Dystopia Times Two

I am currently in the midst of two dystopian TV series: The Walking Dead (TWD) and The Handmaid’s Tale (THT). Both are located in a future setting, where life as we know it is but a distant memory, and the future exists as a thin hope oscillating between obliteration and being at the threshold of the shades. I am rather far into TWD, and have just started the screen rendition of Atwood’s tale. Both are utterly fascinating, not only for their differences, but their similarities.

Both deal with a contagion: in the TWD it is a death that will not die; and in THT it is the inability in to give birth. Other comparisons are apt. TWD is punctuated with violence. There is violence in THT, but it is measured, and horrific in its calculation. While watching TWD, you can anticipate a zombie around every corner, every crook, every shadow – surprising, but not. In THT, violence is really more insidious, terrifying in its being cloaked in the guise of religion, and the supposed good. In THT, women are at the very centre of the plot, inviting the viewer to think about how women have been, and are marginalized and given a tightly scripted role in the narrative of life. I shut off the television, and breathe a sigh of relief knowing that my daughters do not have to live in that world, but then I remember that the real world that they live in is rife with patriarchy and parochialism, and I know that the gains that have been made for women are ever at risk of being eroded. The women in the TWD are profoundly strong – but differently. They slaughter zombies and enemies with the same ferocity as the men and are found to be leaders of some communities. Women in THT are ever needing to make their way by speaking two languages, as it were: that of patriarchy and that of the circles in which they move at a level invisible to men.

Religion plays a big role in each: in the TWD there are believers who struggle with their faith, and admittedly agnostic characters who have a kind of tenacity that seems super-human. Religion in THT is the antagonist it seems (at this point), with images of ruined mainline churches setting the backdrop against which a state-sponsored dystopian religion reigns, supporting the patriarchy, which quotes scripture in support of the rape of handmaids, and the torture of deviants.

I am finding it so very informative to watch these two shows together. Both of them serve as a kind of lens for looking at the present. In TWD a kind of oscillation of utter chaos and brief but tenuous calm advances the plotline. I am too early into THT to weigh in on this, but I can say that its use of flashbacks is haunting, since they take me to my present time – and my own geography since much of THT is shot in Cambridge and Toronto, both close to where I live. Both series are externally supported by the regular and disorienting clips concerning climate change in my various news feeds. Of course, these dystopian tales have their provenance in apocalyptic literature – found in the bible and elsewhere. In the bible, this genre serves to tell those in utter chaos that God will bring about a just end. The hand of God is not so clear in these dystopian tales.

Both, in their own way, raise important theological queries: from the THT, I am constantly invited to ponder how religion can be a tool for hegemonic purposes. In TWD, religion takes on such a chameleon character – now seen in a tenuous hold on faith, now seen in people who betray their religion for survival, and now seen in hard existential questions about the purpose of life – played against an apocalyptic back drop that here and there peppers the viewer with biblical phrases. If I was a pastor who preached regularly, I would be watching both shows with a note pad at hand. As it is, I am ever watching, wondering how these fundamental questions of life, caught on screen might inform my classrooms, my church, my world.

Of Stones and Such

This last Saturday my hosts in Shillong took me to the village of Nantong, and environs, where we visited some sacred groves and saw a number of monoliths, huge stones settled on sacred sites. We were accompanied by a local Khasi Indigenous elder, who explained the significance of the stones and such to us. The stones largely function in one of two fashions. On the one hand, they are memorial stones, whose raisings are organized by family matriarchs to honour uncles on the mother’s side. These uncles had responsibilities for children that basically accrue to the role of fathers in modern Western worldviews. These stones are always vertical. Alternately, there are large horizontal stones held up by smaller vertical ones, and these table-like stones are identified with the matriarchs themselves – Khasi being a matriarchal culture – upon which certain rituals are performed. In some sites, a cluster of stones function as a kind of reliquary, where bones are held. The faithful go to such sites to ask the ancestors to intercede for God on their behalf.

As we were walking about, I mentioned how cemeteries in the West regularly make use of stones as well, and Dr. Fabian Marbaniang – an anthropology professor from Martin Luther Christian University here in Shillong – noted that there is a broad global practice of using both stones and trees as grave markers in light of their capacity to last many generations. We want to remember those who have passed on before us, and stones and such are fitting aides de memoire.

