Contagious Theism And Reason To Rejoice

Reading my UU World over coffee this morning, I read two articles back to back that begged a response, and I am grateful to both the authors for the passion they ignited in me to be in conversation. I don’t know either of them, Kris Wilcox or the Rev. Dr. David Breeden. While I am responding to them specifically, I am also responding to prevalence of their arguments within Unitarian Universalism. In other words, I have heard similar stories many, many times but had the time and inclination to respond to these this morning.

In Kris Wilcox’s article about why she does not participate in UU congregational life despite having loyalty to the tradition from having been raised UU, she shares her theological evolution from humanist to Christian and finally to firm atheism. I know as well as anyone the limits of short form essays to describe long and complicated journeys through theological identities. However, the anecdote Wilcox highlights in order to explain her atheism is typical, and deserves a closer look. She writes,

My cheerfully unexamined faith did fine through my twenties, with no major stress tests. But later, after I had children, and my 5-year-old asked, “Mommy, is God real?” I knew she wasn’t asking me about the Spirit of Life and Love. She was asking if God is an actual, sandal-wearing guy in the sky, the way her paternal grandparents and some of her friends insisted. I knew also, looking into her eyes, that I was an atheist and always had been.

As I have written and preached (you can watch me address the subject with a head cold here), an ethical atheism is, to me, a far more honorable and healthy theological position than uncritical, exclusivist orthodoxy. I was raised by one spiritual atheist and one existentialist atheist and I turned out alright  –except that I became a Christian, which some UUs consider a failure of parenting or of reason.

It is entirely age appropriate for a five year old to first conceptualize God in concrete terms! Unitarian Universalist religious educators know this and, in the good programs, we addresses that with love and curiosity. We must better teach parents how to do so, too. Too many parents go theologically paralyzed in the face of their children’s questions about God, being triggered, as we say now, by either their own religious traumas or their discomfort of not knowing how they themselves feel. “I’m a grown-up! I should be able to answer this but I don’t know what to say!”

It is entirely possible to offer to an inquiring child a God-concept that is not the “sandal-wearing guy in the sky,” but Wilcox seems not to have considered that, deciding that a five year old’s age peers and one set of grandparents are the final arbiters of how to define God, and also cause to reject God altogether. But there’s more to the story, and it is not really fair to conclude that this mom really relied on five year olds or her in-laws to circumscribe religious reality for her daughter.

The “more to the story,” as it true for most couples, is that her spouse is almost fatally allergic to God, Jesus and traditional expressions of religious faith.

The author’s husband has such a toxic experience with traditional religion that, “[he] would sooner take [the children] on the highway without a seatbelt than give them unshielded exposure to even the most liberal Christianity.” Later in her article, Wilcox describes her little daughter proclaiming, “‘People who believe in God are crazy,’ to which Scott nodded approval.”

Oh, boy. I’m so sorry. I really am. Whatever they did to this man as a kid, it was sick and soul-damaging and wrong. I am so sorry that whatever happened to him hardened into a conviction that anyone who believes in God must be crazy. I am really, really tired of hearing ministers use the line, “I’m sure I don’t believe in that God, either,” because it insults the author’s husband and my intelligence and diminishes the profundity of both our experiences.

Unitarian Universalism attracts a lot of Scotts, and we need more than one now-ancient religious education curriculum (“The Haunting Church”) to minister to them. Any thinking person who reacts with such uncritical hostility and disgust to Theism or Christianity badly needs pastoral care (although are unlikely to want to get it through a church’s ministry).  But individuals who come to UU churches looking for what Kris Wilcox calls the “detox experience, “whose primary function is to bar the door and heal the wounds of bad religious experiences” must have it clearly and caringly communicated to them that Unitarian Universalism has outgrown its identity as the hospital for the religiously wounded. We tried it, we built a marketing campaign around it, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work in terms of growth because as Wilcox herself expresses it, a religion based on not being religious and defining itself by “This is What We Do Not Believe” has no core integrity or sustaining purpose. It didn’t work institutionally, as religiously wounded people who join religious communities and emphatically insist on their right to remain wounded  — and who participate in community from a place of suspicion and fear, angrily counting Jesus mentions on Christmas Eve  — do not build healthy systems.  They build, at best, social clubs of UU fundamentalists as toxic as conservative Christian fundamentalists.

The healthy people who seek spiritual growth just leave these congregations, if they ever stay longer than a couple of weeks.

“I’m concerned my children will pick up theism along with the Seven Principles.”

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Urban Decay’s “Razor Sharp” Ad

Urban Decay, a make-up company I adore and have written about many times in positive terms, produced this ad [click to enlarge]:

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Rightly called out for going over the edge of their self-description as a brand that sells “make-up with an edge,” UD Tweeted a baloney explanation about how they always use swatches on the arm.

I’m not buying it. Someone being paid good money decided to pair a single female arm in corpse-hued nail polish with razor cuts reminiscent of self-harming next to the product and approved that copy. These decisions are not arbitrary: advertising costs a lot of money and needs to generate a lot of money. It could have been handled differently.  Take a look at how, because every single one of the images I will share come from UD’s own Instagram account. which someone is also being paid to manage.

They could have used a neutral background with no human arm, as they did in these two cases:

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They could have shown several arms in relaxed or even fun hand formations. They’ve done it before:

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They could have shown the wrist only: an image much less evocative of cutting one’s wrists. They could have shown an open hand.

