I can still be Unitarian and love facebook, starbucks, and birthday princesses

I can still be Unitarian and love facebook, starbucks, and birthday princesses – a minor critique of UU world cover article “Home grown Unitarian Universalism” by William Doherty
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I can be a consumer and still have a soul

I finally had time to read this spring’s UU world Saturday night, on a flight from Dallas back home to Atlanta, another semi-monthly business trip. It was a pretty hectic trip as usual, although most of my thoughts were on the mess of a schedule that was waiting for me at the arrival gate. I finished up Runaway Jury for about the tenth time, and then saw the magazine waiting in my laptop bag. The cover article looked interesting, so after I read through some of the other articles (skimming over the just war article – I’m all sorts of peaced out for a while.) The writer, William Doherty, had good ideas near the end of the article and is right about a fair amount of points (and I appreciate that), but the article starts off with a premise I have issues with, and in fact, I think is telling of one of the biggest challenges Unitarians face: bringing our sometimes elitist faith into the 21st century.

“These three interrelated social pathologies of contemporary middle-class life – consumerism, time famine, and civic disengagements – are a real life curriculum, or anti-life curriculum, for our children. If we don’t find a way to counteract this curriculum, we will end up with feel-good faith formation that looks and sounds fine but lacks power and depth.”

By trying to remove your kids from pop culture and mainstream society, you will set their faith up for failure. The challenge of my generation, the “millenials” who are constantly busy and have been since we were born, is maintaining, no, adapting, our faith to fit our lifestyle. If we are taught that having deep Unitarian faith is only possible when we unplug from society and retreat back into the woods, then aside from feeling Unitarian guilt our faith will gradually disappear. We should be showing and teaching our children how to apply UUism to everyday life, and show them how they can see spirituality in the everyday – If our kids can see how they can find spirituality in Dance Dance Revolution, then our kids will grow up to maintain their faith as adults.

We can’t pretend we live in a world without pop culture and the evil “c” word of consumerism. I don’t think we can even try to set up our own little protective elitist bubble – no child wants to be the boy in the bubble. And even if we could – we shouldn’t.

One of the issues that faces our faith is what happens after someone walks into our church for the first time and bangs up against our elitism. And if you doubt UU elitism, this quote from the front-page article of our quarterly religious publication should quell some doubts – “Our me-first, materialistic, consumer culture.”

When we start our ritual criticism American society and consumerism, people, new and old alike, start to question what we’re all about. What’s the soul of Unitarian Universalsm? Is it rebellion against modern society? Is it anti-consumerism? Is it condemning our neighbor for having too many iPods? Is it peace at all costs? Is it some special interest or another?

Or is it love.

I’d rather be surrounded by the latter

And one final point:

“I’ve been working with parents to blow the whistle on one prominent example of consumer culture invading childhood: out-of-control children’s birthday parties…the frantic culture of busyness among adults and children also threatens the values of our tradition celebrates.”

That’s right, Ava (my niece), your Barbie blow out birthday is hereby banned. It doesn’t fit with my faith. On your upcoming sixth birthday, I think it would be better if we meditated on the meaning of cake. Let our chalice be your cake, and hey, it’s even got a candle!

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14 responses to “I can still be Unitarian and love facebook, starbucks, and birthday princesses

  1. I think that we need to be careful that we aren’t setting ourselves APART from others. That only creates exclusion. American Consumer Culture is amazing and eye-popping fun if you can see that it is an addition to your life and not your entire existence. Scary backwoods Christians separate themselves because all things “pop” are evil… I don’t want to even think about going there!

  2. I will read that article … but I wonder if you’re not talking about different things than the author. I can’t imagine anyone would proudly claim to be a “consumerist” or declare “consumerism” to be a good thing. We are all consumers in some way or another, but to me it’s like the difference between being social and a socialist.

  3. hafidha – I’m the one claiming to be a consumerist, at least by many unitarian standards, :-) not the author of the article. And my quotes certainly are not the point of the article – it’s about having a unitarian family dinner, which I’m all for. But the first half of the article I was not a fan of.

