Blog Posts

Don’t hit the books! They’re the good guys! Or: Some thoughts on diversity in books and in sermons

Well, it’s been awhile, eh? UU churches are known to estivate, and your Borrower Bee has been estivating to beat the band. She’s been dropping by the library occasionally, putting up a few signs, sorting donations, and being glad to spend time in our nice, cool basement, with the books. In these troubling times, books set a good example. They come in all sizes, all ages, and every color of the rainbow, and they espouse different points of view; yet they sit together on the shelf, rubbing shoulders amicably enough, and thereby make up our library, a modest but useful contribution that none of them could make alone.

If only people could negotiate differences so easily! Our library, in fact, attests to how many different and often incompatible viewpoints have at one time or another concerned people in our congregation. Evident in a number of ways, diversity is especially noticeable in our collections that document some of the great spiritual paths that humanity has embarked on: early Christian thought (and a few shelves on the other Abrahamic religions), the history of the Amish, Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan), Taoism, Native American, atheism, humanism … As in every congregation, some parts of our UU background are widely represented in the congregation, others less so.

Of course we have a good selection of works by and about UU ministers and other distinguished leaders in our own tradition. It is especially rewarding, though, when we have a chance to encounter viewpoints we usually hear less about. Your Bee has no idea how we came to invite the guest who preached yesterday’s sermon, but she appreciated the opportunity to learn something about Islam from Dr Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and scholar of Islam, the religion he practices. Among other heartening aspects of his sermon, Dr Khan spoke of the connection between the words for “worship” and “service” in Arabic, a connection we also have in our English-language notion of a “worship service”. Dr Khan’s focus on serving humanity as a way of serving God, and his attention to the language of his texts, reminded me of a Biblical passage that we in our congregation may be more familiar with: Abraham’s response to three angels that he sees but doesn’t recognize as angels, right outside his tent (Genesis 18). We all remember that Abraham offers them hospitality. Less well remembered is something else. Before he sees the three newcomers, Abraham has already noticed that he is being visited by God himself — and with God right there, he hurries from his tent to take care of his other visitors. The Christian Bible at this point has Abraham now address the “gentlemen” (adonai), inviting them to stop for refreshment. In contrast, the Jewish tradition reads the text as Abraham’s turning to the Lord God (Adonai) to ask him to wait while he attends to the visitors’ needs. Both meanings are contained in the Hebrew text, but the English language insists that we take one way out or the other. For whatever reason, Jewish tradition favors asking God to wait. The Christian translation tradition seems more neutral, making God a kind of witness or divine authority whose presence sanctions the angelic mission. The Christian version of Abraham in no way asserts himself in relation to God, nor, in the Christian tradition, would he be expected to: for Christians of course God is specifically “the Father”. Perhaps the rich pictorial tradition of Christianity contributes to the substantiality of the connection between God and family hierarchy, while Judaism, like Islam, is more tentative about religious images. Our description of the Six Sources of our faith lists “Jewish and Christian teachings” as one source, a vestigial elision of two different religions into a single “Judeo-Christian tradition”.  Hearing a thoughtful sermon by a Muslim faith leader reminds us of the diversity of our heritage, and both smooths and broadens the path we choose to walk together, and the paths on which we can hope to meet our neighbors. It can also remind us that when we remember our stories, it’s a good idea to read the texts – and we have quite a few of them (notes your librarian) in our Behrens Library.

The theme this month is “Journeys”, so let us pray …

sometimes you’ll hear a commentator on the news say “well, we’re going through a rough patch…” or “we’ll just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other…”, or any number of other metaphors that involve traveling through the difficulties of our lives. But Behrens Library happens to have among the many prayer books on its shelves a few examples of prayers in which that journey is not metaphorical at all, and the shaking up we get in the rough patches really does call on the travelers to trust the driver, and hope that the driver has placed their own trust appropriately. A Ghanaian truck driver is the author of one of the most explicit “journey prayers” imaginable. It appears in the Oxford Book of Prayer, pp. 127-29, and begins as follows:

Lord,
the motor under me is running hot.
Lord,
there are twenty-eight people
and lots of luggage in the truck.
Underneath are my bad tyres.
The brakes are unreliable.
Unfortunately I have no money,
and parts are difficult to get.
Lord,
I did not overload the truck.
Lord,
'Jesus is mine'
is written on the vehicle,
for without him I would not drive
a single mile.
The people in the back are relying on me.
They trust me because they see the words:
'Jesus is mine'.
Lord,
I trust you!