I can understand this at a deep visceral level. Tomorrow is my father’s birthday. He would have been 98 had he not died some 11 years ago. Every now and then, especially as the years go past, I have a sharp desire to relive some bits of our life together, to feel his presence again. As memories slide over the years, I feel a kind of pang that makes me want to mark his memory in some way. Many people do this by visiting graves and bringing flowers, but his grave is some 4000 kms from where I live and so I sometimes struggle to think how to properly honour his memory, and others beloved by me and mine.

I sense that I am acutely aware of this during travel, when I think of my Dad’s travel during four years aboard a corvette – an escort ship – during WWII. He spent many years living fleet of foot, calling many ports of call home for short bits of time, and rotating into and out of hammocks swinging over mess tables for short fits of sleep at sea. His was a sojourning life during those years. Travel far from home, it seems, prods and produces recollections of my Dad. And so as I go about these days, looking at Khasi Indigenous burial practices, among other things, I find myself thinking about my own culture’s burial customs, about my own needs to negotiate death and loss, and wondering how I can better honour the memories of my own ancestors. Here in India, it seems, I meet myself yet again.

Oslo Insights and Haitian Slights

I am just now back from a very quick trip to Oslo. I was there for a small writing workshop, mostly composed of members of the Faculty of Theology from the University of Oslo, as well as a couple of North Americans. This working group is preparing a volume on the theme of “Protestantization,”a word used to describe how certain tenets of Protestant thought (freedom of the conscience, the importance of non-clerical vocations, the separation without division of church and state, etc) have become a lens by which certain nations view themselves, for both good and ill. Protestantization speaks, for instance, to the manner in which a state allows for people to refuse religious life and so creates a condition for the possibility of a secular public square where no one religion holds pride of place. Of course, it is not always so very successful in this regard.

It was also noted that under this paradigm, religion is construed primarily as adherence to a confession of faith. This is not always helpful. And so, to give an example, there were a couple of papers on the topic of the public discussion concerning the regulation of circumcision in some nations in Europe. Some voices propose that circumcision could be allowed if families have faith in a belief system that demands it. These same voices would not consider as a valid religious reason one in which adherents point to their cultural identity with a religion despite lack of belief in the metaphysical tenants of a religion. So, to give an example, an agnostic or even atheistic Jewish family may well seek circumcision for their son despite personal beliefs, or disbelief. Their Jewish identity is not about what they believe, but about who they are and so they are accepted as Jews in the Jewish community despite their beliefs or lack thereof. I have had Jewish students who do not believe in God yet practice many of the rituals of Judaism without any sense of hypocrisy. Judaism, for these folks, is about their community not their individual convictions. The Nazis, as we know from history, did not distinguish between those Jews who believed and those who did not, and so we might begin to understand something of a Jewish solidarity that is more interested in communal identity than individual confession.

Of course, some papers addressed the positive contribution of Protestantism to political life, a point of no small significance in Norway, a nation that regularly rates high in terms of happiness, health-care, safety from gun incidences, etc.

Shortly after I returned from Norway, the President of the USA made a horrendous comment about America’s need for more immigrants from places like Norway than “shithole” nations like Haiti and countries in Africa and Latin America. The blatant racism of this comment is reprehensible. It stimulates hate crimes. It misrepresents immigrants and advances white supremacy. Moreover, it has no grasp of history. Many articles have since been published noting that the bulk of immigrants to North America a century or so ago were rather like immigrants from places like Haiti today: economically distraught, willing to do any work that would keep food on the table, and very glad to become contributing citizens in their adopted home. Norwegians, as one may well imagine, have not been pleased with the kind of comparison employed by the President, pitting Norway against Haiti, for instance. Protestanization, in varying degrees, has contributed to a history of Nordic countries welcoming the other.

My contribution to the volume is tentatively called “Embodying Protestantism.” In it I critique modern Protestantism’s too often animus against the body and frequent disinterest in the body politic. I look to Luther and the Danish theologian/philosopher Knut Løgstrup for resources to envision again the body and the body politic as gifts from God. As I work on this chapter for publication, I most certainly will ponder President’s racism and the need for people of all faiths, and none, to “protest” both this white supremacy and any religion that neglects social justice in its concern for the soul alone. People suffer and die because of the peculiarities of their body, and any Protestantism or Protestanization that will not call racism sin deserves disinterest and demise.

Seeing Double

I am only just now back from the American Academy of Religions, that annual event that allows me to be lost in a sea of folk who think about things religious, spiritual, and theological. It is always a rich experience, although oftentimes a bit harried with side-meetings, planning groups and such. This year, as I am wont to do most years, I came in on Friday. Things started in earnest on Saturday even though meetings and lectures are increasingly bleeding into the Friday too.

