Friday, December 18, 2009

Garrison Keillor Goes Rogue

The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association email list-serve has been abuzz for the past 24 hours after one of my colleagues called our attention to a piece by Garrison Keillor published on In this piece, it appears that Keillor is channeling his inner Bill O’Reilly. Nothing says “Christmas Spirit” like a paranoid rant about how non-Christians are out to ruin Christmas. There is even some anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure. Here is a part of Keillor’s piece:
You can blame Ralph Waldo Emerson for the brazen foolishness of the elite. He preached here at the First Church of Cambridge, a Unitarian outfit (where I discovered that "Silent Night" has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God), and Emerson tossed off little bons mots that have been leading people astray ever since. "To be great is to be misunderstood," for example. This tiny gem of self-pity has given license to a million arrogant and unlovable people to imagine that their unpopularity somehow was proof of their greatness.

And all his hoo-ha about listening to the voice within and don't follow the path, make your own path and leave a trail and so forth, encouraged people who might've been excellent janitors to become bold and innovative economists who run a wealthy university into the ditch.

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write "Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah"? No, we didn't.

Christmas is a Christian holiday -- if you're not in the club, then buzz off.
Unitarian Universalism is a frequent target for Keillor’s humor. Many UUs mistake Keillor’s jokes at our expense for affectionate teasing. Actually, I would argue that he takes shots at Unitarians because he doesn’t like or respect us. I’ve heard that he used to be married to a Unitarian and that his UU “humor” is based upon a grudge that he still holds. I haven’t listened to A Prairie Home Companion regularly in over a decade, but I don’t find any hint of kindness in his UU jokes that I hear quoted.

And, there certainly isn’t any kindness in Keillor’s sprawling mess of an article above. Who knew New England Transcendentalism was responsible for the global recession? Larry Summers is not a UU. I doubt many (any?) of the investors managing Harvard’s endowment are UU. I further doubt the religious views of any of those people had anything to do with the performance of Harvard’s endowment. Garrison Keillor comes across as a confused, angry man grinding his axe.

But, what he says is pretty ugly. There is not a UU version of the Anti-Defamation League, but I would expect that the actual ADL might take offense at a few of the tired Jewish stereotypes trotted out in the article. Furthermore, I think I am pretty familiar with the Gospels but I don’t ever recall Jesus saying, “If you’re not in the club, then buzz off.” Let’s see. Blessed are the meek. The last shall be first. Keeping company with sinners, tax collectors, and lepers.

In sermons I’ve delivered over the course of my ministry I have often explored the tendency in our culture for people to become apoplectic and outraged. I have argued that our society does not suffer from a surfeit of anger or from a paucity of anger. Rather, as a people our anger is misdirected. Does changing the words to “Silent Night” really merit three “wrongs”? If Garrison Keillor wrote about health care and used the word “wrong” 50 million times his proportions would still be out of balance.

But then again, I am choosing to write almost 1,000 words about Garrison Keillor and I haven’t touched upon the environmental summit in Copenhagen, the Health Care bill in the Senate, or the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Alas, Christmas Eve will be here in a few more days and in many UU churches there will be a few musically awkward moments when some worshippers instinctively sing the words like they learned ‘em when they were growing up, and others sing the words like they’re printed on the page, and still others lodge their protest by singing the original words especially loudly. For some, it is important that the words they sing match their Christology. For others, there is no crisis in singing words to which they do not give intellectual assent. And then we all go on. When we are actually touched by the Christmas Spirit, by the Holiday Spirit, we don’t let things like this get our goat. That is kind of the point.