Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fathers and Sons

Every so often, I come across some movies which stand out for all the right reasons, you know, good storyline, excellent photography, great acting and deeply resonant with the human experience of love, self-discovery, and spiritual discovery. "Tree of Life" and "The Way" are two such movies. Both have very strong casts and the acting in each is superb. Both are filmed with extraordinary skill, capturing the personal and the panoramic dimensions of the movies. Both are thoughtful meditations on the the human condition, combining aspects of family and the wider search for community. "Tree of Life" is the story of a boy's search for his father. "The Way" is the story of the father's search for his son.

While I don't want to offer a full scale review of either of these two movies, I found them particularly moving in their descriptions of family and family relationships. "Tree of Life" is an impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s and follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, (played as an adult by Sean Penn), from the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years. Brought on in no small part by the complicated relationship with his father (played by Brad Pitt), Jack is a soul "lost in the cosmos", seeking meaning and direction in a world bereft of moorings of any kind. This is the story of a son's search for his father. Terrence Mallick, the director, asks the big questions and does not offer any cheap or easy answers. But, like a poet, he leaves the viewer with inklings and hints. 

"The Way" is a film about pilgrimage, both external and internal. Tom (played by Martin Sheen), a well-to-do ophthalmologist working in California, is notified that his son, Daniel (played by Emilio Estevez), has just been killed accidentally while beginning his journey along the Camino de Santiago. Famous as a walk of pilgrimage for over a thousand years, the Camino is an 800km journey over the Pyrenees and along the border to the cathedral at Compostela where it is said that the bones of St. James are kept as relics. Arriving in France to claim the body, Tom impulsively decides to walk the Camino himself and complete it for Daniel. Of course, the journey becomes much more than that and Tom discovers much about himself and about his son, with whom he had a fractured relationship. Directed by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen's real-life son, "The Way" is another exploration of the father-son relationship in which the father tries to walk in the son's shoes for a time and finds himself radically changed. 

I encourage any and all to see these two profound movies. Put them together with Marilynne Robinson's two books, "Gilead" and "Home" and you'll have much to think about concerning families, especially the relationship between father and son.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Immigrant Experience

My home community of Winkler has seen the influx of thousands of immigrants over the past ten years. Coming mostly from eastern Europe at first, there are now growing numbers of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African families coming to make a new life in southern Manitoba as well. These new immigrants  have been a welcome addition to the relatively homogenous culture which has characterized southern Manitoba for most of the twentieth century, offering new ideas, practices and energy to our community. Of course, cultural and language barriers have made integration somewhat difficult at times. Everyone has a different story to tell and many come to their new place of refuge as people with secrets, good and bad, which shape and colour both the past and the future.

I am a descendant of immigrants. My grandfather came to Canada from Russia in 1903 at age 19, alone, and with the support of his cousin who paid his passage and train fare. Much of his early life and his journey to Canada is unknown. He was a taciturn man not given to much talk about himself. He wrote only a brief description of his immigration to Canada. He died when I was 12 years old. Great-great grandparents on my other side arrived in the 1872-74 wave of Mennonite migration to southern Manitoba. Not much is known about them either except that they came with others to escape their situation in southern Russia; perhaps that will be research effort for me sometime in the future. For them, life in the new land was hard and death was a common occurence. What got them through these dark times could be attributed to a Stoic resolve to endure and overcome the hardships, a profound faith in the providence of God and an extraordinary commitment to take advantage of this opportunity for a new life. Together with other fellow immigrants they forged new and vibrant communities in southern Manitoba and beyond. 

While much has been written and documented about the Mennonite settlements in southern Manitoba, what has been lacking in my own appreciation for what my forbears went through has been an empathy or understanding of the inner life or dynamic at the root of their immigrant experience. How did they feel being here? Did they work at their jobs because they wanted to or because they had to? What were their real motives for coming? Did they harbour secret doubts about their faith, make compromises to get here or even intend to practise some form of penance to atone for some dark sin or event hidden deeply in their own past or sub-conscious mind? 

Reading The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje and This Hidden Thing by Dora Dueck has illuminated aspects of the immigrant experience for me in new ways. This Hidden Thing is the story of a young woman, Maria, recently arrived from the Russian Crimean Peninsula having fled her homeland with her aging parents after the Revolution and subsequent anarchy of the 1920s. Without facility in English and in desperate need of a job, she is hired as a maid in an English-Canadian household in Winnipeg. The clash of cultures, the desire to fit in and, above all, the desire to please, characterize Maria's work experience with her employers. She is let into their lives, but only at a distance; never as an equal. Misunderstandings and instances of poor judgment abound; Maria works hard to make herself indispensible and frequently sacrifices her own interests as well. Her choices, clear to her, become opaque to others. From the perspective of her family, her life is exemplary. She is seen as the pillar of the family and a model of self-sacrifice. But from her own perspective, her life has its own internal motivation, quite distinct from the impression she gives others. It is this "hidden aspect" which so often could inform if not explain a life regardless of one's past. For the recent immigrant, this "hiddenness" often has a much more exaggerated impact.

