Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I see hope

As my faith has changed over the last few years, I’ve faced the challenge of trying to determine what Christmas means to me. I believe there is power in secular aspects of the holiday (that haven’t been completely poisoned by mass consumerism) – it’s a dark, cold time of year in this part of the world, and there’s value in lighting lights, cooking special foods, and taking the time to be with family and friends. But, as long as I call myself a Christian, I feel like my Solstice celebrations should not completely ignore the fact that this is one of the biggest holidays of the Christian calendar.

But, when actually seeking to understand the meaning of the holiday, what’s a non-Biblical-literalist atonement-questioning liberal girl to do? My attempt at finding an answer: take a page from the book of Borg, and read the Christmas story for its metaphorical truth. Despite my previous life as a student of English literature, I like what Borg said about seeing metaphorical truth in the Bible, but I haven’t actually put it into practice very often. But, staying home from Church this past Sunday, and spurred on by the feeling that the third Sunday of Advent shouldn’t just be spent with a cup of tea and a novel, I opened up the gospels and read the accounts of the Christmas story in Matthew and Luke.

First stop was Luke. For those of you playing along at home who (like me) don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible, Luke is the guy who brings us Mary’s hymn and the shepherds. And I noticed a link between these two images: in Mary’s hymn, she talks about the proud being humbled while the poor are raised up. And then, with the story about the shepherds, we see this put into action: God’s own messengers appearing to farm labourers. If there’s a central metaphor in Luke’s Christmas story, it points towards a social order that undermines the usual hierarchies, and it suggests that our hope can be found in the most unexpected of places. After the angels chose the shepherds as the unlikely welcome party for the new king, they sent them off to visit a baby in a barn: hardly a symbol of power.

Next: Matthew. Matthew gives us the Magi’s journey and Herod’s schemes. There are a lot of dreams helping people to make the right decision and, of course, the star. The repeated refrain is that everything that happened took place to fulfill the prophecies. On one level, it feels a bit like a murder mystery that brings the clues together all too neatly at the end. But on the other hand, it contextualizes our hero: the message is that Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere; that God always has a plan and that; in God’s own time, that plan will get carried out. Like the story from Luke that big things that can come from a baby in a barn, this, too, is a message of hope.

I’ve been finding myself getting depressed by the news recently. It seems like when people aren’t blowing each other up, they’re screwing each other over or, at the very least, taking pot shots for a cheap laugh. So this year, I am going to try to find the hope and the promise in the Christmas stories, and try to have them affect the way I look at, and interact with, the world. After all, only one more week and the days start getting longer again.

Monday, November 30, 2009

it doesn't even make sense ...

I know that people are frightened of “the other”, and I know that, since at least September 11, 2001, primary alien number one for the west has been Islam. But I am still astounded by the racism (or religionism, as the case may be …) that is directed towards Muslims by people in North America and Europe.

Last week, I read an article about a Michigan town that has put in a bid to have the Guantanamo detainees housed in their empty jail. The fact that this plan to save the town from economic ruin is controversial is not, in and of itself, surprising. There’s always going to be NIMBYism associated with prisons. What is surprising, though, is some of the rhetoric coming from the townspeople who oppose the plan. Regarding the jail’s former inmates – murderers and rapists – one of the locals is quoted as saying: “well at least they're human, they're just like you and I, American citizens.” In other words, what dehumanizes terrorists and “enemy combatants” is not their acts of violence, but their foreignness.

Next on this week’s anti-Islam hit-list is the recent Swiss referendum to ban minarets on mosques. What we’re talking about here is an architectural feature that identifies mosques as, well, mosques. According to my trusty sources at wikipedia, the minaret is used for the call to prayer. But that is not the case in Switzerland, so what we’re really talking about is a physical identification of a building as a mosque. The ban is weird for several reasons: there were only 4 mosques in Switzerland; and there apparently aren’t problems with Islamic militancy there. The purported reason behind the ban is pure fear-mongering: the argument is that the minaret is “the thin of the wedge” of allowing Islam to take a foothold in Switzerland, and will lead to covered women, sharia law, etc etc. And, despite the strong opposition to the ban by many Swiss leaders, the public bought it – voting 57% in favour of the ban.