  4. I was at Bill Doherty’s presentation at GA from which this article was excerpted.

    On the birthday party front, I remember him using the expression “Birthday Party Industrial Complex,” his point being a criticism of multithousand dollar depersonalized birthday parties.

    His larger point was much more than a family dinner. He started with a story about how religious liberals often try not to impose their beliefs on children and then are surprised by the values their children learn from media/video gams.

    The consumer culture he critiques is a media environment that sexualizes young girls and trivializes violence.

    He has a normal family that is into baseball and tv just like “everyone” else. His point is that we have to teach our children values to deal with the messages being sold to them.

  5. James – well, I would definitely agree with that.

  6. Kinsi,

    I think you raise a great point about meeting people where they are. Underneath it all, love. I think the more appropriate question might be, Can I still be a UU if I don’t look down my nose at X, Y, or Z? (or the people that consume them, etc.)

  7. Okay, now I’ve read the article. I really like these points from the first third of the article:

    “When thinking about how to get parents more involved in the religious development of their children, our instinct is to start a new class for parents on talking to their children about spirituality. ”

    -Word to your mother. Ain’t that the truth!

    “For the past several years I’ve been applying this way of working, a citizen-engagement approach rather than a service-providing or educational approach, to the Family Chalice Project in Minneapolis/St. Paul.”

    -This is brilliant. More difficult than running a class, to be sure, but I love the emphasis on building relationships, and taking the religion’s values beyond the church and into people’s daily lives.

    “From a communitarian perspective, a fundamental task of a democratic community is to nurture citizens from childhood in the habits of the heart and mind that are necessary for human flourishing within a democratic community.”

    -I have (half)jokingly referred to myself as a communitarian; am pleased to discover there actually is such a thing!

    “Many youth experience something like this sort of community at camps, especially when youth are active participants in shaping what happens. What these youth experiences generally lack, however, is meaningful parental involvement and continuity with the home.”

    -As a young adult who has worked with youth at cons and in other settings, I would agree with this very, very much! I’m dismayed at how many parents send their adolescents to church to learn the liberal or progressive values, but are too busy to spend more than a little time with them. I know teens can be a pain in the butt, but come on. When I first became a UU, I met lots of born-and-raised UU young adults who had some really f-ed up relationships with their parents. That being said, I know UU young adults whose parents are awesome; and they have good relations with them.

    “Our children will not advance much beyond our adults, and if parents have allegiance only to a local congregation (and, even more limiting, to a particular favored minister) but not to the larger Unitarian Universalist movement, then why would we expect their children to join another UU church after they leave home and move away from their local community?”

    -Very good question. I have only talked to two or three UU parents who have expressed any concern about their children not growing up to be UU. I have talked to dozens of UU grown ups with grown children who have said, quite frankly, that it’s irrelevant to them that their children aren’t UU. Certainly, at my church, parents with grown UU children (who also attend that church) are anomalies. It is very sweet to see, and rare.

    In the second third of the article, I see the one paragraph that mentions consumerism in any depth. Nothing about facebook or starbucks.

    There really isn’t anything in this article I disagree with at all, and I love the idea of Sources Suppers (last third of the piece). We consume a lot – don’t ask how much money we spend eating at chain restaurants, or how many episodes of House Hunters I’ve seen – but I just didn’t get the vibe you got. Where did Doherty say anything about consumers not having souls, or not acknowledging pop culture? The word mainstream shows up in one sentence:

    “The reality is that we hand our children over to the gravitational pulls of a me-first mainstream consumer culture that does not satisfy their spiritual needs or help them flourish—and that sometimes leads them to turn to a more authoritarian religious community.”

    I would agree with that, too! I wish we did UU exit polls; it might help us know whether his insight is accurate or not.

  8. I think it’s interesting that you classify UU as elitist when what I know about UU points to it as a very inclusive faith. Unfortunately, most faiths are seen as elitist by people outside that faith. I think it’s more a case of the non-faithful (as they self-define) feeling like they are missing out on something mysterious that the faithful have more than the typical stereotype of the preachy Christian.