Much as This Hidden Thing investigates the immigrant experience in the new world, Ondaatje's The Cat's Table illuminates the experience of the child immigrant in transition, this time in the person of an eleven-year-old boy. The journey from one world to another, especially as a child without the stability of parental or even adult care can be and often is a harrowing experience. Events and  relationships of all kinds leave their marks and scars on the future lives of immigrants. In Ondaatje's book, young Michael, alone and abandoned by his family, in the company of two other boys assigned to the Cat's Table where they dine on the passenger ship, the Oronsay, makes his way from Ceylon, (present-day Sri Lanka) to England over the course of three weeks. The novel deals with Michael's experience of abandonment, new cultural expectations, danger, intrigue, crime, the beginnings of sexual desire and a variety of other experiences which shape his later life. The young life is especially impressionable; the young life of an immigrant without the safety of trusted adults and guardians can be especially difficult. How does one learn to navigate life's challenges in a healthy way? How does one learn to fit into a new society? To whom does one turn for help and guidance? How do impressions, hidden memories and iconic images impact one's later life and choices? For the young immigrant, these challenges can be especially acute and require understanding and patience from those of us who receive and welcome them.

I recommend these two books without reserve. Read and learn.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Rites of Spring: The Great War and Birth of the Modern Age - Modris Eksteins

One of the characteristics of the first decade of the 21st century has been the increased polarization of politics and religion. "Pragmatism" and "compromise" have become dirty words and descriptors of "muddled thinking" and "luke-warm faith." While for the most part I have sought to distance myself from such ideological positions, it is true that on some issues I am more "conservative" while more "progressive" on others. I suspect that this is true for most people. But as we move closer to "silly season", otherwise known as election time in some of the western democracies, it is helpful to see some of the cultural and social histories and analyses written about previous eras to get a perspective on our own.

I have mentioned the works of the noted liberal historian Tony Judt in previous posts. Another significant historical study is Margaret Macmillan's book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World.  Recently I read another such book by Modris Eksteins entitled Rites of Spring: The Great War and Birth of the Modern Age. Wrongheaded at times but never dull, Eksteins explores the first half of the twentieth century in three parts or "acts" as part of a battle between tradition or history on the one hand and progress or freedom on the other. Taking the so-called Great War as the signal historical feature of the twentieth century and using the arts, social development, cultural artifacts and psychoanalysis to inform his historical argument, Eksteins has woven a tapestry which is both interesting and provocative. His strongest sections describe the horrors of World War I trench warfare and the impact of the life in the trenches among the ordinary soldiers; his weakest the significance of the contribution of historical anti-semitism to the rise of Nazi Germany. But Eksteins' depiction of the incredible suffering of soldiers on both sides of the conflict beggars belief. It is not surprising that so many survivors came back to their homes broken and tortured people. But it is some of the other elements of the book which grabbed my attention and gave me pause and suggested parallels to our contemporary situation. For example, the mood immediately after the war is described in vivid terms by Eksteins"

        "On July 14, 1919, Bastille Day, Paris manufactured an official 'victory' parade. Its size was grand; its emotions were not. America refused to ratify the treaty and even to embrace Woodrow Wilson's political offspring, the League of Nations. The United States retreated into isolationism and abandoned Europe to her wheelchair.
   The gargantuan effort, especially the motional intensity, of the war could not possibly be sustained in effecting the peace, and Europe slumped into a monumental melancholy. The homes promised its heroes remained fictional places, and the utopian social dreams evoked by wartime rhetoric were brutally erased by inflation, unemployment, and widespread deprivation, not to mention an influenza epidemic that ravaged the world in 1918-1919 and killed more people than the war itself. Disillusionment was the inevitable upshot of the peace.
   Faced by the horrendous idea that the war might not have been worth the effort, people simply buried the thought for a time. And if one was to bury that thought, one also had to bury the war. So be it. The war was buried. Robert Graves and T. E. Lawrence had an agreement at Oxford that they would not discuss the war. Edmund Blunden tried to write his memoirs in the immediate aftermath and found that he simply could not. And so, after composing a fragment, he stopped. One mourned loved ones, but avoided thinking about the object for which one had paid such a price. Nine million dead. Twenty-one million wounded. Economies in ruins. Godless Bolshevism in Russia and threatening central Europe. Civil strife in Russia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Ireland, Italy - everywhere, it seemed. Turkey and Greece at war. the middle east inflamed. "Lest we forget" was intoned on every conceivable occasion, but forget was what everyone wanted to do." (pp.253-54)

In the post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan world of today, one could substitute different names and places and say much the same thing about the mood of the supposed victors of the war against terror. In a world such as ours, the western democracies, fatigued and deeply wounded as they are by international combat, international economic turmoil, and disagreement over tactics and goals, this description of the mood of the times sounds eerily familiar. Our world seems to be crumbling. The dominance we as the wealthy nations once had over others seems to have evaporated. We're (rightly) tired of war, and (wrongly) tired of giving leadership and looking out for others. Now apparently we are the ones who need the strong man, the one to give us hope, the one to lead us to safety and prosperity, the one to re-establish our standing in the world.

