Hyperlocal news, civic engagement and spirituality

Banyan tree
Banyan tree

Is there a connection between hyperlocal journalism, civic engagement and spirituality? Not directly. But in “The Wired City” I argue that New Haven Independent editor Paul Bass’ emphasis on community and right actions are tied to his involvement in Judaism.

In Haverhill, Massachusetts, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites is working to launch Haverhill Matters, the first of what he hopes will be a network of cooperatively owned news sites, in line with the way Unitarian Universalist congregations govern themselves.

Stites, among other things, is the retired editor of the UU World, the denomination’s quarterly magazine. In the current issue, I write about my fellow UU Stites:

Although both Haverhill Matters and the Banyan Project are purely secular endeavors, Stites sees some parallels between his idea and Unitarian Universalism’s Fifth Principle: “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” “If you think of news communities and religious communities — meaning congregations — as comparable, the authority of the congregation comes from its members,” says Stites. “It’s a democratic institution, things are decided by discussion and vote. With the co-op model it’s the closest in all possible ways to the congregational polity model. There really is a real congruence there.”

I also offer some thoughts about the New Haven Independent and community-building as well as The Batavian, whose publisher, Howard Owens, sees a strong, locally owned business community as a key to fostering civic engagement. I hope you’ll take a look.

Photo (cc) by McKay Savage and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Myth, reality and Jay Parini’s life of Jesus

Jesus-FinalCover-Hi-ResOn a long drive over the holidays, I listened to the podcast of “On Point” host Tom Ashbrook’s recent interview with the poet and author Jay Parini. The subject was Parini’s new book, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” (Icons).

I was fascinated. Here was someone who described himself as a believer — an Episcopalian, the denomination of my youth, no less — who spoke of Jesus and Christianity in terms of myth and metaphor rather than as some sort of rigid, literal reality. I wanted to see how he brought the seeming contradictions of belief and mythology together.

Unfortunately, the book itself does not quite live up to the promise of Parini’s conversation with Ashbrook, mainly because he tries to have it too many ways — starting with what it means to be a believer. “In its Greek and Latin roots,” he writes, “the word ‘believe’ simply means ‘giving one’s deepest self to’ something.” And he quotes St. Anselm: “For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.” To my way of thinking, that is putting the metaphorical cart before the metaphorical horse.

My principal unease with Parini, though, is that he writes about “remythologizing” Jesus without quite doing so. On the one hand, he suggests that the miracles Jesus performed and his resurrection are not meant to be taken literally. On the other, he does not rule out the possibility that they actually did happen. Parini doesn’t seem to think it matters all that much whether Jesus came back from the dead metaphorically or materially. Yet to me that’s the most important question.

I say that in full awareness of my own intellectual limitations. Like most people who were educated in a Western context, my thinking tends to be binary. My attitude toward religion is that it’s either literally true or it isn’t; and since it almost certainly isn’t, then it’s something I needn’t trouble myself with. Mind you, I have no patience for Christopher Hitchens-style atheism, and I’m intrigued enough by the whole notion of spirituality to attend a Unitarian Universalist church. But belief to me is a state of mind, based on provable facts, and not something I would give my “deepest self” to in the absence of such facts.

Still, there is much to recommend in Parini’s short biography. Parini is a warm and humane guide to the life of Jesus and the early roots of Christianity. He is especially valuable in explaining Jesus “the religious genius” who synthesized Jewish, Greek and Eastern ideas, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Parini’s learned exploration of Jesus’ moral and spiritual teachings transcends the reality-versus-metaphor divide.

If you’re looking for answers, then “Jesus” is not for you. There are none, and Parini doesn’t pretend otherwise. But if you’re interested in a different way of thinking about Christianity, then Parini’s brief guide is a good place to start.

Haitian earthquake relief

At the suggestion of frequent commenter Mike from Norwell, I’m adding a box for those who wish to donate to relief efforts for victims of the Haitian earthquake.

Rather than link to a long list of charities, which you can find pretty much anywhere (I recommend the Boston Globe’s list), I’m designating a fund set up by my religious denomination. It’s a joint effort of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

To donate, please click here.

Garrison Keillor’s base attack on his base

I have long detested Garrison Keillor, host of the faux-populist program “Prairie Home Companion” on public radio (not, I should note, National Public Radio). I have practically injured myself in my haste to change the station so as not to have to listen to his voice, oozing with smug insincerity. So I’m happy to report that, at long last, Keillor is returning my dislike.

Recently Keillor wrote a column attacking (are you ready?) Unitarians, for the sin of rewriting the words to “Silent Night” to make them less Christian. (For the record, we sing “Silent Night” to close the Christmas Eve service at our Unitarian Universalist church, and we don’t change the words, even though few of us are believing Christians.) Keillor has a few unkind words for the Jews as well. He writes:

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.

For good measure, Keillor does not know that people who live in Cambridge are Cantabrigians, not — as he writes, crayon firmly in hand — “Cambridgeans.”

No doubt Keillor would respond that he was trying to be humorous. And I have no problem with making fun of people’s religion, not even Unitarian Universalism. But Keillor is as humor-impaired a humorist as has ever walked among us, so when he tries to be funny, mayhem is the almost-certain outcome.

What I find especially delightful about this is that liberal, affluent, public radio-listening UUs are Keillor’s base. He has just succeeded in alienating a rather substantial percentage of his microscopic audience. At the very least, I’d like to see him grovel and deliver an apology, insincere though it would be.

Here is a response from one of his former listeners, a member of the Cambridge UU church that was the proximate cause of Keillor’s outburst.

Update: And mea culpa. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby went after Keillor yesterday. “Remember when Keillor was endearing and witty?” asks Jacoby. Uh, no, Jeff. I don’t. But nice slam.