Friday, 21 February 2014

The Mormonisation of Christianity

I've been thinking about writing an article on this topic of "the Mormonisation of Christianity" for some time now.  I see this phrase as describing something that's been going on in a wide variety of Christian churches (particularly in the "evangelical" churches and in the conservative wing of many mainstream churches) since the early 1980s. 

"The Mormonisation of Christianity" is the phrase I use to describe the situation where many Christians believe they are obliged - as a matter of Christian duty - to take the most conservative position possible on any issue that relates to gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  It's about the situation where many Christians believe that their fellow-Christians somehow deny their faith when they do not take the most conservative position possible on any issue that relates to gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  It frequently seems to be a "package deal".  And, whenever and wherever this happens a lot, I say that "the Mormonisation of Christianity" is going on.

Now, I'm not trying to be negative here about Mormons.  I like Mormons.  As an ecumenical staffer, I enjoy getting invitations to Latter-Day Saints functions.  I look forward to attending these gatherings.  I almost always try to re-arrange my schedule so that I can attend them.  My problem with the LDS is merely with the fact that Mormons almost always take the most conservative position possible on any issue that relates to gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  And that's not always very helpful in terms of relating the Christian faith to the wider community. 

And whenever other Christians, whether evangelical or mainstream, take a similarly predictably conservative (and similarly unhelpful) position on a whole range of issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics, I think about Mormons.  And, thus, I call it "the Mormonisation of Christianity".

Let's leave the LDS for a moment.  But I'll return to them later.  The historical background of their ethical position is rather interesting.

Historically, there was a time when things were different.  This process I call the "Mormonisation  of Christianity" began in earnest in the early 1980s.  During that time, many conservative Christians in countries around the world were moving toward a more deliberate style of networking with conservative Christians in other denominations, largely under the influence of political groups trying to mobilise what has since been called "the Religious Right".  And, for the most part, this networking has been of a political nature rather than an ecumenical one, with a strong emphasis on influencing public policy and with very little growth in the relationship between evangelical "Protestants" and Catholics (either conservative "Brideshead Catholics" or mainstream "Vatican II Catholics") in areas of faith and spirituality.

One thing that took place as part of this process, beginning in the early 1980s, was that conservatives within a range of denominations picked up each other's issues.
  • Evangelicals "discovered" the anti-abortion movement, which had been pretty much exclusively a Catholic concern until the '80s.  (And, to be fair, abortion is not only a concern for conservative "Brideshead Catholics".  Among the Catholics I know, liberal and middle-of-the-road "Vatican II Catholics" have a similar attitude toward abortion as conservative Catholics.)
  • Conservatives within the Catholic Church reemphasised some of their church's traditional criticism of homosexuality, which had become rather low-key for much of the 20th century.
But, while they picked up each other's issues, they still "did" them very differently.

For example, there always seemed to be a difference in the motivation for different conservative Christians to oppose abortion.
  • For most Roman Catholics (whether conservative "Brideshead Catholics" or normal "Vatican II Catholics), their opposition to abortion seemed mainly to be grounded in a feeling of compassion for the fetus.
  • For many evangelicals, there always seemed to be a primary motivation of hostility to the women having the abortions, the doctors performing the abortions, the staff assisting, and the judges and politicians who enabled the process; with the well-being of the fetus being almost an afterthought.
Similar comments could be made about the approaches of different groups of conservative Christians toward homosexuality.  For conservative Catholics, the approach is much more theological and philosophical with heavyweight medieval theologians and ancient philosophers frequently brought into the argument.  For evangelicals, there seems to be far less Aristotle and far more locker-room homophobia in their approach.

Importantly, though, for conservative Christians, whether Catholic or "Protestant", there always seems to be a real sense of a "package deal" in responding to a range of issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  If you take a conservative view of your faith, you're generally expected to take a pretty conservative view on the whole range of these issues.