I came in by plane from Toronto, and my colleague and I shuttled our way to downtown Boston to Copley Place, a sprawling complex of hotels, shops, a convention centre and a huge mall. I checked into my hotel and from the 28th floor took my bearings. After checking a map, I walked out of the hotel/convention centre complex and took a right in order that I might go see the Boston Commons. After a time, it struck me that I was quite likely walking in the wrong direction. And so I pulled out my phone, took a look at the map and realized that yes, indeed, I had been walking for a time westward rather than eastward. But my map also indicated that this was a happy accident since I was now a stone’s throw away from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon finding out that the Museum was to be open until 10:00 pm, I bought my ticket and entered the shrine.

I always find art galleries to be sacred after a fashion. They don’t quite take the place of churches, temples, synagogues, and such in my mind and soul but still, they facilitate a kind of quiet where looking at the art seems to facilitate a shuttle into a different place, interior perhaps. I was quite taken by a display they had of Mark Rothko. For those who don’t know him, his work is abstract in genre, with rich colours that bleed across fuzzy edges, blurring where lines begin and end at the edges of what is often a rectangular shape on a rich coloured back-drop. I learned at the exhibit that he painted with the expectation that the viewer is to look at the painting from 18 inches away, which really rather radically reframes the experience of his art. His goal, thereby, was for the viewer to be drawn into the piece, which I found to happen with great effect.

When I left the Rothko exhibit, I came upon “Seeking Stillness.” This show invites viewers into introspection. Here I found a marvellous traditional Chinese mountain scene, shown below.

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I took this photograph of me taking a photograph of it, in the hopes to capture the manner in which stillness allows viewers to see themselves in art, society, the city, nature, and more. As I wandered around the museum, I took a few such photographs in the interests of seeing myself in the art, attaining, I think, what Rothko was hoping for. We often see things, but don’t see ourselves in the things we see. We aim for a kind of detachment that might well encourage a posture of judgement of art, play, family, etc. that is naïve about its objectivity. There is nothing wrong with “judging” art and such, I think, as long as we recall that our judgment might well say as much about us as the art. Art, good art anyway, always draws us into the art at the same time as it artfully enters us. Such art enables us to set aside the too easy conceit that it is ours to play God – now with art and next, too easily, with people.

Pictographs at Superior

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No, these images cannot be
described – neither
poetry nor prose can
circumscribe these etchings
on stone, cyphers of tenacity
sketched on rock, scars of strength
anchored across
grandfathers’
cheeks.  My cheeks
now moistened as I feel
this place dripping divine: mine
the gain as  I lay down any sense
of superiority,
of expertise,
of being high priest.

No, none of these
obtain because here I am
a drop of water crashing against rock;
a tear salting skin-on-fire;
a dropping of the guard into the
truth that being a drop is more
than enough.

Fish Bowl Theology

Yesterday afternoon I returned from our annual orientation retreat for the school where I work. It is an especially rich affair, with the opportunity to put face to the names we have seen on application forms.  Everyone is appropriately nervous and a particular kind of energy hangs in the air.  And as people get to know people you can feel bridges being built.  It is a kind of engineering of the personal and communal, I think.

 

One of the things we did for the retreat last year on the Saturday night, and replicated this year, was an event called the fish bowl.  I first encountered it some years ago at a clergy retreat.  In sum, it involves a group of three or four – or more, I suppose but would not recommend it – folks sitting in a circle discussing a topic.  The larger group sits around the smaller group, and listens in on the chat, rather like many of us look in on a fishbowl – without intervening but observing carefully what transpires.  Last year it was suggested by one of our newer faculty members.  She brought it forward as a way to allow student to catch faculty in motion in response to some fairly common questions around the role of theology in the curriculum of students aiming to be psychotherapists.  It involved a group of four of us, two biblical scholars, a professor in the area of spiritual care and psychotherapy, and myself – a systematic and historical theologian.

 

My experience this year was a little nerve wracking, rather like last year’s.  I entered the circle feeling like I was, well, a fish in a bowl.  The moderator got the questions going.  As we talked in response, I found myself glancing at fish bowl observers, wondering how this comment landed or if that quotation flew.  I found myself distracted – in a fashion – by the context but soon enough the content took over.  One of my colleagues posed a point I disagreed with, and so I intervened in service of clarification.  Another raised an issue I was inspired to riff on for a bit.  I got drawn into the conversation, and soon I discovered that I was utterly unaware of those observing us.  I was in the moment, and if felt glorious.