    You also write: “By trying to remove your kids from pop culture and mainstream society, you will set their faith up for failure.” I don’t think Doherty was saying to remove your child from pop culture, but to make sure that pop culture’s “curriculum” or goals don’t take precedence. This is HUGE and I totally agree.

    In our family, we counter the influences of pop culture by talking about it and about why we make the choices we do in the context of our faith. For example, we don’t “ban” tv shows, but we watch one episode together and decide if the people on the shows are “making good choices.” We’ve seen many of the “popular” shows. My kids think most of them are incredibly dumb. They’d rather be playing outside, reading, or playing on the computer.

    You write: “The challenge of my generation, the “millenials” who are constantly busy and have been since we were born, is maintaining, no, adapting, our faith to fit our lifestyle.” I disagree. I don’t think any faith should adapt to one’s lifestyle. Rather, one should mold one’s lifestyle around one’s faith. Now, I’m not talking FLDS seclusion here, but your use of your time, talent, and treasure show where your heart lies and where your priorities are, so if “life” comes before faith, then worldly “life” is where your true treasure is. Makes sense?

    “We should be showing and teaching our children how to apply UUism to everyday life, and show them how they can see spirituality in the everyday – If our kids can see how they can find spirituality in Dance Dance Revolution, then our kids will grow up to maintain their faith as adults.” Now this I (mostly) agree with, though of course I would substitute “God” for “UUism.” I do think God works through and uses all things, people, and experiences. But I don’t think that mean that all things are “of God.” I do think the creative mind can find “God lessons” in just about anything – even DDR!

    “We can’t pretend we live in a world without pop culture and the evil “c” word of consumerism. I don’t think we can even try to set up our own little protective elitist bubble – no child wants to be the boy in the bubble. And even if we could – we shouldn’t.”

    I agree with the spirit of what you are saying, but I think we CAN teach our children, without being elitist, that culture and consumerism are choices and that they are free to make different choices.

    You talk again about UU elitism. I think this applies to all Christians. We have to remember that it’s not our job to “convert” someone to any way of thinking. Our “job” is to live the Good News and share the Good News that Jesus’s love is free and available to all. It’s up to God to do the rest. I think Love – God’s love – is what it’s all about (or SHOULD be about) regardless of denomination (or even of religion, really)

    You also wrote, “And one final point: ‘I’ve been working with parents to blow the whistle on one prominent example of consumer culture invading childhood: out-of-control children’s birthday parties…the frantic culture of busyness among adults and children also threatens the values of our tradition celebrates.’ ”

    Now this I *really* agree with! My kids come home from birthday parties with bags full of “trinkets” that are literally junk. Mostly, parents give out these “goody bags” because other parents do. The birthday kids are all about “what am I getting” and “how many presents will I get” instead of celebrating a special day with their friends. It’s all crazy!

    Last year, my kids wanted Jungle Terry to come for a birthday party. He’s an animal guy – brings live animals for the kids to see, touch, and learn about – who costs WAY more than I would usually spend on our small, at-home parties. So I made my kids a deal. They would have to have one party between them (their birthdays are two weeks apart) AND they would have to make their party a fundraiser for the local zoo. They agreed and they LOVED IT.

    All their friends came with a check made out to the zoo and some artwork suggesting which animal that child though my kids should adopt. We had an “animalmometer” to show how much money was being raised and which animals we could sponsor (some cost way more than others).

    I took them to the zoo to present the donations in person. They raised over $300 and sponsored a jaguar and a ground boa for a year. They got a behind the scenes tour at the zoo and were made to feel extra special for helping the animals.

    Family members brought small gifts, so it’s not like my kids got nothing for their birthdays. And we avoided the hoardes of unneeded and un-played-with stuff that sits unused on the shelves.

    Best of all, we got to talk about stewardship, taking care of God’s creatures, and making a real difference in the world. It’s been nearly a year and they are still talking about, “the best birthday ever” and trying to decide what to raise money for this year!!