At the same time, for less conservative Christians within the ecumenical mainstream (mainstream "Vatican II Catholics", most mainstream non-evangelical "Protestants" and Anglicans ...), for the most part, we were fairly quiet on many of these issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or families, or bioethics.  (We sometimes faced these issues as "in-house" matters in our church communities, but we did not, for the most part, address these issues in speaking with the wider community.)
  • For those of us (whether ordained or lay) who studied theology, there was a strong realisation that issues of gender, or sex, or marriage, or bioethics were not high on the theological radar for Jesus or for the gospel writers. 
  • For the average lay person, his/her commitment to middle-class "niceness" also led to a commitment to an inclusive church in which people of "all sorts and conditions" are welcome, regardless of their marital status, sexuality, etc. 
  • As well, the average lay person's commitment to middle-class respectability frequently led to an impatience with those (on either the theological "right" or the theological "left") who argue excessively about issues of gender, sex, marriage, or bioethics. 
Crucially, for those who are not part of the "religious right", there is far less of a "package deal" in our responses to the whole range of issues.  For example, among a worshipping congregation of mainstream, ecumenical Christians, whatever the denomination, the same individual could simultaneously be:
  • strongly supportive of a greater acceptance regarding couples cohabiting before marriage, divorced and remarried people, and people in same-gender relationships
  • ambivalent in her/his views regarding abortion, and,
  • holding markedly conservative views in terms of euthanasia;
while another person in the same congregation could hold to a radically different cluster of opinions.

And, in doing so, neither individual would not necessarily feel any sense of inner conflict, as there was no real necessity to hold a particular "package deal" of opinions.

This sense of a "package deal" is important as we briefly return to thinking about the Mormons.  Historically, the Latter Day-Saints faced a crisis in the late 19th century.  The Territory of Utah, where most Mormons lived, was applying for statehood in the United States.  The Mormon practice of polygamy was a definite barrier to Utah becoming a state.  In 1890, the LDS Church ended its practice of polygamy, leading to Utah's statehood six years later. 

However, the earlier Mormon practice of polygamy still dominated popular perceptions of members of the LDS Church.  In their search for social acceptance and political approval, the leadership of the Latter-Day Saints strongly emphasised Mormon "normality", particularly the closeness and stability of LDS families.  For much of the century that followed, so as to counter the 19th century's popular cultural image of the Mormon man as a randy polygamist, a "package deal" soon developed for 20th century Mormons  involving making the most conservative responses possible to a range of issues relating to gender, sex, marriage, or bioethics.  Whether this was a conscious PR move or not, it worked.  Both in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world, the Latter-Day Saints moved from being a fringe sect to becoming part of the conservative "establishment".

And, thus, when many conservative Christians in the 1980s developed a "package deal" of issues of personal ethics ranging from pre-marital cohabitation to euthanasia, it recalled the earlier Mormon "package deal".  For many conservative Christians, it became a way to exert influence upon politicians.  For many Christians who were not so conservative, many people's perception that "the churches" were all supporters of "the religious right" became one more cultural factor leading to the marginalisation of the mainstream churches and, as a result, to the growing secularisation of the culture.

In my opinion, this period of "the Mormonisation of Christianity" may soon be drawing to an end.  I date the end of this period to an incident that took place last year.  On a flight from Brazil to Rome, a journalist asked Pope Francis a question about homosexuality.  The pope's initial response was a simple, "Who am I to judge?"

This simple and Christlike response was, in my opinion, a healthy sign.  I believe Francis was saying that, whether he himself took a conservative view or a more accepting view on any particular social issue, his role (and the role of all church leaders) was to be a pastor rather than a cultural warrior.  I believe (or, at least, I hope) that, by making this simple statement, Pope Francis announced the beginning of the end of the "Mormonisation of Christianity".

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

“You have heard that it was said ...”: a sermon (Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Matthew 5:21-48)

I’m tweaking the lessons from the lectionary a bit today. 

Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, from Deuteronomy, is a bit longer, beginning about a paragraph earlier than suggested, so as to include these important words from Moses:

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

With our Gospel lesson, from Matthew, I’m combining today’s gospel with next Sunday’s gospel, as the two readings are closely connected to each other.  As a result, next week, when I’m not leading worship, you’ll probably hear part of this reading again and will hear completely different insights on that same passage of scripture.  That’s a good thing.  It reminds us that we can always get a variety of insights from scripture and that these various insights are valid, even when they're not identical to each other.

In our gospel lesson, part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a series of topical comments.
  • Each comment began with “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times ...” or simply “You have heard that it was said ....” 
  • Jesus then stated some conventional wisdom. 
  • Then, Jesus added, “But I say to you ...”, and then Jesus proceeded to take the conventional wisdom to its next step, in each case raising the ethical stakes dramatically.
In each case, Jesus didn’t deny the earlier laws and practices.  Rather he tried to take each to its next higher level.