 

Eventually, though, the timer called us out of the bubble-bowl that had established itself and we began to entertain queries from the curious cats looking at and listening in on us.  These included both requests for clarification about challenging ideas as well as expansions on ideas expressed.  It was all rather invigorating and one of the students mentioned to a faculty member that she came to the event weary but found herself energized.

 

In retrospect, we noted that the students had an opportunity to catch a snapshot of a film, a sliver of a long conversation that has been going on between faculty in manner that I would describe as healthy, good-natured and yet marvellously taxing.  We have been at this for a time, and all of us have changed in varying ways, as is wont for those who listen and speak with a measure of charity and a double measure of self-critique.  A kind of grace attended the event – a grace that left us strangely invigorated and yet exhausted at the same time.  I can only hope and pray that those looking on experienced something of this, taking from the fish bowl what they needed.

Sabbath of Sabbaths

My wife and I don’t often miss church.  Most Sundays find us at St. Matthews, where we find nourishment in the familiar rhythms of word and sacrament, and the comradery of friends old and new engaging.  In the main, we like the hymns and songs, choir and bells, the sense of being in a historically grounded space, the grace and quirkiness of this person and that; but most especially Gary, whom some might call challenged but I see as especially gifted.  Perhaps gifting might be the better word.  He reminds me each Sunday that God is sharply located among the weak, wounded and dependent ones.

 

Like I said, we don’t often miss church and on holidays we like to visit other congregations if travel is serendipitous in that way.  Last weekend, we sailed to Port Credit, and hunkered down in the Credit Valley Marina for the night.  Our plan was to get away fairly early Sunday morning, so to be back in time to get ready for another week.  This meant no church and I knew I would miss my routine.

 

One of the spiritual disciplines of my Sunday is the walk to and from church.  There was to be none of that this Sunday last, but a short walk was in the offing all the same.  I walked along the Mississauga lake front trail, enjoying the view and the people enjoying the view.  I was especially struck by a man sitting on a bench with a coffee, cigar, and crossword puzzle who was utterly transfixed by his tasks.  He didn’t seem to notice his pristine view of the lake, which was emitting some of the diamonds it harbours in waves and wakes.  Others were chatting as they jogged, walked, and cycled about.  None looked like they were on their way to church, and it struck me that a change in their plans was not too likely.

 

Of course, many in the Greater Toronto Area would know nothing of church, coming to Canada with other faiths in their pasts, but I was reminded again how many in Canada would know nothing of church, being born with little or no knowledge of what the practice of church could mean.  I looked at the people biking in their little groups, and asked myself how many of them might give up their free Sunday morning at lake’s side for the weekly discipline of worship.  My forehead furrowed.

 

My father, of blessed memory, used to say that a revival was needed in our day and age.  He had in mind a revival of the heart of both the individual and the church, and I think he was right.  But as I made my way yesterday upon that pathway leading not to church but along the lake, I surmised that re-vivification will involve neither finger waving nor bland religious platitudes, but more time spent with folk like Gary.  He gleefully shouts “Time for church!” as one of us hold open the door for him who, in turn, opens a few doors for us unawares.  His faith is contagion as he revives the heart of the institution and the individuals who still find in it a home for their faith.

This is Not Manna

I just came back yesterday from a church convention. It was all that a church convention can be – a mix of inspiration and tedium, passion and boredom, renewal and rehashing.

Ours was held near the airport in Toronto, and I recall another such convention in a like location some years ago. The convention chaplain at that meeting spoke about the experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness in a sermon. The weariness of eating manna day in and out brought to his mind his experience of receiving rhubarb as a parish pastor on the prairies years ago. For those not in the know, rhubarb is described as an herb. It grows as a stalk, which is eaten. It has a lovely flavour, but is very crisp, sour and utterly devoid of sugar. My memories of it as a child were of its marriage to strawberries at this time of year – in a sauce poured over ice cream, or eaten on its own by dipping in a bowl of sugar.

The convention chaplain derided it a bit, which made me rather unhappy. In those days, I had two huge rhubarb plants, from which I made both rhubarb juice and wine. The former was a refreshing alternate to fruit juice for breakfast with a raspberry like tartness, and especially lovely in the winter. The latter was a simple but satisfying fruit wine for a Friday movie night in the basement, in the days when a movie meant a trip to the local video rental location. I loved rhubarb and given its relatively short season in my world did not find it a fitting parallel to the tedium of manna in Moses story.

