Reflections: Speaking Truth To Bierkenstocks: Or, Why I Became PeaceBang

May 6, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

Good morning, my name is Victoria Weinstein and I am the blogger known as PeaceBang.

I didn’t know what a blog was, either, until about two years ago.  I knew that my friends Chris Walton and Scott Wells (Chris is the editor of the UU World magazine and Scott is a UU minister) had their own web pages that they designed themselves, where they posted commentary on all manner of religious subjects.  I was impressed, and I checked in frequently.

During dinner one night, my hugely pregnant friend Rebecca, the wife of another UU minister friend (you can see what circles I tend to travel in), told me that it was the matter of pressing a few buttons to create my own weblog, or “blog.” She had started one to record her pregnancy and said that I should go and do likewise, that it was fun and I’d be good at it.

So that night – and this was between Christmas and New Year’s 2004, I went home and became PeaceBang.  (The name had also been given to me that night at dessert, when I tried to tell the gal behind the counter at the ice cream place that my friend Steve was paying for my cone -- “he’s paying” --, and he kept mishearing me as “PeaceBang.”)

Blogging is an online conversation a bit like the old salon or the conversation circle of the 19th century, only conducted online by people known in most cases only by their screen names.  Readers find you somehow, they read you, and they may choose to comment.  Some postings have no comments.  Some get up to 50. 

There are political bloggers, culture bloggers, here’s-what-I-did-today bloggers, entertainment media bloggers, sports bloggers, floral arrangement bloggers, knitting bloggers, and so on, for as far as the eye can see.  I am a religion blogger, reflecting, musing and occasionally ranting about all manner of subjects as they relate to religion. 

At first, I had ten or twenty readers. I immediately loved the medium, perfect for a compulsive talker/writer like myself.  UU friends would contribute comments, and I would go out onto their blogs and comment, and for a single pastor living alone in the suburbs, this was a great way for me to have someone to talk to at the end of the day.  I had only two rules for myself from the beginning: first, no names or identifying information. Second, when writing about church life, make it a valentine.  Religion is a suspect thing.  The Church is regarded by a good number of intelligent people as an archaic institution, a nasty, stubborn old man wrapped in an afghan and coughing out his last days, and good riddance.  I wanted to join the corps of cool, funny, provocative bloggers who love the Church and aren’t afraid to say so.

After awhile, I had dozens of readers, and then hundreds.

And then last April, having just attended a professional gathering populated by religious leaders of various denominations who were generally dressed as though to clean out the garage, I posted an entry called “Make-Up For Ministers 101.” 

The response was so great that my sister encouraged me to start an entirely separate blog on the subject of ministerial attire, comportment and grooming.  After much resistance, I was finally persuaded, and I’ll tell you the how in a moment.  And that is how Beauty Tips For Ministers was born, which has become a bit of a media sensation, bringing me and you a lot of outside attention, specifically from two television appearances, a front page article in the Boston Sunday Globe, an appearance on the Busted Halo Show on Sirius’s radio’s Catholic Channel, and on countless websites and church newsletters.

The gospel of PeaceBang is a simple one for ministers and it goes like this: God has made a good gift in you, and you don’t bring an unwrapped gift to God’s party.  If we believe that we are representing a vibrant, relevant institution in today’s world then we should look that way.  I have called my mission “the de-frumpification of the American clergy,” and while my writing is meant to be funny and irreverent, I am serious about the problem of sloppiness among our ranks.  I am appalled by the laissez-faire attitude held by many of my colleagues, who think that their comfort is more important than presenting a polished public image.  As I once wrote on my blog, Jesus died on the cross for his ministry. The least we can do is put on a pair of heels now and then.

I was at Trader Joe’s recently after having gone to the gym and I ran into one of you who took one look at me, laughed, “Boy, when you’re off duty you’re really off.”  She was referring to my wet hair and sweaty clothes, and we laughed but the truth is, religious leaders are never entirely off duty.  No matter where we are, we have an opportunity to make an impression, to talk to people about their lives, to share with them the joy and energy they might find in spiritual community.  And when we do, they will make a snap judgment in about two seconds as to whether or not they relate to us.  Researchers tell us that something like 90% of what we communicate is non-verbal, which means that though I may wax eloquent on the relevance and vitality of the 21st century church, what people are really paying attention to is my voice, my hair, my lip gloss, my clothing.  What can you do? You’ve got to stay true to yourself, of course, but you’ve also got to, as the kids say, “represent.”