To give an example, Jesus said at one point in this passage:

‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

In this example:
  • Jesus first stated the conventional wisdom:  “You shall not swear falsely ...”.
  • Jesus then took the matter a step further:  “Do not swear at all ...”, using the word “swear” in its proper meaning of “taking an oath”, rather than the word’s more casual meaning today of “coarse language”.  And the sense of this is that an honest person’s “yes” or “no” should be good enough. 
So Jesus raised the ethical stakes by saying, essentially, that if everyone is honest, there is no need to take solemn oaths in law courts and such places.

Curiously, many religious people ignore this passage of scripture. 
  • They take the view that a person who believes in God needs to take his or her oath in court (or anywhere else) on the Bible or some other sacred text. 
  • They also believe that a person who chooses to make a civil affirmation rather than a religious oath is necessarily a non-believer.
  • That’s not always the case.  A person who takes a civil affirmation  may be a person of Christian  faith who takes this particular passage of scripture particularly seriously.  In fact the provision for civil affirmations was first made available for Quakers, who took their Christian faith very seriously, but had a religious objection to taking oaths.
I know someone who used to be a Federal Senator, and who’s now a priest.  When he was a politician, he never took an oath of office because of the way he interpreted this passage from scripture, so he made an affirmation instead.  He copped a great deal of flak from some religious people who thought he was denying his faith by making an affirmation instead of swearing an oath.

Anyway, for each of these statements, Jesus took an example of conventional wisdom and dramatically raised the ethical stakes.

A few of these may need some unpacking.

With the bit about plucking out a lustful eye or cutting off a larcenous hand, please remember that Jesus was speaking in the Middle East.  People in that part of the world use that sort of extravagant, excessive, colourful, and sometimes gross imagery when they speak today.  They spoke in a similarly excessive way 2000 years ago.  

Also, when Jesus spoke in this context about divorce, he was speaking about the sort of divorce laws they had in that time and place, when divorce happened because of the unilateral decision of the man involved, and where the woman involved had no say in the matter.  Our situation in 2014 is very different.  No condemnation of any divorced person today should be read into Jesus’ words here.

The bit about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” also needs to be considered.  Sometimes, when people are having a rant about “law-and-order”, sometimes they’ll say something like “Didn’t Jesus say ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’?”  The proper answer is that Jesus quoted that old saying ... and disagreed with it strongly.  The truth is that, if you believe in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Jesus disagrees with you.
  • I’ll say that again.  If you believe in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Jesus disagrees with you.
  • Once more.  It’s important.   If you believe in “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, Jesus disagrees with you.

All of this is about raising the ethical stakes beyond the lowest-common-denominator ethics of conventional wisdom.  It’s about ethics that goes the second mile, to use another image in our gospel reading.

It’s all about an ethic of maturity.  And the Greek word (teleios) that is used for “perfect” in the last verse of this passage is also translated as “mature”.  In a real way, what Jesus is saying is “Be mature, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  And the fact that there was a potential Greek pun involved may have just helped with communication .

But, of course, this is not about doing a lot of things to earn favour with God.  We don’t earn favour with God by doing good deeds, just as we don’t earn God’s love by believing all the right beliefs.  God’s love for us is totally generous, whatever our response.  That’s what grace is all about.  And we worship God who expresses Godself through radical grace.

Jesus calls us live according to the ethics of maturity, the ethics of the second mile, not so that we can earn God’s favour, but so that we can make life better for others and so that, in the process, we can experience the joy of living according to God’s grace.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels: a review

I hadn't heard of Philip Gulley until the morning of this past Christmas Day, when I discovered a paperback edition of one of his "Harmony" novels ("Signs and Wonders") in my Christmas stocking. 
  • I started reading it sometime on Boxing Day. 
  • By New Year's Eve, I had ordered the other novels in the "Harmony" series from an online bookseller (the one named after a river in Brazil). 
  • By the end of the first week of February, I had read all the novels in the series except the two specifically Christmas-oriented books (which I'm saving until next December as a Christmas treat for myself). 
I think I'm hooked on Philip Gulley's books.  (I may have to start on his non-fiction.)  As a writer, he's almost unknown here in Australia, unfortunately (which is why I needed to order his books online).

Philip Gulley's novels are set in the fictional rural community of Harmony, Indiana, in the Midwest of the United States.  They tell with great humour the story of the ministry of Sam Gardner, the pastor of Harmony Friends Meeting (i.e., Quakers), both his frustrations in ministry and the joys he encountered.