At our recent convention, I bumped into Kathryn S., who most recently gave me some pounds of fresh cut rhubarb, which I turned into canned rhubarb, seen below. I thanked her again, showing her the photo, and saying I would think on her when mixing a bit with my home-made granola in the middle of the winter. She wondered whether this said rhubarb might end up in a blog post, demonstrating both her prescience and my eagerness to find fit material for a rumination, now on rhubarb, which brings me back to my earlier observation about the rhubarb sermon.

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It could well be that the good pastor received more rhubarb than he knew what to do with. But times have changed and the comparison does not hold, in my estimation. Rhubarb is gold in the local grocery store, and I have tried growing it in our back yard but to nearly no avail. Our back yard is too shadowed. I do not at all associate rhubarb with tedium, but rather delight and so I thank Kathryn, doubly, for this fine food which also serves me as an aide de memoire of grace.

I should mention that I have never canned rhubarb before. I didn’t exactly have a recipe. I found a few on-line recipes, but they seemed to be more complicating than necessary. I simply did with rhubarb as I have done with canned peaches although upping the sugar to water ratio a bit. In due course I will find out whether I succeeded, or not, and now look about for other manna (or not) like miracles for use in canning, fruit juice, or perhaps even that most private of pleasures: fruit wine aged in the cellar.

Word in utero

Foot on bladder;
fist at rib;
each twist arrests
her breath that now attests
the movement of Word to womb to world.

What did her womb know
of the Love it cradled? Did the
placenta cheer to hear the first utterance of
the divine Word in water? Did her
spine divine the Spirit wafting hope
over primordial waters?

Word in utero;
God so loving world,
God so loving womb;
God so loving the mother of God – Theotokos – first
to know that to hear the word is to bear Love.

Of Sermons and Such

Last weekend I attended the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Atlanta.  While I had opportunity to hear some marvelous papers, and reveled in the occasion to meet with old friends and to greet new ones, by far the highlight of the weekend came on Sunday morning.  After a hearty breakfast at “The Diner,” I joined two friends in a cab that took us to (the new) Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church community of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  We arrived a bit early, and had opportunity to wander about a bit, looking at the Peace Garden and reading some touching reflections on peace written by children of various ages from many locales.  We took a very quick look at the museum before getting back to the church.  We arrived at 10:30 or so, for an 11:00 service.  At a quarter to the hour, one of the church leaders introduced three young people seeking baptism, and while the choir sang “Take Me to the Waters,” they were baptized by immersion on confession of faith in a baptismal font located some 20 or 30 feet above the sanctuary proper.  I was hereby reminded that this was not my home, which was the very thing I was hoping for.  The service proper began at 11:00 with a thanksgiving hymn, followed by prayers, the Pastor’s Brief, a stewardship presentation, special music, an offering, etc.  All of this moved the community artfully towards the sermon, which was altogether unlike anything I have heard.

 

The preacher was Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, a celebrated preacher in North America.  His oratory skills were moving, his treatment of the biblical passage insightful, his engagement of justice issues jolting, and his ability to connect the text to the trials and temptations of the folk in the pew profound.  The sermon began with a measured pace and a close reading of a written text.  As the sermon advanced, the pace picked up, the preacher left the written text, and by the end what transpired was as much song as speech as he spoke with ringing and rolling phrases that reached for justice, pressed for peace and sang mercy.  People stood and clapped when a phrase, or an idea, or an admonition hit their hearts.  Certain themes brought the majority of the congregation to their feet, but never all the people.  It was clear to me that standing, and/or clapping was a part of a personal engagement with the sermon rather than a required or expected response.  As the sermon reached its conclusion, folk were invited to come forward to shake the Pastor’s hand in a gesture of welcome for those wishing to join the Ebenezer Community.  It was really a most memorable and transformative event.

 

I am a little reticent to call what I experienced a sermon.  Or, perhaps I should be reticent to call what I hear in most churches I frequent a sermon.  The genre was so utterly other than what I know.  I am aware that, to a degree, the character of my experience was formed by my being outside of my zone of familiarity and comfort.  And so, I am neither romantic nor naive about what I experienced, recognizing that what transpired at Ebenezer is a product of events, and skills, and communal commitments that cannot be replicated in my context.  Nor is it the case that Dr. Warnock’s sermon was “better” than what I normally hear.  In fact, it seemed so utterly different that comparison seems like an evasion of the need to simply take in what occurred.  The experience was one of those which seems so rich as to require a long deep breath, and willingness to sit with it for a bit.  Something happened in that historic community for me, and I suspect it will take a while before I know what it was.  But in the interim, I am grateful for such an unusual experience, as well as the usual experiences which allow this one to stand out so.