Of Elves and Such

Last night was spent in Borgarfjarðarhreppur, which derives its name from Álfaborg, meaning “town of elves.” Ancient legend has it that this part of Iceland is ripe with elves, and there is a fairly substantive hill overlooking this quaint town and welcoming harbour that is purported to be the home of many elves, and in some reports, the home of the Elf Queen.

I have heard a variety of reports on how many Icelanders believe in elves, ranging from 60 to 80 percent. Tales are told of bad luck attending those who mess with elf habitations. There is a sign on the elf hill in Borgarfjarðarhreppur suggesting that those who walk in these environs do well to do so with respect.

Our city tour guide in Reykjavik reported that belief in elves is BS and thought these to be tales told to enforce morals in children, much as has been suggested for the Grimm fairy tales, for instance. On the other hand, our own tour TourMagination guide reported that the good folk in Borgarfjarðarhreppur regularly avoided the shortest route to the nearest village because of a menacing mythical creature on the fjord who pushed more than a few people over the cliff resulting in their demise. Eventually, a strong soul in the 16th century took on this force, and managed to land him, or her, in the drink in order to secure a short, and safe, route for the villagers. A cross was erected to mark the spot and remind folk of the victory won. Insofar as the story represented a hold on the imaginations of the adults, these tales seemed to be more than a tool used by parents to whip their children into shape. Adults, too, were shaped by these tales.

It is not altogether hard to understand why people in these locales held and hold (if the polled reports are to be believed) beliefs in mystical and mythical creatures. The landscape in Iceland, where the earth stretches high and the sky reaches low invites one to imagine, if not see, a meeting of the earthly and heavenly, a kind of world where it is very easy to believe in elves, dwarves, trolls, etc. What cannot be seen is believed because the unimaginable is happening before your very eyes: clouds are swallowing mountains, and the seas are fingering their way into the land. Borders are being pierced everywhere, and souls not piloted by hard, cold reason alone might imagine that things are more complicated than they first appear.

Perhaps, then, there is a place (or places) between “BS” and “literally true.” Perhaps this hankering after mythical creatures is a symbol, or sign, of human hungering for some permeability of boundaries between the earthly and the spiritual; or perhaps more accurately, these tales are symbolic representations of peoples’ experiences of the earthly/heavenly becoming porous. Within Christianity, for instance, the message of the birth of God as the infant Jesus is precisely this: earth being touched by heaven, and the fervent hope of believers in this religion – and some others too – is that there is more to life than meets the eye; for some this “more” is experienced. Perhaps behind these tales that we wink at, exists a deep human hope for and foretaste of a kind of homecoming that abides, eternally.


This is the home of a good many elves, I’ve been told.

Manufactured Desire, Destructive Discontent

In one of my classes we have been reading Graham Ward’s “The Politics of Discipleship.” In the book he writes of manufactured desire.  He sets it in contrast to actual needs.  These latter are the stuff that daily occupies the so-called two-thirds world – that is to say, food, clothing, shelter, water, etc.  The former refer to “needs” created by clever capitalists etc.  Marx writes that after humans take care of real needs, they create needs to occupy themselves.  It seems that we are doing this in spades these days.


My students were intrigued by the idea that we are unwitting (although sometimes altogether too witting) slaves of desires that have been created for the benefit of shareholders who themselves have made obscene returns their very own desire.  Maybe “intrigued” isn’t quite the right word.  But hopefully you get what I mean.  A strange kind of feeling accompanies the realization that you have been putty in the hands of mad men, who are very happy to see us unhappy aside from the slick new (fill in the blank).  On the one hand, a kind of insane rage flashes in you, and on the other hand, a kind of perverse (to the market forces, anyways) pleasure  as the desire to usurp these manufactured desires arises and as the virtue of contentment contends against destructive discontent.  We discussed what it means to push beyond consumerism into citizenship as our primary way of engaging the world.  Of course, certain folk, politicians among them, rather prefer consumers over citizens; always happy to create a need that we can fill by buying the latest widget.


Ward also points out that, for those with more than they can keep in their gated fortresses, the market is only too happy to manufacture other kinds of needs: experiences that are generally exotic and thus both hard on the earth and vacuous in virtue: think of the littered trail up the mount called Everest for a moment.


We talked about what Christian discipleship means in a time and place such as ours.  We talked about how we are all implicated in the system (especially true for those of us with investments and hopes to retire some day), and we also discussed how insidious evil is.  And in our talking we discovered that talking is itself a cure:  in thinking these things through aloud we found a kind of solidarity that recognizes that small things matter.  Walking when possible, taking a coffee cup to displace another paper cup polluting Mother Earth, shutting off the computer, tablet and phone for a time.  These things were small, but they loomed large as we discussed them together ever mindful of that picture posed by that itinerant preacher of long ago: the Reign of God really is like a mustard seed.  Sometimes we need to start small because a crack is all that we have for planting.  Sometimes a crack is enough to remind us that enough is enough.