(For my readers in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Canada, and the Northeastern US, the idea of a Quaker Meeting having a pastor may be curious.  These books are set in the context of a strand of Quaker life - common in the Midwestern US - where the Meetings for Worship are much more formally structured than they are among classical Quakers, and where the congregations - as a result - have pastors.)

Some of the review notes on the covers of the books compare Philip Gulley's accounts of life in a rural community to those of James Herriott's accounts of his life as a veterinarian in rural Yorkshire and to Garrison Keillor's broadcasts of life at "Lake Woebegone", Minnesota.  Affirming the links with Herriott and Keillor, I see other parallels in Gulley's work to some of my favourite recent writers.

In the way he accurately (with some license allowed for dramatic exaggeration) depicts the work of ministry in a local congregation, both the real frustrations and the real satisfactions, both the personal drama and the unintentional comedy, as the context for his story-telling, Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels resemble Harry Kemelman's "Friday the Rabbi Slept Late" series of mysteries.  A person considering that ministry (in any faith tradition) is their vocation is well-advised to read these books (as well as to read Kemelman).

In terms of the way he weaves mature, reflective theological commentary into his storyline, Gulley's work is very similar to the late Father Andrew Greeley's mystery novels featuring Bishop "Blackie" Ryan.   Not only does he tell a good, entertaining story, but Philip Gulley (like Andrew Greeley) teaches good theology in way that is accessible to readers who are not theologically trained.

(Note:  For fans of Harry Kemelman's "Rabbi" novels and Andrew Greeley's "Blackie Ryan" novels, please note that Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels are not mysteries.)

In terms of celebrating the authentic humanity, the real diversity, and (at times) the vulnerability of the people found in the typical worshipping congregation (including the really mixed-up ultra-conservative types), Gulley's books remind me of the stories of Adrian Plass, particularly his "Sacred Diary" series.

In terms of the ability to find both gripping drama and high comedy in people such as your own neighbours living their day-to-day lives, Gulley's books remind me of the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.

Some of the theological themes in Philip Gulley's novels have been developed further in his non-fiction books.  One of these, a theme which has also featured in a post in this blog, is the affirmation of the universal nature of God's grace, the belief that God's grace will ultimately prevail over all things, including an affirmation that (in my own words, not Gulley's) "God will not condemn people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong".

Philip Gulley's "Harmony" novels are definitely worth reading.  He tells a good story, with some good theology wrapped up in the story, along with some genuinely funny moments.  If you're outside the US, it may necessitate a visit to the website named after the Brazilian river, but it's well worth it.

***

Titles of the "Harmony" series: 
  • Home to Harmony
  • Just Shy of Harmony
  • Signs and Wonders
  • Life Goes On
  • A Change of Heart
  • Almost Friends

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

"Saving Mr. Banks": a review

The film "Saving Mr. Banks" is one that's well worth a trip to the cinema. 

The film is about the conflict between Pamela (P.L.) Travers (Emma Thompson) and Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) over Disney's adaptation of Travers's "Mary Poppins" stories into the classic children's film.   Both Travers and Disney are portrayed as supremely difficult people who irritate each other magnificently.

By the time portrayed in the film (early 1960s), Disney had been seeking Travers's permission to make a film out of her books for decades, particularly given the fact that Travers's books were a childhood favourite of one of Disney's daughters.  Travers had been refusing, essentially on the grounds that she didn't want her quintessentially British "Mary Poppins" stories to receive a "Mickey Mouse"-like Disney treatment.

The cultural clash between Travers's British formality and reserve and Disney's Midwestern hyper-familiarity at times was stereotyped.

The film frequently flashes back to Travers's Australian childhood in rural Queensland, and her relationship with her Irish parents, her alcoholic father and suicidal mother.  The flashbacks convey the distinct impression that, in her story of the nanny with the magical powers, Travers was seeking to redeem her childhood and the significant adults in her life as she grew up.  As a result, she was in no mood for the "Mickey Mouse" or "Donald Duck" treatment of the stories.  Dancing penguins definitely need not apply.

Much more could be said about both Travers (a penchant for Eastern mysticism) and Disney (a pronounced leaning toward extreme right-wing politics) than the film chooses to do.