One last anecdote before I yield the pulpit to Ms. Abrahams.  I told you how I was finally persuaded to start an entire blog devoted to the art of ministerial appearance.  Just at the time my sister was trying to persuade me to start writing on the subject, I spoke to a friend of mine who thought she would really like to join a Unitarian Universalist church.  I recommended that she investigate her local congregation, and gave her the link to that church’s website.  When we next talked, I asked her whether or not she had visited the congregation.  “No,” she said, hesitantly.  I pressed her for a reason.  Was it inconveniently located? Did the church not seem to offer any programming for her? Did she find the minister’s online sermons clichéd or offensive in some way?

Well, no, my friend said.  But based on what the minister was wearing in her photo – a Guatemalan vest, bead earrings and drab hair -- she determined that this congregation was “an old hippie church,” and that wasn’t her cup of tea.  “I took one look at that woman,” she said, “And I knew exactly what kind of church it was, and it wasn’t my kind of church.”

That struck me as very shallow, and I told my friend the same. She said, Well, yea. I’m a hip, sarcastic, skeptical, thinking person, just like millions of other people who don’t go to Church! If you and your minister friends want to attract people like me to make us less shallow and more spiritual, you’re going to have to promote a more with-it image.

I considered that a charge and a calling, and the ministry of PeaceBang was born, missionary to the fashion-challenged clergy, whose readers are in pulpits in seven countries this morning, hopefully not only looking, but feeling, more like their best selves.  I can tell you this, though: they don’t have half as good-looking a congregation to preach to, and that’s God’s own truth.

Robin Abrahams writes the popular “Miss Conduct” etiquette-advice column for the Boston Globe. A Cambridge resident with a PhD. in psychology from Boston University, Robin has worked as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She is married to Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes which are given annually for achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.


Sermon for Norwell First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church

May 6, 2007

The Beauty of It

Robin Abrahams

I'd like to thank you all for being here with me today, and thank Reverend Weinstein for inviting me. I met Vicki through her blog, "Beauty Tips for Ministers," which I found linked through another religious blog I read (which I'd found linked through another religious blog, and so on, much like a cyber-version of the "begats" in the Hebrew Bible). I've become a great fan of her and her writing on topics great and small, but since I originally met her through her writings on beauty, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about beauty with you today.

There is a concept in Judaism known as "hiddur mitzvah," or "beautifying the commandments." Although "mitzvah" is often used colloquially to mean "good deed," the precise meaning is "commandment," as in the 613 commandments that make up the whole of Jewish law, from "Be fruitful and multiply," to "Take a sweater, it might get chilly, you never know." (At least I'm pretty sure that's one of them.)

Hiddur mitzvah is based on Talmudic commentary on a verse in Exodus, in which Moses states, "This is my G-d and I will glorify Him." The first- and second-century rabbis who read this verse quite reasonably thought, "Hey, wait! I will glorify G-d?" What's up with that? Isn't G-d all glory to begin with? Since it is not possible for a human being to add glory to G-d the creator, they reasoned, what the verse really means is that we shall glorify Him in the way we perform mitzvoth.

The mitzvoth can be divided into two categories: the ritual and the ethical. Ritual mitzvoth include actions such as drinking wine on Friday nights, lighting candles for Hanukkah, or wearing a prayer shawl during worship (like this one). Ritual mitzvoth often involve ritual objects, such as shofars, Kiddush cups, menorahs, seder plates, and the like. The principle of hiddur mitzvah tells us that we ought to have not only the legally correct, but also the most beautiful, ritual objects that we can afford. The tradition of hiddur mitzvoth has been a great economic boon to generations of Jewish potters, metalsmiths, calligraphers, weavers, and other craftspeople!

While, classically, the concept of hiddur mitzvah has been applied only to ritual commandments--or to the physical objects associated with ethical commandments, such as the tzedakah boxes in which Jewish families and communities collect money for social justice concerns--what might it look like if we applied the concept to the ethical commandments as well?

Let's turn to Exodus for an answer. Exodus chapters 35-39 details the building of the Tabernacle, the portable dwelling place of the Divine that served the wandering Israelites as a center for worship until the permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem. For these four chapters of Exodus you would think you are reading a four-thousand-year-old copy of "Martha Stewart Living." Moses says to the people:

 "Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them--gifts for the Lord ... And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them ... came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants--gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins, brought them; everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper brought them as gifts for the Lord, and everyone who had in his possession acacia wood for any work of the service brought that. And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen." (Exodus 35:5, 21-25)

Whew! G-d sure loves His bling, don't He? That is some serious hiddur mitzvah, right there. Maybe even a little tacky to our low-key New England, whitewashed, environmentally sustainable, shabby-chic sensibilities. But let us move inside all that gaudy glory, to the most sacred part of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies where the spirit of the Lord dwells. Here we find the Ark of the Covenant, G-d's footstool, container of the ten commandments. Exodus tells us that the Ark had a cover of pure gold, topped by two golden cherubim.

