Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Woebegone Excuse for an Opinion on Holidays

This post is in response to Garrison Keillor's column, first published on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009 at

As a member of the congregation that sponsors the Cambridge Forum, where Mr. Keillor was a guest on Monday, and where it appears that he picked up a hymnal and read the words of Silent Night, as interpreted by Unitarian Universalists, I’ve had a number of reactions, but come back mostly to being offended.

First, as mentioned, he was there as a guest of the Cambridge Forum, and of our Parish. It’s likely, though I don’t know one way or the other, that he was paid an honorarium for being there. And At the very least, he got a significant amount of PR out of the visit, discussing his newest story with a large audience. So, after visiting our house of worship, as an invited and welcomed guest, he writes this piece. To me, that is rude and disrespectful, to say the least.

Second, as a Unitarian Universalist, he offended me by somehow attempting to take a moral high ground, while trying to peg me, and people like me (UU’s from Cambridge) as elitists. In nearly the same breath, he implies that his Christianity is somehow better than the Christianity of my fellow UU’s who identify as Christians, of whom there are many. From this non-believer’s point of view, that seems a bit mixed up.

But my umbrage does not end there. There is also the matter of my background in a mixed faith household. Though I was raised Jewish, my father’s half of the family are pious, yet open-minded protestants. Much like the folks I used to imagine came from Lake Wobegon, my family are members of a small farming community where faith is an important part of their lives. Now, however, I’m not so sure that they’d fit in in Lake Woebegone – thankfully, my family is, as I said, open minded. They never begrudged my celebrating Christmas with them, even though I am, as Mr. Keillor would say, a non-believer. I have taken joy from celebrating with them and other Christian (and christian) friends, just as they have, I hope, taken joy in celebrating Rosh Hashanah, Passover, and other Jewish holidays with me. To claim a holiday is “ours and not yours” is surely to miss the point of such a celebration – to share it generously and joyfully seems more the point.

Similarly, while I am not a religious scholar, I do have some experience with other faiths, including Christian. And the last time I went with my wife to a Christmas mass at her home diocese, I remember being instructed to go forth and bring to the world the good news of Jesus’ birth. Compared to that hopeful and joyous message, Mr. Keillor’s sounds dissonant and tinny, far more so than a slight alteration to Silent Night ever does (except perhaps when sung by this tone-deaf Unitarian/Jewish/Protestant un-believer).

I’m still digesting my thoughts, but as I said before, I am, at least initially, rather offended by Mr. Keillor’s insensitive column.

However, I am heartened by a few things it has brought forth. Though perhaps he’d condemn it as elite intellectualizing, the thoughtful, open, and interesting discussion I’ve seen and had in response to the column has been inspiring. Furthermore, via my wise mother, who had it from her rabbi, I was led to a much nicer article, one by Jeffrey Goldberg, telling the story of Orrin Hatch, the Mormon, Republican senator from Utah and the (good) Hanukkah song he wrote.

This uplifting story, unlike Keillor’s column in so many ways, shows how openness and respect for others’ traditions can bring us together and help the traditions not only thrive, but improve. This, at it’s heart is what I believe UU’ism is about.

(post edited Dec. 18, 2009, in response to Ethan's comment below)


  1. Thanks to Peter Bowden at the UU Growth Blog for his excellent post on this subject which provided the impetus for this post.

  2. BTW - The event was primarily a Harvard Bookstore event to promote Keillor's new book. I think the Cambridge Forum kinda glummed on to it. I don't think authors on book tours usually collect a stipend; their stipend is increased book sales. If there was a stipend, it likely came from the Harvard Bookstore and not Cambridge Forum.

  3. Ethan, thanks for clarifying. You're probably right, and I'll edit the post. Either way, he seems to have forgotten his Midwestern politeness - his column really doesn't seem like a way to respond to a visit to someone's sacred space.

  4. Josh, great post. I'm drafting a response myself thought without a blog I'm at the mercy of editors to print it. Salon has closed the comment thread on that article, though I can't imagine why.