There is a strong supporting cast, with some notable cast members being Bradley Whitford ("The West Wing"), Rachel Griffiths ("Muriel's Wedding"), and Paul Giamatti ("John Adams").

All in all, this is an excellent film.  The honest portrayal of Travers's father's alcoholism and her mother's attempted suicide means that "Saving Mr. Banks" is not really a childrens' film, even if it is about the making of a classic childrens' film, "Mary Poppins".

"Saving Mr. Banks" has much to say about how personal conflict between highly committed people affects the creative process, and about how our childhood experiences affect our perception of life as adults.

Monday, 3 February 2014

“Let your light shine ...”: a sermon (Matthew 5:13-20)

Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel is a passage of scripture that I’ve often read as part of a brief funeral address, normally coming at the end of a few longer tributes from family members and friends.

I’ll share what I’ve said at some funerals.  Let’s assume it’s for the funeral of a man named “Eddie”.  (And I don’t think I’ve ever actually done this at a funeral for someone named “Eddie”.  And, if you have a family member or friend named “Eddie”, it’s NOT about your Eddie.  I’ve just picked a name out of the air, and the name just happened to be “Eddie”.)  

Here’s what I’ve said.

***

I’m going to read a brief passage of scripture and to speak very briefly.  We have heard tributes to Eddie on behalf of his family. Everyone here can express their thanks for the qualities of love and care shown in Eddie’s life in one way or another:  to his family, within this congregation, and within the wider community in other areas of service.

We give thanks to God for the love, care, and service that have been qualities of Eddie’s life.  And in this context, I’d like to read some words spoken almost two thousand years ago.  While he was teaching his disciples, Jesus once said:

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

For a number of reasons, these may be confronting words for many of us.

Here in Australia, our culture gives us the message that we’re not supposed to “have tickets on ourselves”, that we’re supposed to downgrade our own contributions to the well-being of the people around us:  “Oh, it’s not that much, not really.”

And, as well, there’s a type of religious person who believes they always need to put themselves down.  They often say, “I’m bad, I’m bad; I’m horrible, I’m horrible!” until they start to believe it themselves.  (And this is one reason why some religious people have real problems with low self-esteem.)

In contrast to both these unhelpful attitudes, we hear Jesus’ words:  “… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”  It’s not a question of “having tickets on yourself”, but of being honest about your own contribution to the well-being of others.

Eddie was not the sort of person who “had tickets on himself”, but was nevertheless the sort of person who helped this community to be a caring place.  We give thanks to God for Eddie’s life of care for those around him.

Jesus said, “… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

***

And that’s the sort of thing I said at a number of funerals.

And, as I’ve said, what Jesus taught us here contradicts a lot of what many of us were taught in church over the years.  If Jesus teaches us to let our light shine before others, that must mean we have a light that we can shine.  And, particularly for those who’ve grown up in rather conservative churches, much of what we’ve been taught in church tells us we have no light to shine.

·        We’ve been taught prayers that say we’re “not worthy to gather up the crumbs under ... [God’s] table”, but Jesus tells us to let our light shine.

·        We’ve been taught hymns where we sing of “a wretch like me,” but Jesus tells us to let our light shine.

·        We’ve been taught in Sunday School or Confirmation Class that our good works mean nothing in God’s sight, compared with whether or not we hold the right beliefs, but Jesus tells us to let our light shine.

Once again, those who may have grown up as part of particularly conservative churches may find Jesus telling us things that contradict much of what we were taught in our religious upbringing.  One good rule of thumb:  If Jesus is saying one thing, and your earlier religious upbringing is saying something else, go with what Jesus is saying.

Jesus said, “… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

In the meal we shall soon celebrate, Jesus will not check out our theology or our personal ethics, and toss us out if we don’t measure up.  He hands us the bread and the cup and says, “Come, for all is made ready.”

Afterwards, Jesus will challenge us “… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

“If we should speak in languages exotic ...” (a hymn, based on 1st Corinthians 13)

If we should speak in languages exotic,
or else ecstatically with angels’ speech,
yet have no love, our wisest words are futile
as noisy as a shrill metallic screech.
Refrain
Love never ends.  It lasts beyond all language.
Love never ends.  It lasts beyond all skill.
With faith and hope abiding through the ages,
yet of these three, love is the greatest still.