As was true for Germany in the '20's and '30's, this is a dangerous time for all of us because we think there are easy answers. Anyone who offers easy answers should be mistrusted. The jingoism of an all-to-predictable turn to nationalism and/or patriotism will only offer false hope and confidence. This is where the churches be clear about the times we live in and and the dangers we face. We need to remember that we are people of hope and reconciliation. We need to continue to challenge our leaders to do the right thing, seeking peace amid conflict and finding ways to work with others toward the common good. I would suggest that for us now is the time to be especially vigilant. Now is the time to remember and take care.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Summertime Blues

Although I always await summer with eager anticipation, I usually end up disappointed at the end of it. Some of that disappointment I attribute to the unrealistic expectations I load on to it. For example, the spring weather preceding it will be warm, rainy at the right times, the soil ready for planting in late April, no mosquitoes, and the lengthening of days will be accompanied by visits with dear family and friends, evenings on the deck and great conversation. The summer then will be characterized by a good vacation away from home, the cultivation and neverending supply of fresh produce from a bountiful garden, long days and warm nights, the reading of books on the summer reading list, coffee with friends, and, combined with the reflection about the year just past, the preparation for the church year ahead. For various reasons, these ideals are never met, at least to my satisfaction. I almost immediately regret lost opportunities, lack of discipline, and the pressure of events and external developments encroaching on the present and potential enjoyments of summer living. And so, half way through the summer, I begin to recognize that my dreams will remain unfulfilled and I become jaded over the prospects of the rest of the summer getting any better. Thus, disillusioned and devoid of hope, I limp toward the end of the holidays thinking of next year.

This summer I have tried to alter my approach and practice. Travel, the getting away completely from routine or familiarity, is a way of introducing newness and the unfamiliar into the well-established routines of living. Living more intentionally with short-term goals and projects rather than always being focussed on the future or the "big picture" invests present activities and goals with more significance and enjoyment. Finally, the absence of mosquitoes in the garden or on the deck, even in the evening has a way of brightening every day throughout the summer. Reading for delight, not just for purpose, watching the backlog of films and DVDs I've built up over the course of the year, and of course, having extended conversations over a shared meal with good friends and fellow travellers rounds out many of my hopes and dreams for the remainder of the summer.

But of course, this too can be a pretext for avoiding the deeper things of the spirit. I like to drive around the countryside on a regular basis, surveying the fields of grain and other crops as they first develop and then mature. Part of the rural and agricultural world in which I grew up still draws me to its own rhythms and I use it as a devotional and spiritual exercise to open myself to the inner workings of Spirit as I reflect, pray and intercede for my congregation and my community. That's been my experience this summer. It has turned out better then I hoped. This has been a good summer. I am grateful.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On Loaning Books

"Never loan a book to someone if you expect to get it back. Loaning books is the same as giving them away."    Doug Coupland

It has been a great pleasure of mine to share my library with many other people. It has been part of my underlying justification for spending far too much money on books. One excuse for a fairly liberal book budget is that I just love books. But then many people love books and books do get to be onerous if you are moving all the time so there needs to be a greater justification for having books in hand and controlling their distribution. And so I've developed another one. My argument goes this way: I'll read the book and then let someone else read it which then in some way may elevate my status in their eyes (perhaps/perhaps not) but then also occasion a conversation between us over the book and thereby contribute to my own greater pleasure of talking about ideas and other things that matter. Yes it's still selfish and self-serving but it works for me.

Until now. The other day I was counting the cost of  loaning out books and then not getting them back. Some of the books I have loaned to others but have not had returned to me are as follows: the complete corpus of Soren Kierkegaard's philosophical works translated into English by Howard and Edna Hong, Walter Brueggemann's Genesis commentary in the Interpretation series, Eugene Peterson's memoir, Pastor, Rowan Williams' book of sermons, A Ray of Darkness, Stanley Hauerwas' The Cross-Shattered Church, and the list could go on. It reminds me of the 1st ed. vinyl pressing of the set Jesus Christ Superstar  by Rice and Webber which I bought while I was in High School. I gave it to a friend to listen to and never got it back. I still think about it.

Then there are the books you loan out and have returned to you in really bad shape. In one case, the person borrowing my Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx dropped it in a small pool of oil. It came back to me rather differently ornamented and accompanied with great apologies, but because it was out-of-print at the time, it could not be replaced and I had decided that perhaps the stains had their own particular beauty. And then I came across a quote from C.S. Lewis in which he says something to the effect that books loaned out and then returned with dog-ears, tears in pages or even damaged covers, will, in the grand scheme of things, emerge with jewels where the damages once were, and even more valuable than the books ever would have been if they had not been shared with others.

