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Dan at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist has responded to J. D. Salinger’s death with a spirited grumble. Or was it Mr. Crankypants writing? Anyway, my response was getting into long-and-hijacky territory and I thought I should just post here instead. I hope I am following proper blog etiquette in carrying on a dialogue with another blogger that way, though I acknowledge that by disallowing comments, I’m not playing fair. But that can’t be helped.

Dan was saying that since Salinger’s last published work (“Hapworth 16, 1924”) was “unreadable crap,” most of what he’s written since would be better off burnt unread. I dispute the logic though not the premise. My reaction to his death, along with a pang of sadness (though it was no tragedy–not because he was a cranky old coot but because he’d lived for 91 years) was that it bears a long-awaited silver lining: I’ll finally get a peek at the books he’s reportedly been writing. I fervently hope he ordered them published, not destroyed.

“Hapworth” was crap, but all of Salinger’s crap has jewels in it. And I choose that disgusting metaphor deliberately, because I am definitely willing to dissect the crap for those sparkly sentences inside. Even those who aren’t fans of most of his work (and there are plenty who have no interest in anything not starring Holden Caulfield) can hope that another [insert your favorite Salinger] will now appear. In 35 years’ worth of socked-away manuscripts, there is very likely to be another “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” or “Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters.” I’m glad I’m alive to read it.

Dan wrote: “he was not some immortal writer, he was just an ordinary nutty old man.” I would say he was most likely something in between: a very fine writer (probably immortal for as long as the world produces teenagers, but I won’t quibble on that point). Many artists I admire sound like people I wouldn’t want to live with (Bob Dylan, now that’s a nutty old man. But ordinary? No more than Salinger). We didn’t have to live with Salinger, lucky us. We just get to read his books, putting them down if we don’t like them, and if we do, who cares whether we’d want to hang out with the author. It’s a variation on the theme I struck last month re: Keillor. Writers are as complicated as anyone, and though celebrity culture likes to promote the idea that only good people produce heavenly art, I’ve never noticed a correlation. The value of the work is in the work.

I have strong feelings about fame and privacy. Maybe Dan’s contention that Salinger goosed book sales by foraying into lawsuits is fair; I haven’t paid attention to the trends of Salinger book sales. That would indeed be irritating, but not surprising. If he wasn’t one to fret about his sales and/or status, he’d have published and said be damned to the reviews and reactions. But I think writers are entitled to privacy. If someone were trying to publish my private letters, I’d sue them too. Don’t even get me started on the oft-repeated (not by Dan) idea that artists owe their public something other than their art.

A writer I like at least as much as Salinger, Lawrence Block, has a very funny, cutting, loving take on Salinger, The Burglar in the Rye. Its gist: leave the man alone. Privacy is his due as a human being, and gratitude is his due as someone who wrote a book that changed our lives (for me, it would be Franny and Zooey, not Catcher). Block also got some serious digs in at kiss-and-tell girlfriends. Salinger didn’t sue him.

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Oh dear, over a month since my last post. Erratic is about what we can hope for here, I think, especially if I’m going to tackle big questions, like appropriation and our place in the liberal Christian tradition. After this I’ll get back to easier topics for a while.

I said on 12/22, “We UUs do want to sing ‘Silent Night’ without really embracing the theology. We want to tell the Christmas story, own it as part of our tradition, without saying the words we don’t believe, that ‘Christ the Savior is born.'” Some of us singing in my church on Christmas Eve were Christians, others not, and I doubt there was a single person there who agreed with the theology of every line of every carol we sang. Many liberal Christians, not only the UU variety, would take issue with “virgin mother and child” and the assertion that Jesus was “born that man no more may die” (or, as we sang it, “that we no more may die,” which fixes the gender problem but not the theology).

So we don’t need to embrace the entire Christian message before celebrating Christmas. Christianity is extremely diverse and includes many internal contradictions, as one discovers very quickly if one innocently asks a multidenominational group of Christians about the propriety of infant baptism. And we stand in that tradition, doing what Christians have always done: try to be true to what they see as the core teaching. Fred Small quietly staked this claim (and with admirable grace toward his congregation’s petulant guest) in his response to Keillor: we seek to live as Jesus did and as he urged us to do. It is not only UUs who find that, in order to do so, they have to interpret much of the New Testament metaphorically and flatly disagree with other parts.

As regards the carol-rewriting question, this leads me to two complementary conclusions: (1) we may go ahead and rewrite; the Christian tradition is neither uniform nor finished; (2) we don’t need to sweat it so much if we don’t agree with every line, UUs’ famous need to read ahead notwithstanding.

Ah, but what about me personally? I’m not Christian. The traditions of Christmas, to me, are akin to Buddhist meditation or Nawruz: wisdom and beauty that come to me from a history that is not mine except in the sense that I’m human. Christmas is part of the world’s heritage, something we should learn from and celebrate, always showing due respect to those for whom it is their one guide, but not ignoring it because it “belongs to someone else.” (The fact that it is the dominant religion shaping our culture, not a small religion driven almost into extinction by the dominant culture/religion, makes the dynamics of appropriation different than with, for example, Native American religious practices, though that doesn’t obviate the need for care and respect.) And what I found this Christmas was that I was moved to tears by the meaning I found in the story, as I always am, year after year and with a different meaning each time.

Here’s what I think we (that is, those UUs who are not ourselves wholehearted followers of Christianity) need to do to be respectful of Christian tradition:

One, go ahead and draw the conclusions from the story that we see there. For me they include the idea I voiced in my homily Christmas Eve, that salvation may begin with a child’s birth but it can’t end there; it doesn’t end with the arrival of a savior; we have to complete it, just as we have to raise a baby to adulthood. It is a heterodox, by some standards a heretical interpretation, but on the other hand, I doubt my words would have shocked everyone in a liberal Christian church.

Two, be willing to set those conclusions against any other story that may be told, even those in the Gospels themselves. In my view, Luke’s conclusion, and Matthew’s, and heaven knows Paul’s, were each wrong in their way. They led to some beautiful theology, and a whole lot of bad theology, and quite a lot of murder and mayhem (notably of Jews, another reason Keillor needs to put his religious persecution problem into perspective). But they are not the only interpreters of Jesus’s life. We are interpreters too, and we may be better ones than even the people who created Christianity to begin with. Jesus, after all, was not a Christian either.

Three, don’t call the result Christianity unless you truly regard yourself as a follower of Jesus or of a Christian tradition (they’re often not the same thing–actually, I wonder if they are ever the same thing). I’m really neither one. But you don’t need to be a Christian to rejoice in what Christmas has to tell us.

Here’s what I said on Christmas Eve. Props to our minister of religious education, Dan Harper, for bringing us (from Dana McLean Greeley, no less) the candlelighting ceremony that gave such a beautiful shape to the service and informed my thoughts.

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