New Coke and New Technology

Let me state right off that I do indeed respond poorly to surprise and change. “No” is my auto-response, and over just under six decades, no one and nothing has been able to change this fact about me. All I have learned is to examine my deeper responses and get back to people later with a confirmation or a reversal.

Let me also state that the chronic pastoral crisis that is my life with a fiancee in Stage Four Huntington’s Disease just got worse, as my father flunked his heart exam, and I want to see him before the massive coronary takes him away. Within the next six months.

And that means my response is a perfect read on how this new logo will hit the folks in the pews. I’ll do scholarship for you another time, another topic. This is about My Journey with the Flaming Chalice.

The Flaming Chalice entered my awareness in 1970, via the UU Service Committee. My aesthetics tend toward the delicate, the finely wrought, the ornate, but I bought one  of clunky round pewter pendants because above all else I hated our iconoclastic paralysis. A lot of other young people felt the same way. At last we had something to display when our friends held up their new crosses and Stars of David, and that was important.

A lot of other people apparently felt the same way, because the chalice became a worship focus. Something to which artists turned creative attention. People put them on tattoos and cowboy boots. They float on ministers’ stoles and sparkle in stained glass windows. When we arrive in a new town, we know the UUs will be different from what we left behind — that’s the joy of congregational authority — but we also know they’ll probably display, light, and extinguish a chalice. There’s excitement in seeing new renderings of it, connectivity in speaking words we spoke in our old congregation. Over the decades, its shape and story matter less than memories that spring forth whenever we spot that symbol.

I question the people who say the chalice has been a failure. The function of a religious symbol is to call to mind that which transcends our lifespan and social niche, and for many of us, it does. Did you know that Unity now sells a teeshirt which features a chalice on its wheel of world religions symbols? I couldn’t believe my awe the first time I saw that.

So then, why does the chalice not excite religious admiration far and wide? It is not the chalice which failed, it is those who had the job of sharing its meaning. The job of a religion is to proclaim their good news with enough clarity, persistence, and general obnoxiousness, to reach people for whom that theological approach to the unnameable will comfort, guide, sustain, inspire. Sometimes evangelization means preaching to the choir (a place, by the way, in which some people are dying, divorcing, going broke, recovering from addictions); other times it means taking it to the streets (also a place in which some people are dying, divorcing, going broke, recovering from addiction). But what it always means is sharing YOUR good news. Our association leaders seem more intent on throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Now that we’ve kicked our iconoclasm problem, let’s talk about our evangelization problem. Because evangelizing is not the same as political outreach. Evangelizing means telling others good news, usually of a religious nature. Above all else, it succeeds through testimonial — personal witness — and fails when tries to get by on everybody liking your symbols. I don’t like knee-jerk iconoclasm, but  I applaud the underlying sentiment that what we do and say conveys our true message. But not without a consistent representation that tells people who we are. That does not mean a consistent design, but it does mean a design that always brings to people’s mind the fundamental structure — cross, star, tree — the people have chosen.

Let me be blunt: The tulip does have a design problem. This is the New Coke moment at the new headquarters and somebody needs to be fired. Plans need to be put on hold while the Association — the people in congregation — send delegates to district meetings and General Assembly to find out what went wrong. It isn’t that I don’t like the little thing, but it fails the Rorschach Test test: it doesn’t always and immediately mean only one thing to those who see it, and the things people see when they see it are not what the funding organization had in mind. If Jon Stewart gets his hands on this, we’ll never be able to speak our name in public again.

Enough other bloggers have pointed out, really well, that the brouhaha over this logo represents a whole lot of anger about communication breaking down throughout our system. I don’t know the details, but when you piss off this many of your parish ministers, your denomination is in trouble. They’re doing their best to be good pastors — humor, perspective,etc — but the underlying message, “I’m gonna be nice about this, but you need to deal…”

So what would I bring to the table at this point? Rev. Cyn got at it best, when she talked about all the ways the denomination would really need to support her technological toolkit to roll out this logo. Our leadership doesn’t need a new logo with better support, they need state-of-the-art support for the logo they already have.

I am sixty years old, but, as they say in Monty Python, “not dead yet.” So lately, I’ve been looking for a really good flaming chalice design to become my first tattoo. Go ahead — google “flaming chalice tattoos” and see how far you get.

And I’m also getting married, for the first time, on Summer Solstice. So despite the complete immorality of it, I actually search Tiffany’s website to see what kind of wedding band I could get in the little blue box. (We’ve already agreed on locally purchased, recycled, please don’t crowd-source a blue box for this), because it was snowing and I like jewelry, I searched the affordable necklaces and bracelets: things I might actually wear. Scattered amongst the palm trees and heart symbols were emblems of major religious. And I couldn’t help it, I really wanted to see our chalice in there with the crosses and stars of David, the trees of life, the peace signs. It isn’t that I would buy one — although I probably would, my one Tiffany’s purchase in my life — it’s that I want my religious symbol to be considered worthy of the designers who design the Vince Lombardi Trophy and Commissioner’s Cup. 

And how would that symbol reach that level? Design (which is different from the fundamental selection of a symbol) is not the avenue.

Herewith, I contribute something positive. You can be in a congregation or not, You can like any kind of chalice, general or specific. Not right this minute, because it’s time for lunch and medications, but sometime soon, I call on all of us who blog, who Facebook, who tweet, whatever, to go online and build a YouTube collage of “My Journey with the Flaming Chalice.” Like the “You Can Play” and “It Gets Better.” Set up a laptop in Coffee Hour tomorrow and stream out a ton. 

The reason Tiffany’s sells crosses is because there are millions of Christian testimonials on Youtube now, as there were in other sharing technologies before YouTube. There are Stars of David because there are Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and Seders that people who consider themselves completely non-observant would never omit. There are trees of life because Pagans spend fortunes visiting Stonehenge (for which we pray; it’s under water right now), Bridget’s well, and Tiffany’s wants some of that money.

No one would accuse those Jews and Pagans and many of those Christians of lacking civic commitment. On the contrary, we see them more and more often at interfaith public witness, in service organizations, in political offices. I don’t know why UUs struggle with public versus private religion as if a person, a congregation, a denomination has to choose. It’s not a zero sum game…

… unless, of course, you refuse to staff for full presence in all arenas, and insist on maintaining an outworn “leadership” culture, instead of reaching aggressively for the voices, the faces, the talents — and above all, the stories and values — of new generations.

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