So, I continue to share my books, in spite of the losses I have already suffered and knowing that I am sure to suffer more. There is no greater pleasure than to be able to say to someone, "I have just the thing you should read. Here, I'll get it for you." Somehow, I think that that is what books were always about anyway.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Flotsam and Jetsam from the Floods of Southern Manitoba

It has been awhile since I last contributed to this blog. No reason really except that other things always seem to take precedence and, face it, one feels that at times there is nothing left to say. For example, when one sees the floods and resulting hardships affecting people you know, the books one reads or movies one sees are relatively trivial by comparison.

But after awhile, there does seem to be a buildup of thought and concern which overtakes the reticence to speak and so one is moved to venture into the blogosphere yet one more time and give words to some inklings and musings which may or may not be fully formed as ideas. At any rate, here goes. These titles form some of the "grist of my mill" over the past month.

Books read: Love Wins by Rob Bell
                    Deep Church - Jim Belcher
                    Irma Voth - Miriam Toews
                    Speaking the Truth - Samuel Wells
                    Absence of Mind - Marilynne Robinson
                    The Paradise of God - Norman Wirzba

Movies watched: The Hereafter - directed by Clint Eastwood
                            Please Give - directed by Nicole Holofcener
                            Into Great Silence - directed by Philip Groening
                            Wittgenstein - directed by Derek Jarman
                            Derrida - directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Hoffman

Music listened to: Small Source of Comfort - Bruce Cockburn
                             Get Lucky - Mark Knopfler
                             So Beautiful or So What - Paul Simon
                             Helplessness Blues - Fleet Foxes

It is somewhat of a mystery to me as to what lists like this mean to others, except that when I look at other blogs, I always look for lists and what people are reading, watching and listening to. Especially pastors. For me, these lists are little windows on other worlds which have the capacity to surprise, provoke and even challenge my own. That in itself would be a good thing.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Praise for Library Booksales!

One of the spring highlights in southern Manitoba is the local library booksale. Books of all kinds find their way onto the sales tables and then for virtually pennies a volume, one can indulge in purchasing a feast of literary delights. While circumstances did not allow me to go in person this year, my son, having heard me wax rhapsodic over a new "favourite author" earlier this year, found several recent works by Tony Judt, University Professor and Director of the Remarque Institute at New York University: Ill Fares the Land and Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century.

I first came across Judt's name in one of my infrequent purchases of the New York Review of Books where I read one of his essays now collected in his book Ill Fares the Land. Once sympathetic to Marxism but now a social democrat by political conviction, Judt writes with a passion and hope about the return to a civil and meaningful discourse which, in his view,  is needed now. He writes in his introduction: "Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good? Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better society or a better world? Those used to be the political questions even if they invited no easy answers. We must learn once again to pose them." This book is an extended essay on how that might happen and what this conversation could look like.

The second book, Reappraisals, is a series of essays on significant actors of the twentieth century political and philosophical stage. Reviews of Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Louis Althusser, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Primo Levi and others provide a wonderful entry into the intellectual world of Western democracy. I found myself comparing Judt not infrequently to Terry Eagleton, the famed Irish literary theorist currently buttering his bread in England at the University of Lancaster. Eagleton has also written extensively on twentieth century intellectual history and seems to take almost perverse delight in skewering anyone and everyone just because he can. But whereas Eagleton loves the sound of his own voice and cynically revels in the pleasure of demolishing anyone who disagrees with him, Judt exudes a sense of melancholic hope and imagines the possibilities of a new way forward in our collective lives. I like hope more than cynicism.

The urgency of Judt's voice and the passionate plea for a return to a more civil and productive conversation between Right and Left, young and old, franchised and disenfranchised, have their roots in Judt's own life experience. Born in a secular Jewish setting, his immediate family escaped Europe before the rise of Nazi Germany. But the Holocaust did not spare others from his more extended family. Judt's working class upbringing, his success at Cambridge University, his transition from Great Britain to New York,  and his illness and eventual death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease) add to his stature as a compelling figure. Many of these vignettes are found in his last book The Memory Chalet, conceived in the last stages of his illness, dictated to a friend and then published as a book. It is a book of tenderness and insight; it is also a book of courage and tenacity.

So read, learn, and enjoy!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Pastor: A Memoir - Eugene Peterson

There are a few books I would make compulsory reading for aspiring pastors. Some are linked to particular aspects of pastoral ministry such as counselling, preaching, conducting services, etc. Others are instructive in terms of the pastoral vocation itself. Among this latter group would be those books written by experienced pastors reflecting on a lifetime of ministry and speak to the experience of pastoring itself and the ways in which one's vocation emerged in the context of place and practice. Eugene Peterson's latest book The Pastor is one such book and having just finished reading it, I would be inclined to rank it near the top in terms of its value to pastors at any stage of their ministry but especially to those who are just starting out.