The whole long poem is an exciting ride, from the “straight road” where the driver can keep his “eyes on the women, children and chickens in the village” to the “death-road to Kumasi”, with its “temptation to take more people than we should. Let’s overcome it! The road to Accra is another problem. Truck drivers try to beat the record … and finally to Akwasim”, where “I am reminded of you , and in reverence I take off my hat. Now downhill in second gear …” The driver sings hallelujah when the trip is ended, and he is probably not the only one. And we can be grateful, too, to the book’s editor, George Appleton, for his fine selection of prayers from a wide variety of sources and suited to many occasions.

 

How Does It Feel … ?

The borrower bee doesn’t always follow the news, but today she turned on the radio to hear about immigration chaos in Texas, followed by news of someone tweeting about it, followed by … and oddly enough it reminded her of the first chapter of a book in our own Behrens library, called How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, by Moustafa Bayoumi. The title is taken from W.E.B. du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk, and racism directed against black people in the United States is a recurrent theme in the book, but a minor one. Mostly the book presents what its subtitle says: Being Young and Arab in America. It is an expansive book, but engaging, well-researched, well written and well-constructed. We have the book in our library because the author gave a lecture at UUCL (March 2018), but the book was first published in 2008. It won several prizes then and our edition is a later edition that offers additional materials, including questions for discussion.  What has struck me, to my regret, is how well the book continues to speak to current events and provide useful background. Each chapter presents the story of one person, and the stories are arranged in a way that, among other things, starts at what you might think of as the beginning, namely with an experience of an immigrant family’s detention. They were not, however, detained as they were entering  the United States, but instead after  they had been living here for years and without having done anything whatever that ought to have led to their detention, except for being Arab in Brooklyn in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The chapter (called “Rasha”, for its heroine) is helpful for us today, in at least two ways. First, Bayoumi provides historical background and statistics about immigration detention in the United States. Although September 11 provided special impetus, the system, with much of its physical manifestation and its financial incentives for abuse, had been in place long before. And, second, thanks to his ability to transform narrative into art, Bayoumi shows what this experience meant for the young woman whose life he is writing about. Since the issue of detaining entire families in immigration facilities (or other facilities into which they are off-loaded) is sometimes treated as new, this opening chapter in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? is a good introduction for those of us who are fortunate enough not to have needed to think about it deeply before. Highly recommended.


… and we’ve got some new ones, too.

Even an expansive church library will still be different from a general public library: we offer resources for our ministries and also serve as a repository of materials that can remind us of our history. That doesn’t mean all our books will be about religion or how we practice our faith. There is also space on our shelves and in our hearts for writing that looks at the foundations of our faith and of our identity. Faith, identity, and the tension between individuality and social connection are all pretty fraught these days, and sometimes we get tired and confused and don’t ever want to hear those words again. And that’s a good time to pick up the latest of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s books on ethics, social categories, and identity. Until recently a philosophy professor, Appiah is known both for his approachable style (he writes a popular newspaper column “The Ethicist”, dealing with readers’ daily-life dilemmas) and for his nuanced response to what may seem like cut-and-dried situations. He views religion not only or even mainly as a matter of belief but also as shared behavior: what people do together as their shared spiritual practice — an approach well known among anthropologists but in the world of the Christian faithful, not so much. Since Appiah’s approach to religion chimes so well with our own UU faith, readers at UUCL can take pleasure in Appiah’s nuanced exposition as he lays out his evidence for how world religions actually work.

