Sunday Services

Irreverent or Irrelevant?
October 15, 2006 - 5:00pm
The Rev. Judith Meyer, speaker

"Irreverent or Irrelevant?"

By the Rev. Judith E. Meyer
Unitarian Universalist Community Church
Santa Monica, California
October 16, 2006

As a girl growing up with two brothers, I resigned myself early on to constant teasing. Gullible and sensitive, I was an easy mark - almost too easy. I reacted dramatically and cried without shame, retaliations that worked well, in a never-ending cycle that might go something like this: My older brother would place a photo of my younger brother on top of the television console in the living room. Then he would call me excitedly, "Judy, come quick - Geoffrey's on TV." And I'd come running in, only to realize I'd been fooled again. Yes, I fell for it more than once.

And I took it for what it was - attention, which I wanted and enjoyed, even at my own expense. Though we are all much older now, the family dynamics haven't changed much. I am still as gullible as ever. My brothers are still capable of making fun of me. The only difference is that I don't cry and they are not so sure they want to read my sermons.

Some of the old feelings came back to me a couple of months ago, when after preaching one Sunday at Pacific Unitarian Church, I was driving home, listening to "A Prairie Home Companion" on the radio. My ears pricked up when Garrison Keillor mentioned "Unitarian" and "Santa Monica" in the same sentence. He said something like, "Keep those Unitarian jokes coming from Santa Monica." I don't know which one of you is sending jokes about us to Garrison Keillor, but I do remember that hearing that made me feel good. Like a child who is grateful for attention, I thought, "Any publicity is good publicity."

About the same time, a new member mentioned to me that she had never heard of Unitarian Universalism before, until she learned about us from the jokes on "A Prairie Home Companion." The jokes seem to leave a positive impression. And they convey the attitude that we don't mind if others make fun of us.

Actually, no one makes fun of us more than we do. There is practically a cottage industry in Unitarian Universalist jokes. While I was searching for Garrison Keillor's remarks, I came across numerous other humorous references to Unitarian Universalists not only on "A Prairie Home Companion," but in the sermons of almost every UU minister. We have jokes that are passed from generation to generation, creating an oral history of our foibles.

The jokes we tell about ourselves are predictable enough. We laugh about our earnestness. One I hadn't heard before comes from a sermon by David Weissbard.[1] You might be a UU if: the money you sent to the Sierra Club last year was more than you spent on your mother at Christmas, or if you think the Holy Trinity is "reduce, reuse and recycle." We tell jokes that resonate with the experience we have in our churches. How do you know you are a UU: You think a Holy Day of Obligation is your turn to do coffee. You get mail from committees you didn't know you were on. You know at least two people who are upset that trees had to die for your church to be built.[2]

There is an insider quality to such humor. It shows us our common experience; makes a community out of a disparate assortment of people. I doubt that our coffee or committees are all that different from other congregations, but laughing at ourselves brings us closer together.

There is another kind of humor about Unitarian Universalists that is more difficult to analyze. It has to do with ridiculing us because we are not conventionally religious, or don't know what we believe, or are too busy debating each other to care. While reading up on Garrison Keillor's UU jokes, I came across a narrative that you may have heard. It tells what happens when the rapture finally arrives. According to some Christian teachings, on the day of the rapture, believers will ascend directly to heaven, while those left behind will suffer and struggle. As "A Prairie Home Companion" depicts it, the day of the rapture arrives and Unitarian Universalists find themselves among the chosen. The only problem is we don't know what's happening to us.

"The Unitarians have been raptured," Garrison Keillor announces. Why? They don't want salvation, they want closure. If a Unitarian ascends to heaven and no one is around to see it, did it actually happen?"[3]

This depiction is a gentle caricature of a faith community that is more concerned with the here and now than the hereafter. But it also suggests that we don't understand or care about the message of traditional faith. Instead of salvation, we want closure; and we don't know what heaven is. We might ask, "Is that so bad?" It may be one of our virtues.

Here's a joke that makes us look good, in a way: Hearing that a great flood was coming, the Catholics said their rosaries and the Buddhists used their beads, the Congregationalists joined in prayer, and the Unitarian Universalists formed a class to try to learn to live under water.[4] While we reject traditional religious practices, we are eminently practical. And just as doomed as everyone else, if you want to make a darker interpretation of such humor.

Most Unitarian Universalist humor is harmless fun, but it also shows us why some people can't take us seriously. We're so far out on one end of the religious spectrum that they think we've fallen off completely. It may even give some of us doubts about what kind of tradition we have inherited.

Actually, we have a tradition of not being taken seriously, at least as far back as the nineteenth century. Louisa May Alcott, author of "Little Women" grew up Unitarian in the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a progressive educator and social reformer. Her family's circle of friends were Unitarian and Transcendentalist - experimenting with Eastern religion and Utopian communities, as well as education, odd pursuits, to outsiders.

For a while the Alcotts lived on a vegetarian farm, Fruitlands, west of Concord, Massachusetts. It was not a success. Emerson complained about having to give them money all the time, and Louisa May realized early in life that she would have to be the family breadwinner some day. She reflected in her memoir, "A Transcendental Childhood," "In those days prophets were not honored in their own land, and Concord had not yet discovered her great men. It was a sort of refuge for reformers of all sorts whom the good natives regarded as lunatics, harmless but amusing."[5]

I have the funny feeling that is our legacy too. There is a strain of benevolent kookiness that runs through our history, a strain that has caused others to laugh at us and us to laugh at ourselves. It's not the whole story, but it reveals some of our better qualities. That same wacky Alcott household that never had enough money and drove Louisa May to vow she would be rich some day also harbored fugitive slaves. Bronson Alcott taught human sexuality in his school curriculum, and published it with his colleague Elizabeth Peabody.[6] Their bold activities made others ridicule them and brand them as dangerous radicals.

Some things are worth doing - even if the price is ridicule. Concord may not have appreciated her great men and women, but their accomplishments are revered today. We can only hope that the things people find so funny about us will be similarly ahead of our time.

Probably not the jokes about coffee or committees, however. Like all self-referential humor, some old jokes quickly become irrelevant. But the good-natured pokes at a quirky group of people who felt it was more important to save the earth than ascend to heaven; who were cheerfully ignorant of beliefs that others took as a matter of life or death; and who dared to live as if each day and each person are what really mattered - if that turns out to be our legacy, then I hope we do get left behind.

In the meantime, may we laugh at ourselves, but not at others' expense; enjoy our differences, without claiming to be special; and when we are too earnest, remember that the rest of the world regards us with irreverence. Such lessons are easy to learn, if we take them with a touch of humor.


[1] "What?s Funny About UUism?" A sermon by David Weissbard, Rockford, IL, June 17, 2001.

[2] "Laughing At Ourselves: UU Jokes," A sermon by Cynthia Snavely, Bowie, MD, August 3, 2003.

[3] "A Prairie Home Companion," May 1, 2004.

[4] Found in virtually all the sermons I read.

[5] Louisa May Alcott, "A Transcendental Childhood," in "The American Transcendentalists," ed. Laurence Buell, New York: The Modern Library, 2006.

[6] Elizabeth Peabody and Amos Bronson Alcott, "A Controversial Experiment in Progressive Education: Part One," in "The American Transcendentalists."


Copyright 2006, Rev.Judith E. Meyer
This text is for personal use only, and may not be copied
or distributed without the permission of the author.