Eugene Peterson, the scholar-pastor, Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC,  has written many books which reflect his perspectives on pastoral ministry. There are the insightful meditations on the Ascent Psalms under the title of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, on Jeremiah called Run With the Horses, on Revelation called Reversed Thunder and on the Davidic accounts of Samuel and Kings gathered together in Leap Over a Wall. There are the various books directed to pastors in pastoral ministry such as Working the Angles and his imaginative reading of Jonah under the rubric of "vocational holiness" entitled Under the Unpredictable Plant. There is his magnum opus, a five-volume series of "conversations" on the Christian life, which is rich in suggestion, always interesting, and most importantly, developed out of an imagination shaped by Scripture and fertilized by a wide and attentive reading to many different texts. Finally there is of course The Message, Peterson's paraphrase of the Bible, perhaps Peterson's most famous work.  The unifying feature of his work is its Scriptural base. Everything Peterson writes either exposits or meditates on the biblical text.  His imaginative and faithful readings of Scripture are rich and fruitful in preparing sermons. But the most delightful and perhaps the most important book for me is his most recent one, The Pastor: A Memoir.

In The Pastor, Peterson describes the winding route his call into pastoral ministry took and how, in some ways, it was a complete surprise and in other ways, a natural development from the soil of his family and upbringing. Having recognized and responded to the call, he then found that pastoral ministry, in order to be faithful, must be shaped much differently than the models seen from the vantage point of modern American (and Canadian) Christian culture. The danger as he saw it was that the Church is susceptible to becoming co-opted by culture. In North America, culture masquerades as Christian faith and practice. Christians are frequently unable to recognize the difference. Like Karl Barth, one of Peterson's great theological champions, Peterson argues that the pastor must be grounded in and speak out of Scripture. For Peterson, Scripture provides the narrative structure for the Christian life. The pastor is given the sacred trust to articulate and enact the claims of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the congregation and thereby lead them along the way of Jesus to not only the cross but ultimately to the resurrection life.

There are wonderful vignettes of Peterson's early years in Montana, of the gradual realization of his pastoral vocation, and of his partner in life, Jan, and the crucial place she occupied in their shared ministry. The story of his church in Baltimore, the growth of his pastoral vision and finally the development of his writing as part of his pastoral work feature prominently in the book. But for me the most significant aspect of Peterson's memoir is the description of his refusal to follow the path of least resistance and "just do the job." Being a pastor is a mystery; what do pastors do anyway? They occupy a place somewhere between work and contemplation and prayer. They are charged with leading a congregation in its commitment to follow Jesus and yet there is no blueprint on how to do that. Every congregation is different. Peterson's book is an account of how one pastor has wrestled with these questions, been challenged by Scripture and his cultural context, and then brought a coherence and imagination to ministry which is relevant for our time and our place.

Pastors and church leaders should read this book. They would be better for it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Thank You Bruce!

Music has helped to give shape to my life. Songs, artists, genres, even seasons have been important at different times to define, colour, and give texture to my life's experience. One of the most important figures musically in my life has been Bruce Cockburn. I saw my first Cockburn concert in 1977 when he released the album In the Falling Dark. Songs like "Lord of the Starfields", "Vagabondage", "Little Seahorse" and "Gavin's Woodpile" provided my first introduction to the possibility of a Christian theology of creation, a Christian passion for justice and the beginning of "wanderlust" - the joy of travel, experience, and adventure. Subsequent albums such as The Further Adventures Of, Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, and Inner City Front showed different and more complex sides of Cockburn and later when he became quite outspoken in his societal critique, I too saw the urgency and passion of his vision and identified closely with him and his music. For example, I still love the lines from "Laughter" which go "

Let's hear a laugh for the man of the world
Who thinks he can make things work
Tried to build the New Jerusalem
And ended up with New York
Ha Ha Ha..."

Yesterday I went with Elaine and a couple of friends to the Small Source of Comfort concert in  Winnipeg. Cockburn didn't disappoint. There were a lot of great songs from the past: "Wondering Where the Lions Are", "Last Night of the World", "Lovers in a Dangerous Time", "All the Diamonds", "Tie Me at the Crossroads", etc. There were songs from the new album of which "Five Fifty-one", "Call Me Rose", "Each One Lost", and "Lois On the Autobahn" especially caught my attention. Jenny Scheinman and Gary Craig accompanied Cockburn with elegance and understatement although Scheinman's violin  accompaniments sometimes left me breathless with their evocative artistry.