Ridiculously Rich

Every now and then it strikes me that I am ridiculously rich.


I have a family that loves me.  I have work that is meaningful and colleagues whom I enjoy.  I have good health, and am oddly enamored with walking, which allows me to realize that the world is a strange and wondrous place.  I find myself believing in a God who is merciful; neither deterministic nor indifferent. 


My life isn’t perfect, but I don’t expect perfection and am okay with blips in my life.  Sometimes I even laugh at them, which brings me to a comment I heard at a youth event last night where I spoke on behalf of my school.  “How are things going?” I asked one of the leaders, wondering how things had evolved throughout the weekend.  “Good.  In fact too good!” was her reply.  “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, things just can’t go this well; I’m afraid something is around the corner.”


I understand her anxiety.  In fact I share it.  When things are going well, I too get nervous.  After all, I reason, nobody deserves ridiculous riches, including yours truly!  Why do we think this way?  Are we dealing with deeply hidden, yet powerfully prevailing expectations of corrections?  Do we imagine our lives to be like the stock market; hoping for a certain incline in fortune, yet recognizing that market corrections are inevitable?  Are we suspicious of ridiculous riches, and happy to settle for solid yet certain gains?  Do we expect the worst; and derive a softer satisfaction from skirting disappointments?


Perhaps there is too much self-analysis in the above?


Maybe, but probably not; in fact it seems that some analysis of sources of pleasure and pain is a fitting and salutary strategy.   It is good to know the why of our grins and whence of our tears.  And as I do precisely this, it seems to me that too often I expect a lot from tomorrow and never cash in on today; where I find joy in a flower’ s fragrance, in a wine’s bouquet, in a word well turned.


In the end it seems that what most matters is a return to life’s simplicity in the midst of the chaos that simply is.  Such a return enables us to see “riches” differently; neither a question of desert nor destiny but attention. This attention comes as both gift and discipline; sometimes together, sometimes apart, but always with the startling realization that there is more:  more than we can ask or imagine. 

Cans, Mosques and Faiths

This is the annual Canstruction week in our community. For those unfamiliar with it, Canstruction is an international event in which local groups – mostly businesses but it can be other groups as well – gather together enough cans to build giant structures. In our community, these are on display in one of the local malls, and at the end of the week the food is donated to the local food bank. Their goal this year is to raise 34, 000 lbs of food for the Waterloo region. This is the 6th year of Canstruction in our community. My wife Gwenanne organizes this event. She began it during her first year of working for the Food Bank of the Waterloo Region. She works countless hours with an army of dedicated volunteers to make this happen. You can learn more about Canstruction here.

I met one of the groups supporting Canstruction last Friday. I took students from my class “Trends in Modern and Contemporary Theology” to a local mosque, the Kitchener Masjid. This week we were discussing the phenomenon of inter-religious dialogue and comparative theology. We observed Friday prayers, and afterwards chatted with the Imam, Muhammad Abulezz . This is their first year of involvement with Canstruction, but not the first year a religious group has been involved. A few years ago the youth from St. George’s Anglican youth group also built a structure. The involvement of the mosque is important because it comes from their desire to be involved in work to alleviate the ravages of poverty in our community: it represents a desire by the local Muslim community to engage their context, a theme their Imam advanced in his Friday sermon, wherein he made mention of the imperative for people of faith to work together for the good of their common community.

While we were at Friday prayers, the Imam also talked quite specifically about the importance of inter-faith dialogue. He spoke about its grounding in their religious tradition. He spoke about its possibilities and limits. He also argued quite passionately for the need for both inter-faith dialogue and intra-faith dialogue, noting that great differences exist within the Islamic community in Canada. And most importantly, he distinguished between dialogue and debate, reminding us that those who dialogue do not have the conversion of the dialogue partner as the intention of their conversation, but instead, enter the conversation with a simple openness to learn about our neighbour and discover where we can work together. It was a very interesting sermon that gave us much to think about. I think one of the most important points he underscored was that God alone knows who is right and who is wrong when it comes to things religious. I thought he made a very good case for this, even while he challenged his hearers to remember that being faithful does not preclude a religious modesty committed to embracing our neighbourhood, working with our neighbours and doing all that is in our power to make the world a more welcoming and hopeful place.

Many community groups come together in Canstruction to make this happen. I hope your week gives you opportunity to celebrate our common humanity even while we struggle to ensure that every human has food on their plate.