  9. Hi there,
    I’ll leave a “real” comment soon, but for now I just wanted to tell you that I think the source of the confusion is that it looks like this blog essay has a byline of William Doherty. The way it’s spaced, it doesn’t look like you’re saying that THIS post is a minor critique of an article that was written by a guy named William Doherty, it looks like you’re saying that “I can still be Unitarian and love facebook, starbucks, and birthday princesses” is a blog post written by you, William Doherty. I know you’re not William Doherty. I know Doherty is the guy who founded Family Chalice and wrote the UU World article. But I had to read the beginning and the title over and over to get that figured out. OK, logistical post over, I’ll post about the content of your great and thought-provoking message later or tomorrow. Thanks for posting!

  10. Debbie – that is quite possibly the most awesome kids’ birthday party ever, no wonder your children are still talking about it. And I’ll bet the parents of their guests were relieved not to have to buy another toy for someone else’s child – not being sure what to get, or having to go to the store to buy it, etc. What an efficient use of resources! And a great example of communication between your kids (we want this) and you (here is how you can have it).

    And I am not even that crazy about animals. =) Or zoos.

  11. Let’s clear up some confusion!

    First off, I am so not William Doherty! Let’s clear that one up right off the bat. I’m just a run of the mill lay person at UU Congregation-o-Atlanta :-)

    I realize that those quotes do not entail the full article and do not represent the thrust of the article – as I said up in that post I think it’s got a fair amount of good points and ideas in the second half of the article, like the family dinner bit, but the first page or two have things in there that just hit a nerve with me, hence those quotes.

    Debbie – I have a whole post I’m thinking through about the whole elitism thing to think through that concept some more. I disagree about having a faith that fits one’s lifestyle, although you do make a strong and compelling argument. I think most of us are Unitarians because it fits with our lifestyle, and by this I also include our way of thinking and acting. That’s what caused many of us to leave our former faiths behind – it didn’t fit with our lifestyle and what we think is right. If our faith doesn’t mesh with our lifestyle, then it’s going to be a short lived experience. The thought of molding our life to fit our faith sounds nice, it really does and I would love for it to happen with me one day, but right now that’s something that seems impossible for me (which is something I do plan on thinking more about.) I, first and foremost, have to have a job so I can pay my rent, my car payment, aid my monstrous credit rating, etc. I’m totally on my own, trying to navigate this lovely economy we’re in. The job I have now is great and I’m moving up in the private, for-profit company. But it’s not very Unitarianish – I help rich kids go to college. I’m not working for a nonprofit trying to save the world like I had originally enviosned, because I wouldn’t be able to save myself. And it demands 9/10 hour days from me, of which by the end I’m completely zonked. John Wesley has a great quote I have up in my apartment to remind me when I get down (Unitarian guilt) about this- “May I become a master of myself so I can become a servant of others.”

    I don’t see how we can grow our faith with thoughts of live like us or you aren’t us. That reminds me of a trip we took to First Baptist of Atlanta with the middle school youth where he welcomed us from the pulpit, then condemned us for not being good baptists. (we also got the same thing from a Reform Jewish Temple that year.) I don’t consider myself a Christian, which where some of the differences in our line of thought may come from – I go to a sometimes hardcore humanist Unitarian congregation.

    We seem to lack humility as a denomination. Take a look at that recent time ad “when in doubt, pray, when in prayer, doubt.” That doesn’t strike me as a very welcoming message, if anything, it comes of insulting to a lot of people. I can’t imagine our congregations breaking out into spontaneous foot washing ceremonies like in some Christian churches.

    My main issue with the birthday idea is that last bit – “threatens the values our tradition celebrates.” I don’t see how a princess part threatens Unitaran values. This isn’t to knock other birth celebrations, but certainly mine shouldn’t be knocked as a result. If the intentions are right, then I think the celebration is secondary.

  12. kinsi,

    This is what I’ve loved about the internet since 1990: the ability to get into cool conversations with people I’d probably never meet in real life! Thanks for the food for thought.