I left the concert with a sense that Cockburn is in a good place, content but still not ready to quit. I did have the feeling, however, that he is not nearly as ambitious as he once was, and that the passion and anger in his social critique has morphed into sadness and sorrow for a world so disjointed and conflicted. Perhaps that is a sign of age; one no longer has the strength to take on another cause. On the other hand, it may be a sign that bearing witness is what the artist does best. Looking, pointing, calling, challenging. Prophets are uisually without honor in their own country. I'm glad that Cockburn has received many honours for his great body of work. I am grateful that I have had the opportunity to listen to him and to weave his songs into the soundtrack of my life.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lenten Reading 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lenten books have become a tradition I look forward to each year at this time. This year's official selection by the Archbishop of Canterbury is Barefoot Disciple: Walking the Way of Passionate Humility, written by Stephen Cherry. Previous noteworthy titles I have enjoyed are: Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement by Rowan Williams, Timothy Radcliffe's Why Go to Church?: The Drama of the Eucharist, Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection by Samuel Wells, and The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today by Tom Wright, not a Canterbury selection but excellent just the same.

Historically, for Mennonites, Lent has never been a significant part of the church calendar. Only in more recent years when the use of the lectionary has taken root in the worship of many Mennonite churches has Lent taken on a more important role in the build-up toward Good Friday. My own experience of Lent as a season of penitence and reflection began when I got married. Having made a commitment to sing in the church choir of the Anglican church in which I was married, I was immersed in the liturgy and the ritual observance of Lent in a new and unique way. Somewhat later when I became a Lay Assistant in the same church and took responsibility for leading regular penitential services at the church throughout the Lenten season, the prayers and responses became even more significant as a way of ordering my life and thinking during this time. And so, in the spring of '82, having never read C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia before, I decided that I would read one book each Sunday of the six Lenten Sundays and finish final volume, The Last Battle, on Good Friday. On some of the Sundays, it was warm enough to read outside on the beaches of English Bay. Other days it was rainy and gray. But it was a wonderful experience for me, not least because it helped order my time and reflection in a disciplined way.

The genre of Lenten books brings together the passion of spirituality with the disciplined reflection of theology. An extended sermon, a good Lenten book speaks to issues and realities in our time with creativity and spiritual insight. The better ones display passion and grace, creativity and depth, piety and commitment. As Andrew Louth once stated in a short article delivered on the topic of Christian spirituality, Christian spirituality is theology at prayer. This is the intention of the Lenten book and for that reason I look for the books dedicated to this end. But other books have also been excellent spiritual companions for this season: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Cost of Discipleship, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, Frederick Buechner's The Hungering Dark, and Kathleen Norris's Cloister Walk to name a few. In addition, with the new Anabaptist/Mennonite prayer book, Take Our Moments and Our Days now available, there are services and daily prayers to say together as a family or in small groups which reflect the faith priorities and language of Anabaptists and fellow travellers in other denominations. I sincerely hope that Lenten reading and observance catches on among our Mennonite congregations.

Lent is a great time to refocus and revisit routines and priorities. I'm looking forward to the challenge of humility in the book just written by Stephen Cherry. What was said about a Grammy award winner who "humbly" accepted the plaudits of the audience by a jealous onlooker could also be said of me: "He has a lot to be humble about."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Eschatology at Covenant

This past weekend saw Dr. Dan Epp-Tiessen come to Covenant and present a Portable CMU series on Eschatology called "Rapture or New Creation: Biblical Visions of the End." Following closely the thought of scholars like N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope and Nelson Kraybill's Apocalypse and Allegiance, Dan gave a straightforward account of the biblical evidence for the view that the resurrected body will be physical and that the end of history will culminate in a renewed earth no longer separated from heaven but finally joined together as was always intended in creation. Seeking to overcome the dualistic perspectives which separate spiritual life from physical bodies or devalue the created order as something disposable or of no eternal value, Dan asserted that the"good future" which God intended for God's creation included reconciliation and restoration. "Rapture theology" implies escape from the earth and all its troubles for the faithful followers of Christ. God intends to save not only souls but the earth and all that God has made. That is why the resurrection means physical resurrection, embodied spirits, which are substantial and tangible. Bodies are not to be discarded because they are worthless but valued because they are part of God's good creation which will be transformed and renewed.

Among other things, what the doctrine of last things stated this way does is to give good and compelling reasons for tending to the created order and engaging in a respectful and careful use of the earth's resources. As stewards of the earth, we must distribute the wealth wisely, share the bounty with all of God's creatures and keep from despoiling the beauty and resources which are ours to enjoy. This view also includes a good and well-rounded kingdom ethic by which to live among our fellow human beings for it builds on Jesus' message that the kingdom of God has arrived. Christians are to proclaim the Good News that the Kingdom is near and as such anticipate the full disclosure of the Kingdom by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, freeing the captives and comforting the dying and lonely. Brian McLaren has a revealing phrase in his book A New Kind of Christianity which states that an appropriate eschatology would be "participatory", and that our ethic and present practice should be "anticipatory", anticipating the full flowering of the Kingdom at the end of time. In so doing we offer not only hope but a vision of God's good future.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Atonement Theology I