 "The cherubim had their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the cover." (Exodus 37:9)

In the midst of all that bling, all that gold and silver and purple and crimson, the cherubim faced each other, and looked toward what was holy.

When we face each other, yet look toward what is holy, we are in a relation that 20th-century theologian Martin Buber called the I/Thou. The I/Thou is a moment of full presence of self, full acceptance of the other. It is a relation of meeting, not of using: I/Thou, not I/It.  It is not a mystical merging--I remain I, and Thou remainest Thou. Yet my pre-existing concepts of you, of your role in my life, of what you have done for me lately, dissolve in the simple awareness of your being. You are a Thou, not an It.

            In this moment there is beauty.

            Real beauty.

We fear beauty in this culture. If a friend stops by unannounced and I am in my dog-hair covered lounge suit, with unwashed hair and face, I am supposed to say, "Well, now you've seen the real me!" Why is that the real me? Why is not this the real me--well-groomed, well-spoken, well-mannered, at my best?  We believe ugliness is a proof of authenticity. The cultural roots of this belief go deep--from the Protestant rejection of Catholic grandeur to the New England valorization of thrift to the therapeutic culture's insistence on "letting it all hang out" to the avant-garde notion that art must be shocking and offensive, "transgressive," to be considered true art. Beauty, we suspect, is a confection, unnatural, shallow, a mask. We fear beauty.

At the same time, we worship beauty. We nip and tuck and pluck and inject. We are obsessed by a commodified, prettified, pornified version of "beauty." A beauty of unnatural smoothness, not of rich texture. A beauty that can be summed up in all the disturbing implications of the word "waxed." The beauty of It, not the beauty of Thou. The beauty that we distrust and desire.

The Tabernacle was the beauty of It. It must have been gorgeous, don't you think? I would have loved to have seen it, a sort of holy version of the Bellagio. There is a place for the beauty of It. We cannot live in a world of perpetual I/Thou; Buber is very clear on that, as if our own experience were not enough to tell us so. Yet we cannot allow the beauty of It to blind us to the potential of Thou. To do so is idolatry. As in the Tabernacle with all of its gold and silver and blue and purple and acacia and linen surrounding those two cherubs, the beauty of It must be only a staging ground to experience, in those rare moments granted us, the Thou.

As a Jew by choice, I had the remarkable experience of choosing my own Hebrew name. It is a powerful thing to choose one's name as an adult, and the name I chose was the name of that great Jewish beauty queen, Esther. Esther wins the heart of the Persian king Ahasuerus through her beauty, a beauty enhanced, the Bible tells us, with a year of beauty preparations: "six months with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women's cosmetics."  Phew! Esther waxed. You just know she did. She was a harem girl who embodied the beauty of It. When Ahasuerus, misled by his evil advisor Haman, issued a declaration of genocide against the Jews, Esther's cousin Mordechai "tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes." Esther at this point in the story was a mere girl, a queen in name only, a slave to the power of the beauty of It. In one of the funniest lines in the Bible, "Esther's maidens and eunuchs came and informed her" of Mordechai's mourning, and "the queen was greatly agitated. She sent clothing for Mordecai to wear, so that he might take off his sackcloth, but he refused."

Talk about unclear on the concept! Esther thought that by tidying up Mordechai's outward ugliness she could somehow change the ugliness of the situation. She put her faith in the beauty of It. But the beauty of It could not save her. To save her people she had to take great risk, to go before the king unbidden, a transgression punishable by death. The story tells us,

"Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king's palace, facing the king's palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace. As soon as the king saw Queen Esther standing in the court, she won his favor." (Esther 5:1-2)

Note this. "She put on royal apparel." She prepared herself. She girded herself with the beauty of It--but this time it was in order to face someone. Her trust was not in the beauty of It--but in the possibility of Thou. She and Ahasuerus faced each other, perhaps truly faced each other for the first time, just as the cherubim in the Holy of Holies faced each other. And she won his favor and used it to save her people. Used it to keep them from becoming the ultimate It--the dehumanized victims of casual genocide.

Let us celebrate the beauty of It. Let us not feel our ugly selves are our real selves. Let us not distrust beauty, smoothness. Let us delight in fine linen, gold and silver, blue and crimson and purple--or tasteful neutrals, if that is our low-key New England style. Let us pluck and polish and anoint and gird and, yes, even wax if we feel we must. But let us not idolize the beauty of It, or put our faith in it to save us from age, irrelevance, loneliness, death. That is beyond the power of the beauty of It. May the beauty of It refresh our hearts, and strengthen our courage, and sharpen our brains so that the Thou can emerge. So that we can face each other, and look to what is holy.

Thanks to Rabbi Jeremy Morrison for the insight regarding the relevance of the Ark to Martin Buber.