In addition to the one on religion, other chapters in The Lies That Bind discuss race, class, country, and culture. Perhaps most important, the book will surely interest anyone concerned about how societies try to make sense of sexual and gender complexities. The first chapter takes up sexuality as the leading example of how categorizing people works, and how it fails, while later chapters offer abundant discussion of the rich varieties of human sex and gender expression. One of the appealing aspects of Appiah’s writing is that, while appealing to a vast range of information about many different world cultures and subcultures, he often starts from the complexities of his own situation: he is Ghanaian but has never held Ghanaian citizenship, he is both English and American, the pairing of his British accent with his milk-chocolate complexion startles taxicab drivers in the United States, and he is gay and married. His parents’ marriage created a family scandal not because it was biracial but because the bride was Anglican and her bridegroom Methodist. He writes with verve and good cheer, no small thing in a time when everybody seems to be angry with everyone else and people often rightly worry about their place in society if they don’t fit in the suffocating categories their little worlds assign. Read this book! You’ll feel better!

We’re planning a book sale …

… actually it makes your Borrower Bee a little sad, as it means losing some good old friends. Still, that gives us shelf space so we can bring in some new ones, while our hope is that the books that are leaving us (April 14) will find the good homes they have certainly earned. Besides the original gift that established the Behrens Library, we have benefited from many donations from members of the congregation, so the library is in that way, as in others, a treasure house of our congregational history. Sometimes making new history means letting go of older stuff that no longer fits our spiritual needs and our collective mission. In books as in other aspects of life — on to the future, even if we have not yet discerned our path. Our minister’s sermon yesterday took up the theme of paradox, which illuminates our library life — illuminates quite literally. She compares our congregational journey to that of Jonah in the belly of that great fish. Hey, it’s dark in here! Reminds me of another great piece of library wisdom: a book is man’s best friend outside of a dog. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read …

… and their use in our church life

Besides the slim volume on the Fellowship Movement, also of note among our new books is the current edition of a well-known book by John A. Buehrens, Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History.

Behrens Library also has several copies of slightly earlier editions, and the book is highly recommended reading for the course on UU History and Heritage currently underway at UUCL. The course is taught by our developmental minister, Rev. Barbara Coeyman, with course meetings on Tuesday nights, from 7 to 9, at UUCL. The course is free but registration is required.

Among our newer acquisitions …

We don’t spend all our time shuffling old books around. Sometimes we add new ones! We have a surprising range of topics, but today I’d like to point out a couple of newish goodies that fit neatly into our core UU mission. They’re mostly, in fact, from either Skinner or Beacon, the UU publishing lines. Among the books that appear in the blog picture, one book  is in an area that isn’t directly connected to our own congregational history but highlights an interesting aspect of the history of UU-ism, namely the Fellowship movement. Fellowships have sometimes been formed by liberal religious groups too small or too isolated to become fully-fledged church congregations, and there was a moment in our history when forming fellowships was a very active way of supporting liberal religion. Even now many UU congregations are small and always have been, and some small congregations have no interest in getting bigger, even if it is hard to keep them going, or, in some cases, even if anyone who wants to locate them needs a really, really good map. The book we have just acquired on The Fellowship Movement discusses the movement in full and serious historical context, but my favorite bits are the stories about, literally, wandering country roads with a torch trying to find some of our more elusive co-religionists. There is also some pretty wry commentary on UU congregations too small to support a minister, and on the fact that some of them think they would rather not have a minister, thank you very much, as well as colorful  descriptions of why some ministers probably wouldn’t want them either.  And this, of course, is just the American story. One of my favorite readings in the sober British Unitarian press of the early 20th century discusses the Unitarian Religious Revival. The point of the article seems to have been to raise the question of whether there was one and whether one was wanted. The answer seems to have been ‘no’, on both counts. But being British, of course, the discussion was very polite and one was so glad the question had been raised. The issues of congregational size and the formation of new congregations continue to be important, of course, and they have direct connection to current questions of the covenantal relationships that exist among congregations and congregational polity. For the history of those issues in American UU-ism, you can check out the Minns lectures by Alice Blair Wesley.