One of the things that strikes me about both of these reactions to the stranger in our midst is that they are irrational. Justifying that some anti-social killers are “human” because they come from the same place as you, while others aren’t, because they don’t, doesn’t make any sense. Neither does restricting the practice of a religious freedom that is not causing anyone harm. And so the question is, why? Is it because people need a “them” so there can be an “us”? Is it because the thought of seeking commonalities, rather than focusing on differences, is somehow a threat to our own identities? Or maybe it’s just because these people don’t know any Muslims, and it’s easy to dehumanize when you are considering a concept, rather than actual people. Whatever the cause, this conflict between civilizations, or whatever it is, is never going to end, as long as people on both sides react to “them” with visceral fear, rather than reason.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

seeing with different eyes

Today, I knew I would have to walk home from church, so I brought along my little pocket camera, because I often find myself wishing I had my camera when I am on a walk. And it wasn't long before I had my first photographable subject:



And once the camera was in my hand, I started seeing everything I passed with different eyes. And I realized that that's one of the things I love about photography - it makes me engage in my surroundings, and see the art in the mundane. I used to consider myself an artist, but I don't act, or sing, or any of the things that I used to do. But walking down the street with a little camera on a grey november day made me realize that I can still be an artist: I just have to think like one.









Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The World's Greatest!

A few weeks ago, it was the world’s biggest bowl of taboulleh – made by a Lebanese chef who wanted to wrest the title back from the Turks. And today, it’s the biggest meatball – because the record rightly belongs to the east coast of the U.S., and those Mexican usurpers who stole the title last August have to understand that nobody messes with the birthright of the Italian-American.

Now, I understand national pride associated with traditional foods, and I understand the appeal of seeking world records (while I don’t feel the personal drive, I can intellectually see the appeal behind wanting to be the first or the fastest). But I don’t understand the drive that causes people to combine these two desires (I also don’t understand the need to make the longest paper-clip chain: a record captured by students at Wilfrid Laurier shortly before I attended: my residence don had participated, and told us how cool it was. I was sceptical …). I guess there’s a certain kitschy appeal, but still . . .

The desire to achieve world records of no consequence seems to come from the same place that makes people want to be on reality television: a wish to be special without necessarily having to perfect a skill or craft of any kind. And it’s kind of sad, because fame doesn’t make people special . . . we are all special, intrinsically. I have to admit that I still dream of writing the Great Canadian Novel and/or becoming Secretary-General of the U.N., and it’s partly because I want to be important. But since I will likely not become Margaret Atwood and Kofi Annan’s love child at any point in the near future, I choose to put my energies into small things that can make a difference, instead of grandiose gestures that are ultimately empty.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

in the image ...

Back in the 90s, the United Church issued its new hymn book, Voices United. As with any change, there was bound to be controversy and resistance, but the most controversial issue with this publication was the use of gender-inclusive language: any reference to “mankind” etc. or to God, were changed to be gender-neutral. And, I have to admit that, at the time, I was one of the people who were against the change. I thought that it was an example of excessive political correctness, and was silly to change well-known songs that were written in a pre-feminist era – I figured I was advanced enough to be able to sing about mankind and know that it included me; and God is bigger than our gender constructs, so if we want to use the masculine pronoun, it’s just about convenience and doesn’t reveal any truth about the nature of God.

I’ve been rethinking this issue recently. I’m reading “All We’re Meant to Be” right now, a book of feminist theology that was written originally in the 1960s, and then updated in the ‘80s. The authors explain that they initially didn’t think that inclusive language was important, but have moved towards it, and changed their references to God throughout the second edition of the book to use non-gendered language. Their argument is that our language shapes the way we think, so that if we refer to God as male, even if it’s just for convenience’s sake, we think in those terms, and we are therefore less likely to truly embrace the fact that women are equally made in God’s image.