    I can’t wait for the elitism blog post. Keep gelling those thoughts. (-:

    “I think most of us are Unitarians because it fits with our lifestyle, and by this I also include our way of thinking and acting. That’s what caused many of us to leave our former faiths behind – it didn’t fit with our lifestyle and what we think is right. If our faith doesn’t mesh with our lifestyle, then it’s going to be a short lived experience.”

    Hmmm…so does that mean that if your lifestyle changes, you might no longer be UU if it doesn’t “fit” with your current situation? I guess I’m more of an absolutist than that. I also apologize for not knowing very much about UU.

    “The thought of molding our life to fit our faith sounds nice… but right now that’s something that seems impossible for me. I, first and foremost, have to have a job…The job I have now is great and I’m moving up in the private, for-profit company. But it’s not very Unitarianish – I help rich kids go to college. I’m not working for a nonprofit trying to save the world like I had originally envisioned…”

    I totally see what you are saying, and I struggled when I was younger with that same “guilt” of not living a “more Godly” life. Especially because I had a solid middle-class upbringing, I always felt like I should be giving away more, trying to get away from the materialism of the world, trying to be more spiritual, etc…

    But my thinking has changed on that subject. I now believe that living my faith does not necessarily have to manifest in that way. I don’t think everyone is called to ministry, for example, or to non-profit work or to wandering the country preaching the Gospel, etc…. I think I can live my faith by striving to be the best person I can be in my own corner of the world.

    So that’s what I mean about molding my life to my faith – “growing where I am planted” so to speak and being the best example of Christ-like-ness I can be in the time and place where I am now.

    “I don’t see how we can grow our faith with thoughts of live like us or you aren’t us.”

    Well, lots of folks DO try to grow their denominations like that, but I’m with you – it’s not a very nice way to be!

    “That reminds me of a trip we took to First Baptist of Atlanta with the middle school youth where he welcomed us from the pulpit, then condemned us for not being good baptists.”

    My husband’s parents are part of a very conservative Lutheran congregation. We used to go on Christmas Eve because we go to his parents’ for Christmas dinner and it was closer than driving 1.5 hours back to our home church (where we attend weekly). Every year, the sermon was literally “fire and brimstone, hell and damnation” one about people who only came to church on Christmas. And he’d look right at us! My husband finally got fed up and we started driving the hour and a half back to our church for Christmas Eve.

    “I don’t consider myself a Christian, which where some of the differences in our line of thought may come from – I go to a sometimes hardcore humanist Unitarian congregation.”

    So what does it mean to be UU and how is it different from a Christian denomination? (Sorry – there’s probably not a short answer to that!)

    “We seem to lack humility as a denomination. Take a look at that recent time ad “when in doubt, pray, when in prayer, doubt.” That doesn’t strike me as a very welcoming message, if anything, it comes of insulting to a lot of people. I can’t imagine our congregations breaking out into spontaneous foot washing ceremonies like in some Christian churches.”

    Ack! I don’t want to be in any Christian church that does spontaneous foot washing. (-: I actually like the idea of praying when in doubt and doubting when in prayer. I don’t see where anyone would be offended by that, unless they are looking for a denomination that gives them all the answers. I guess I feel like God is big enough to handle my doubts and that questioning can lead to a deeper faith.

    “My main issue with the birthday idea is that last bit – “threatens the values our tradition celebrates.” I don’t see how a princess part threatens Unitaran values. This isn’t to knock other birth celebrations, but certainly mine shouldn’t be knocked as a result. If the intentions are right, then I think the celebration is secondary.”

    I agree. There are just lots of families where the intentions seem to be out of whack – very materialistic and “not right.”

    Thanks for the conversation! I’m so glad I found your blog a while back when I was blog surfing!

  13. Pingback: Why I am a Bad Unitarian – Part 4 – Living in the woods sounds like hell. And useless. « Spirituality and Sunflowers

  14. Pingback: Commercial culture, hymnal pedagogy, and more « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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