For love is kind and patient, never boastful,
not rude nor arrogant; and won’t deceive;
rejoices in the truth, and not in falsehood:
all things to bear, endure, hope, and believe.
Refrain
Love never ends.  It lasts beyond all language.
Love never ends.  It lasts beyond all skill.
With faith and hope abiding through the ages,
yet of these three, love is the greatest still.

For as a child, my thoughts and deeds were childish,
as an adult, my reasoning has grown.
So with God’s love, we’ll grow into Christ’s likeness
and we can know, as also we were known.
Refrain
Love never ends.  It lasts beyond all language.
Love never ends.  It lasts beyond all skill.
With faith and hope abiding through the ages,
yet of these three, love is the greatest still.

Robert J. Faser, based on 1st Corinthians 13
(Tune:   Londonderry Air)
 
Permission is given to use this hymn in worship in  local congregations or other worshipping groups, provided appropriate acknowledgement is given.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Those "My Family" stickers: do they bring out the "Grumpy Cat" in you, too?

The other day I saw a sticker on a car.  The sticker showed the familiar face of "Grumpy Cat", and declared "Grumpy Cat doesn't care about your stick figure family." 
 

Has anyone else given a thought to those stickers that seem to be found on cars everywhere?  The stickers have the heading "My Family" and show a number of line drawings of people, usually engaged in leisure pursuits, representing the family members of the person owning the car.  They're printed to order.  Occasionally, a sticker is printed to make a sarcastic, cynical, or (occasionally) downright rude statement, but most of the time, the sticker (like the one below) is a sincere symbolic portrayal of the person's family engaged in some of their recreational interests.


One good thing about these stickers is that the family depicted on the sticker can vary, depending on what the person ordering the sticker chooses.  As I said, the sticker is printed to order.  It is not dependent on any pattern other than that of the person driving the car.  It does not have to conform to the family patterns of families on television comedies.  Neither does it have to conform to the type of family some politicians think of when they use the phrase "family values".  A single-parent family can have a sticker for their family.  A childless couple can have a sticker.  A same-gender couple can also have a sticker, as can a person whose family is a houseful of pets.  The availability of figures with halos and wings makes it possible to recognise, include, and honour deceased family members.

So far, so good.

There is one factor I find curious about these stickers. 

The people in the stickers are always depicted at some leisure activity.  The adults are rarely shown at work (either paid or volunteer).  The children and young people are rarely shown as being students.

This seems very odd to me.

Most of the adults I know are seriously "into" their work ... not as "workaholics", but in a creative and positive way.  They see their work not merely as a means to earning money, but as a major source of personal satisfaction, and as a way in which they contribute to the well-being of others.  Even if they are frequently frustrated by aspects of their work, they find their work to be profoundly meaningful.

And the majority of adults I know have a similar feeling about the significance of their involvement in various volunteer-based organisations (religious congregations, service clubs, political parties, other community groups ...), even if they sometimes complain about the implication of their involvement on their free time.

Most of the children and young people I know are seriously "into" being students.  They enjoy their education, not only because of the hope that it will lead to good employment in the future, but because of the fact that education opens up their perspective on the wider world.

The adults, children, and young people I know also enjoy their various leisure pursuits -- whether active or sedentary, whether individual or social, whether sporting or intellectual, whether outdoorsy or artistic -- in fact, they enjoy their leisure pursuits a great deal.  But, I know very few people who define themselves by their leisure pursuits.  Most people I know define themselves by a combination of their relationships, their work, and their community involvement.  I know very few people who define themselves by their hobbies. 

Thinking of the family on the sticker earlier in this article, the woman holding the microphone may be many other things than merely a person who enjoys singing karaoke.  She may be married to the man with the surfboard, and be the mother of the boys playing the drums and riding the scooter.  She may also be a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law .....  She may work as a journalist.  She may be an active member of her local synagogue and her local Rotary Club.  But, rather than any of these other possibilities, as far as the "My Family" sticker is concerned, she's merely a karaoke enthusiast.

Now, there's nothing wrong with karaoke.  BUT .... (and I hope I'm not being too curmudgeonly here) I am concerned that the popularity of these stickers may be a sign of a growing social trend. 
  • Are these stickers another sign of the growing hyper-individualism of our society?
  • Do these stickers tell us that many of our neighbours hate their jobs?
  • Do they tell us that a growing number of people are moving away from seeing themselves as being creatively involved in their daily work, in their community activities, and in their education? 
Or am I just becoming "Grumpy Cat"?