-season homeruns, four Gold Gloves, and a batting title.
12) Lefty Gomez (1930-1942) 4 seasons with 21 wins or more; perfect 6-0 record in the World Series.
11) Red Ruffing (1930-1946) 4 consecutive 20 win seasons.
10) Bill Dickey (1928-1946) HOF catcher was an 11-time All Star.
9) Don Mattingly (1982-1995) Played 14 seasons but never played in the World Series despite 9 Gold Gloves, 6 All-Star selections, a batting title, and an MVP award.
8) Derek Jeter (1995-present) All time Yankee leader in hits.
7) Whitey Ford (1950-1967) Won 236 games with the Yankees
6) Mariano Rivera (1995-present) Greatest relief pitcher ever.
5) Joe DiMaggio (1936-1951) 13 seasons, 13-time All Star, 3-time MVP.
4) Yogi Berra (1946-1963) Collected 3 MVP awards while playing on 10 World Series Championship teams.
3) Mickey Mantle (1951-1968) 3-time MVP, 3-time MVP runner-up, over 500 home runs.
2) Lou Gehrig (1923-1939) Put up an OPS of 1.000 or greater in 11 consecutive seasons.
1) Babe Ruth (1920-1934) The Sultan of Swat led the league in Homeruns 10 times in 15 years with NY.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Vote Today!!!

In just a few minutes I will be heading to the polls to cast my vote in today's special election. There isn't a whole lot on the ballot here in Jackson County, Missouri. I will get to vote on whether to repeal a special tax that helps to pay for programs and law enforcement that combat drug abuse. I will also get to vote on the issuing of bonds to pay for structural improvements for Kansas City's schools.

Around the country there are a number of elections worth watching. In Maine, voters are heading to the polls to vote on whether or not to repeal a decision allowing Gay Marriage. In New Jersey there is a hotly contested Governor's race between incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Chris Christie. In the Virginia Governor's race, Republican Bob McDonnell is expected to defeat Democrat Creigh Deeds.

However, the hot contest to watch today is taking place in New York's 23rd congressional district. A vote is being held today to fill the congressional seat vacated when Republican Congressman John McHugh accepted Barack Obama's invitation for him to serve as Secretary of the Army. Until very recently, it was a three way race in NY-23 between Democrat Bill Owens, Republican Dede Scozzafava, and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. While Owens has raised five times what Hoffman has raised from within his own congressional district, Hoffman has received a boost by being endorsed by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Hoffman has close ties to the "tea-bagger" movement which calls for slashing taxes and small government.

This race took a surprising turn when Scozzafava suspended her campaign, left the race, and strongly endorsed Owens. To say that NY-23 has a history of backing moderate Republicans would be a gross understatement; this congressional district has seated Republicans since 1871! Last November McHugh was re-elected to a 9th term while the congressional district voted for Obama over McCain in the Presidential election. The amount of time pundits have spent analyzing this race is probably more indicative of not having many elections to cover than of this contest being a bellwether of things to come. But, this race does raise some interesting questions: Would Scozzafava and Hoffman have split the votes of moderate to conservative Republicans giving Owens a better shot at victory? How much is Scozzafava's endorsement of Owens worth?

While the "tea-baggers" will make a big deal if Hoffman wins, a victory by Hoffman does little more than keep the balance of Democrats and Republicans (256-177) in Congress intact. A victory by Owens would add a Democratic seat in a highly unlikely district.

If you have a chance to vote today, make sure you go. Even if there is not a race or an issue that stirs your passion still go and participate in our democracy.