“...The problem of salvation...has the problem of atonement at its heart. How does the moral fact of our estrangement from the Holy One become the religious fact of our acceptance by him and our reconciliation to him? The alienation which distorts all the relationships of our existence, but from which God redeems us by participating therein to the uttermost - how are we to picture this? How does this redemptive participation 'work'?” (J.S. Whale, Victor and Victim, p.74)

Over the past few months I have had some conversations over this question with other pastors and looked at some of the requisite articles in the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Apart from a minimally descriptive three-part taxonomy and a brief discussion on the connection between the atonement and the doctrine of salvation, the Confession does not really discuss the atonement at all. However, one aspect comes across clearly. The cross has no transactional dimension to it. Rather, Christ’s death is an exemplary act. “Christ’s suffering without taking revenge gives us an example; we can follow in his steps and live for righteousness.” (Article 8: Salvation: Commentary 3)  

Historically, Mennonites have not seriously engaged in the minutiae of academic theology. Concepts like "the alien work of Christ", "Christus Victor" or "penal substitution" did not become part of their theological vocabulary. Their interests were more pragmatic. One wonders whether perhaps the Anabaptists saw some of the academic heavy lifting having already been done by their erstwhile allies or predecessors. More likely, they saw the futility of the scholastic approaches to theology and ethics and considered them to be spiritual cul-de-sacs, good for nothing but arguments and moral paralysis. Robert Friedmann, in his Theology of Anabaptism, argued that the sixteenth century Anabaptists held to an existential Christianity which refused to split apart faith and life. A. James Reimer has summarized Friedmann’s perspective this way: "A theological system, 'a rational edifice of thought,' would contradict the very nature of such a lived Christianity." ("Anabaptist-Mennonite Systematic Theology" in Mennonites and Classical Theology, p. 186) The more immediate concern of the early Anabaptist/Mennonite leadership was to articulate the implications for living which the saving work of Jesus Christ accomplished, thereby maintaining the unity of faith and life, the subjective nature of the new birth and other aspects of Anabaptist theology.

Perhaps this approach was good for its time but the issues have evolved since the debates of the reformation and its early aftermath. It isn’t the atonement but the God behind the atonement who is under scrutiny. Questions of God's existence and God's nature are now at issue. The 'cultured despisers' of the Church and Christian religion generally have raised serious objections to the God espoused and proclaimed from the pulpits of traditional churches, subsequently rendering the missional value of some atonement models as suspect and counterproductive. The questions of the 21st century North American focus more on the kind of God who stands behind each model or metaphor of the atonement than the atonement itself and whether it is appropriate to acknowledge or worship such a God. Is God a loving God or the supreme tyrant? Would a just God require the death of an innocent victim? How does theology reconcile the holiness of God with the love of God? How do God's wrath and God's grace relate within the atoning act of Jesus Christ? The question is not a simple equation solved by putting some numbers into a formula and working out an answer. It goes far deeper than that. John Whale points out, "There can be no simple abrogation of the wrath of God by the mercy of God." (p.75) What then of the atonement?

A recent Anabaptist/Mennonite theologian has wrestled with questions of this kind and has tried to develop an Anabaptist/Mennonite approach to them. J. Denny Weaver’s The Non-Violent Atonement represents a significant attempt to develop an atonement theology from an Anabaptist/Mennonite perspective. Over the next number of months I hope to address the question of an appropriate atonement theology for the 21st century mission of the Church by looking at a number of recent works on the atonement and commenting on them as I read them. As I read these texts, the paramount issue to consider in judging the success or failure of these works will be their fidelity to the Christian Scriptures. But closely linked will be the answers to the questions: Does this atonement theology take evil seriously? And: Will the demand for justice be accomplished within the framework of this theology?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Gatekeeper - Terry Eagleton

One of my guilty pleasures is the reading of memoirs, especially those of theologians or philosophers. Occasionally some of them take themselves so seriously that they cannot offer any sense of humanity or tension in their lives. Either they never made a mistake and therefore have nothing "interesting" or human to share, or, they have such a carefully guarded "mystique" or reputation to maintain that they take care to brush out anything that would resemble a character flaw or error in judgment. Others have no such qualms and unabashedly highlight their shortcomings. Terry Eagleton, the enfant terrible of English letters and renowned literary critic, is  a little of both. He gives and he keeps in equal measure. His relatively short memoir, The Gatekeeper, is a witty and caustic view of his early years through to his student days at Cambridge and early tenure at Oxford. Born in the northwest of England to poor Irish parents and the only surviving child of three, he writes bitingly of his childhood years in a chapter called "Losers." Raised a Catholic and for a time an altar server in the local Carmelite convent chapel, he was required to be in attendance when the young novice now finally took the veil and disappeared into the convent for good; thus "the gatekeeper" of the title.