So I’ve been thinking about how we talk about God can affect how we view God, and I am going to try an experiment – I am trying to only refer to God in gender-inclusive language, and see if it does change my perception. This is tricky – even in writing this, I have had to stop myself from typing “him” and “he” whenever a pronoun would usually be inserted. I generally don’t think of God as much of a “person” which, on the one hand, means that it might not make much of a difference, but on the other hand is all the more reason to move away from personal pronouns.

Going forward, I am not too worried about the other element of gender-inclusive language: it is generally accepted (at least in the circles I move in) that it’s “humanity”, and not “mankind”. But I still am not sure what I think about changing per-feminist texts to insert inclusive language. On the one hand, how can we move to gender equality in the church if we continue to tell women “oh don’t worry, when it says ‘man’, it really means you too . . .”, but then, this is art that was created in a certain context, and I am a bit uncomfortable with changing art to make it meet our sensibilities (√† la fig leaf on David) …. So I don’t know where I will fall on that debate, but (despite reservations about the musical difficulty of a number of the songs . . . a topic for another rant . . .) I definitely now appreciate what the writers of Voices United were trying to do, and why it is important.

Song and Dance

I saw the Drowsy Chaperone last night, and it was fabulous. Now, when I was young, I loved the big Broadway hit musicals – I had a scrapbook of all of the different ads that would come out in the Toronto Star for the Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis√©rables. I eagerly awaited every new Andrew Lloyd Webber production. But things went sour sometime around Sunset Boulevard. Mom and I went to see it, and it was just dull. The next night, we saw a production of Aristophanes’ Clouds in a simple black box theatre for a fraction of the price, and laughed until we cried.

My estrangement with the big musical was deepened by the advent of the Disney Musical and, despite the fact that Mamma Mia was hilarious (hee hee, flipper dance = genius), the “take a bunch of songs from a famous band and make a musical out of it” musical. I am under no delusions that musical theatre was ever made for purely artistic reasons, but I do feel like there’s been a certain increase in the crassness of the commercialization of musicals in recent history: the model is to take something that already exists (music, movie, toy), get Oprah to endorse it, charge $100/ticket, and call it theatre. I even saw a poster for a Legally Blonde musical last time I was in NYC, for goodness sake! (And, yes, I know I am a snob . . . an unfortunate fact that led to me being denied the joys of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until 12 years after it debuted . . . but that’s another story.)

I’d like a bit of pure intentions with my glitz . . . which brings me back to the Drowsy Chaperone. I was excited about seeing it, because of the story of the show’s background: it started as a skit, was expanded to a fringe show, and kept on growing until it made its way to Broadway, and 5 Tony nominations. In other words, its buzz wasn’t artificially created by some kind of entertainment juggernaut – it earned it.

It is not a particularly deep play. It’s a spoof of 1920s musicals, narrated by “the Man in the Chair,” a character who comments on the history of the actors that are supposed to be playing each role, and the various contrived twists and turns of the plots. But, it skewers the genre perfectly, while being full of the entertaining song-and-dance numbers that make it so great. And, through the Man in the Chair, there’s even a theme about our attachment to theatre, and our wish to escape through entertainment.

We don’t need media personalities telling us what to watch on the stage – that’s what we have TV for. Please, if you want to watch Legally Blonde, spend $5 to rent the movie. If you want to go see a musical, go to see something that was designed first and foremost to entertain you, rather than to make money for its producers.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

bad things happen . . .

There was a short piece on the radio this morning about white collar crime. They interviewed a woman who had been defrauded, and (particularly after just learning that the latest ponzi scheme perpetrator was someone from my hometown) I really felt bad for her. She obviously felt betrayed and wounded by a person who she’d trusted. But then she said something that made me pause – she said “I always told my kids that if you are a good person, good things will happen to you, and if you’re a bad person, bad things will happen to you, but that’s not the case here.”