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They could have swatched the colors farther apart and gone way down the arm as they did here. In fact, the swatches would have been easier to see that way.

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They could have shown their product on actual eyes. They don’t always use the swatch design in their promos. I know. I’m a super loyal customer.

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The image they did use is a lone female’s arm in a pose that is nothing but evocative of wrist-cutting.  The position of the hand, the length and placement of the swatches  — it’s wrist-cutting. The coy, “edgy” copy for the ad confirms it.

It’s wrong, and Urban Decay should stop explaining and start apologizing.

As I said, I’m not buying their apology. As to whether I’ll be buying their make-up again, that remains to be seen.

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“Mansfield Park:” Black Suffering And White Romance

Last night I watched Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which I looked forward to because I knew there would be an irrepressible heroine and lots of sexy 19th century repartee done up as only Jane can do it. Great cast, too.

After the film, starring Frances O’Conner, Jonny Lee Miller and Harold Pinter (!) was over, I tweeted, “I think I just watched a movie about how slavery interferes with white people’s romantic lives?”

Because what the hell was that?

Let me summarize for you: Fanny Price is a poor relation who gets sent to live with rich relations in Mansfield Park. She is in love with her virtuous cousin Edmund (who winds up being a clergyman – score one for positive depictions of clergy in cinema!). She is courted by a super hot but untrustworthy rake named Henry Crawford.

Fanny Price’s uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, makes his fortune largely through dealings in the West Indies. Fanny, though, is concerned about the evils of slavery (as is her cousin Edmund and her dissolute, drunken other cousin Tom, as we shall see). On her way to Mansfield Park in a stagecoach, she passes a harbor and hears the distant ululations of the slaves on a ship. The driver informs her that that’s the sound of “black gold.” The ship and the sounds from it return very briefly in a couple of other scenes. They trouble Fanny, you see.  She and Virtuous Edmund make abolitionist murmurings in one or two scenes, but never to directly challenge Sir Thomas, but more to inform him that they’ve been reading.

Reading is a much more important virtue to these characters than speaking out directly against the hand that feeds them — even when they have indisputable truth, as Fanny gains through the discovery of a sketch pad filled with images by an eyewitness, that Sir Thomas is a raping marauder of African women as well as being a direct beneficiary of the slave trade. Meanwhile, she frets prettily in those empire-waist gowns. We’re meant to see her as a woman in a sexist predicament: her futures are dictated by patriarch Sir Thomas who wants her to marry a guy she thinks is of poor character. Believe me, I’m sympathetic. But if Austen can have cousin Maria abandon her husband Sackcloth or Rightcroft or Snailditch (hilariously portrayed by a Hugh Bonneville in a poodle wig, whatever the hell his name is) and flee with a hot lover, she could surely have arranged a similar, parallel flight for Fanny for more righteous cause.

Here’s where I’m like, “Wow, I know that it’s silly to expect 21st century consciousness and intersectionality from Jane Austen, but how about this filmmaker in 1999?” Given that Patricia Rozema added some dialogue and changed some plot points for her film adaptation of  Mansfield Park, I wondered why she could not have added even one scene where the characters could actually grapple with the evils of slavery in a way that wasn’t merely a device to enhance the apparently integrity of the two romantic leads. I’m talking two or three lines of dialogue.

As it was, the theft, rape, torture, murder and enslavement of Africans by the English was used as a plot device to move white people through personal issues of integrity and romantic partnerings, which is how black lives are often used in white stories.

At one point, the apparently soul-sick Tom (that’s why he drinks! He’s guilty about supporting slavery) becomes gravely ill and Fanny is rushed back from her squalid home in Portsmouth to help nurse him. We are supposed to infer that Tom, whose ailment is never explained, is basically dying of moral injury. This effects a bedside mea culpa from his father, the evil Sir Thomas, who weeps, “Forgive me.” However, that apology is not for financially benefiting from the slave trade or raping African women who are never seen except as sketches drawn by a white man’s hand and heard by a white woman from a stagecoach, but a father’s distressed cry at the bedside of his dying heir: “Forgive me, and live to inherit my fortune and run my company.”

In other words, the forgiveness is begged not of the real victims of slavery, but of the white man whose conscience was inconveniently troubled by it.

That’s where I think I hooted and threw my remote control across the room.

After Tom (miraculously) recovers and all the romantic partners get squared away (the one character who showed lesbian leanings is exiled, of course, as she turns out to be a thorough baddie), the film ends on a quaint lawn scene as the narrator explains how things resolved. As it turns out, heh heh, Sir Thomas divests from his “interests” in the West Indies but goes into the TOBACCO industry. Isn’t that a great punch line? HA HA HA, a slave-tended crop that kills people! The cheerful music and wink-wink tone of the narrator signals that we are to find this information a mildly naughty irony rather than sickening evidence of the character’s continued exploitation and destruction of countless, anonymous black bodies, families and lives.

We so easily could have had a slightly redeeming coda saying that Franny and her husband Edmund joined an abolitionist cause, but naw. The pretty white heroine got her guy and happy ending. No need to mention slavery, as it was just there to provide a background conflict for white family drama.

Not one of the reviews I could find online mentioned this problem with the film; not even Roger Ebert’s four-star write-up.

Not even Hugh Bonneville’s poodle wig and rouged cheeks could sweeten my bitter disappointment.

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