Eagleton's book is a fascinating interplay between his religious upbringing, his political awakening and his intellectual development. What is clear is that each facet of his life informed the other and that Eagleton has lost all reverence for any firmly held belief or position. What comes through, however, is a certain wistfulness which may be interpreted as a wish for more or even a wish for "truth." Wanting to admire his father, he finds it nearly impossible. "What I remember most of my father is silence. He was silent because he was agonizingly inarticulate, and deeply ashamed of it. One failure of speech thus overlaid another. He was cut off from communication, lacking language to excess. Perhaps I have compensated enough for that in my time. I am still not sure whether his silence was a rock or an abyss, strength or indifference. He was painfully shy and unsociable, yet also practical, rational, reliable and infinitely patient. ...He did not think much of artistic types like me. (p. 121) Eagleton's own experience in the role of the public intellectual borders on pure farce. "To be a public lecturer is to occupy a symbolic role rather than a real-life one, and almost nothing you can do can shake this identification. You could ostentatiously don a false red nose and start to pull on a pair of sponge-rubber trousers while being talked at by some mildly obsessive type after a lecture, but it would almost certainly be blocked out. And there are also the genuinely disturbed, who describe to you the messages they are receiving on the radio which the CIA have installed somewhere between their liver and lower intestine." Eagleton's account of his Cambridge tutor is hilarious although sad at the same time as it describes a man incapable of empathy or developing healthy relationships. Unfortunately, the caricature is often far too close to the truth in real life.

But it is Eagleton's love/hate relationship with religion that is fascinating because, no matter how caustic and cynical he becomes in his frequent and varied diatribes, he cannot let his faith go. Both extremist in its demands and mundane in its practice, Christianity both succeeded and failed gloriously in the attempt to convince the young Eagleton. As he says early on in the book, "In the end, I refused co-optation, but only just." Eagleton's body of work has ranked him among the most influential of the literary critics of the English-speaking world. His willingness to take on popular positions and personalities equally larger-than-life have led him to speak and write against the so-called exponents of "The New Atheism", Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, because as he would argue, they show an appalling ignorance of religion. St. Terry to the rescue? No, but he is fun and outrageous and just sometimes you feel that he wishes that he could overcome that "little" hurdle called belief.

The Gatekeeper is a fascinating read.  I look forward to the next stage of Eagleton's journey.             


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A New Political Discourse?

Events of the past week in Tucson, Arizona have horrified the democratic world. The murderous bullets of a deranged gunman have placed a large spotlight on what seems to be an increasingly nastly political contest between competing ideological groups in the USA. Some Canadian commentators have suggested that we here in "The Great White North" also reflect on the level of our own political discourse. My personal experience in the political realm has shown me that personal attacks are part of the life of a politician. If one chooses to enter public life in this way, one should expect to get attacked, sometimes viciously, for the views or actions one takes. Within the church one might expect that it might be different. It is the Body of Christ after all. But it is no different at all. My experience has taught me that in vivid technicolour.

But, I suggest equally vehemently, that our faith ought to make a difference in the way we conduct our political conversations, especially in those churches who claim to be part of the "peace church" tradition. Leaving aside party allegiances or even policies, let me suggest some ways we might commit ourselves to becoming more Christian in our conversation and/or political discourse:

1.) Always respect and listen to your debating partners. Why do they hold the views they do? Are there good reasons for what they support? Just because they support "Green", "Conservative", "New Democrat", "or "Liberal" policies does not make them wrong or worse then you.

2.) Never personalize an argument or a position. Once we start equating a perspective or a policy with a particular person, it becomes far too easy to demonize one another. We have heard it again and again with the "Harper Government", and the "Ignatief Liberals". But we are also beginning to hear it in provincial politics. Attack advertisements are effective; no question about that. But I would argue that they are not Christian. I believe that the church has a higher moral standard than that.

3.) If the debate should become incendiary, I would strongly suggest that churches protest the ad hominem attacks, the personalization of arguments, or the use of violent images or figures of speech. Use letters to the editor, phone-in shows and other opportunities to ask for civility. As people who espouse peace, our language should reflect peace and peaceability. If the political actors who seek to represent us fail to act in courteous, respectful or dignified ways or use their position to denigrate others, we as the church should speak up, refusing to accept a process which degenerates into name-calling or hostility. Not only that, but when our elected representatives use similar tactics in the course of governance or debate, we must hold them up to account then too.

I continue to believe that Christians have a place in the political arena. But in today's charged political climate, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain one's Christian perspective and demeanor. For Anabaptist/Mennonites, the difficulty is compounded by our history which has taught us to avoid public life. We have few good models or ethical guidelines for involvement. We are people espousing peace as a core belief. How about starting with our language? Let us commit ourselves to stop killing one another with words. Perhaps then we will begin to learn to listen to one another again. That would be a good thing.