And I thought . . . wait a minute, why would you ever tell your children that? Because that was never the deal. Whatever justice may mean on a human or more divine scale, history has not given us any indication that good things happen to good people, and vice versa. Jesus got crucified, Martin Luther King Jr. got shot, and Nelson Mandela spent an awfully long time in prison. Kanye West is a superstar with legions of fans.

It seems to me that having a worldview based on good and bad being doled out on a quid pro quo basis is dangerous. Because what happens when something bad happens to you? There are two possibilities: either a) something bad has happened to you because you are actually a bad person; or b) your worldview was wrong, and even though you are a good person, this will not protect you from bad things happening. Either way, why bother continuing to do good?

So, I don’t know what you should tell your children (maybe I should add moral philosophy to my fun fall reading list, along with feminist theology and development theory ... ), but it seems that if you build your moral framework around the idea that good things happen to good people, you’re going to be ill-equipped to deal with the tragedies and betrayals that are part of life.

Monday, September 14, 2009

election malaise

I try to care about politics – we’re talking about the leadership of my country, after all. I watch the leaders’ debate before every election, and try to be informed of every party’s platform and vote based on what they are promoting, rather than on a knee-jerk reaction based on general party ideology.

But, as the Globe and Mail and the CBC start to talk election, my gut reaction is “I’m so bored!” I am so tired of elections and, just like the one at this time last year, I can’t see that this one is necessary. The polls suggest we are still in a conservative-minority holding pattern, and neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals are talking about any big ideas that would change business as usual.

When this election gets called, I will see what they each have to say, and I will go and vote, because I believe that it’s part of my responsibility as a citizen in a democratic country. But I’m not happy about it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

look up

The annual Gatineau hot air balloon festival took place over the Labour Day weekend. What this means is that, if you happened to be biking to foreign affairs at about 7:15 each morning, there were dozens of silent splashes of colour drifting by or bobbing in and out of view between the buildings, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

Hot air balloons are magical – they sneak up on you from behind the trees and make you look up. I’ve been wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase every day, working long hours (I was biking to the office at 7:15 am every day during the Labour Day weekend . . .) and I haven’t had much time to reflect on anything beyond my work. My morning ride along the river, against a backdrop of splashes of colour behind the half-finished apartment buildings, has kept me looking up. And looking up makes me breathe a bit deeper, and keeps me grounded in a world that is bigger than the four corners of the daily grind.

Monday, August 17, 2009

revenue and relevance

I have passed by a few Gatineau busses recently that have a very interesting poster on their side. No, it’s not the “God probably doesn’t exist so stop worrying and enjoy your life” ad that has caused such a stir (I know that Ottawa has refused to run those ads on OCTranspo – I don’t know if STO was ever approached with a French version). What’s caught my attention is an ad from the Catholic diocese of the Outaouais, which says “Money doesn’t fall from the sky: your Church needs you.”

Maybe Catholicism is sufficiently different from Protestantism that this is an effective strategy, but these ads really surprised me: from my experience, it can be a big enough challenge to get people who actually attend a church to support it financially – and this campaign appears to be aimed at those members of the Catholic church who aren’t actually there on Sunday morning. So, my first thought was that this was basically an ineffective campaign, and unlikely to pay off in more returns than it will cost to run the ads. But, as I said, I’m not Catholic – so maybe there are enough people who have a cultural/historical connection to the church that they will contribute, even if they don’t attend regularly.

But it also makes me wonder if they’re missing the point – the church shouldn’t exist just to self-perpetuate . . . it is only of value if it is serving the spiritual needs of a community. The shrinking church attendance in the past two generations suggests that churches are not meeting the needs of the community. And the fact that the diocese is running these ads suggests that there are not enough people involved in the community who are meeting the financial needs of the church. So, maybe the church needs to shut some buildings down and let go of the expensive bricks and mortar that are probably a large portion of its operating budget. Or maybe it needs to think about reaching out to whoever the target audience of the ads are, and finding out why they aren’t coming to the church (and subsequently not giving), rather than guilting them into paying a system that they appear to not be getting anything out of. I guess what I’m saying that these ads seem to address the symptom of a lack of revenue, rather than the root cause: the lack of relevance of the Church in today’s society.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

consumed

While in Vancouver, we went to the flea market – most notable among the piles of over-priced plastic crap was the sign indicating that I was looking at “vintage” Star Wars figures . . . from 1995. Earlier this week, we wandered into a furniture store that was having a clearance “event.” Facial soap followed by cream is a “system.” It seems like every purchase has to be an experience . . . . and we drive from big-box store to big-box store, looking for . . . what? Belonging? Excitement? Glamour? Whatever it is, you probably can’t buy it at Canadian Tire and put it together with an allen key.

consume: [kuh n-soom] –verb (used with object) 1. to destroy or expend by use; use up.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

a hollow victory

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of visiting the left coast, the jewel of Vancouver is Stanley Park, an amazing park on the edge of downtown with beaches, big forests, and a great aquarium, among other things. Since the 1880s, one of the attractions has been the hollow tree – a massive hollowed out stump, so big that you could back your Model T into it for a photo op. A few years ago, though, a big storm took out several of the trees in the park, and the hollow tree has been leaning at a dangerous angle ever since. The Park board decided that it was at danger of falling on tourists, and approved its removal. It’s sad, but that’s nature, and an inevitable part of our interaction with nature. We build roads so that we can easily access the hollow tree, the root structure is weakened as the soil is changed, and eventually the tree is at risk of falling onto the very road we built so that we could get to it – a victim of its own stardom. And so the landscape changes, as landscapes do, both because of and despite our interaction with them.

But wait. Enter the Stanley Park Hollow Tree Conservation Society. Wanting to ensure that “future generations of Vancouver residents and visitors alike [can] enjoy [the tree] with the same sense of wonderment, awe, and humbling perspective” as previous generations, the society has raised millions of dollars to brace the hollow tree. Nature will not have its way, so that we can continue to be awed by . . . the power of nature. I can understand the urge to preserve the tree – it’s an icon in the Vancouver landscape. However, the big old stump being propped up by metal poles is one of the saddest things I have ever seen. It stands not as a testament to the wonder of nature, but to our misguided attempts to control and tame nature to suit our own ends.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

manufactured emotion

My generation, and the ones that follow even more so, have been numbed by media bombardment. We are constantly fed images of “happenings” around the world, and we desperately want to be part of one. The problem, though, is that half of the events we have the opportunity to participate in have been designed as events, so that someone somewhere else can see the images and wish they were there, being part of the action. The whole point of Woodstock was that it was spontaneous. Woodstock II was a manufactured simulacrum of the original, designed to sell t-shirts and CDs. None of this analysis is new, but I’ve been thinking about it in light of Michael Jackson’s death and the separation of Jon and Kate Gosselin.

The immediate reaction of so many people to MJ’s death seemed to be a sense of personal grief and loss, and I don’t get it. Yes, he was a very talented singer and dancer. And his life and death were tragic. But he was, from the age of 5, a product of our celebrity-obsessed culture. In some ways, his entire life was manufactured as a “happening”, and it seems like his death will just be one more.

Likewise, the Gosselins, who I had never heard of before their marital troubles landed their faces in the super-market aisle, have turned their entire lives into a media event. Lo and behold – raising 8 children under a constant spotlight is stressful, and they recently announced their divorce on the show. What astounded me was their position (since shut down by the network) that the show would go on – the public wants to see their children grow up, and the public must get what it wants.

I guess what I’m trying to get at is that we dull our real senses when we let the media dictate what we should care about – what we should celebrate, who we should mourn. People are crying for the loss of a musician who hasn’t put out a new album in a decade or longer. Meanwhile, a couple whose celebrity has destroyed their marriage are continuing to seek the limelight – it’s like their entire lives are Woodstock II – a shiny media event staged for the fans at home. And we’re soaking it all up, while real people are unsung musical geniuses, real children are growing up, real friends are experiencing the joys and tragedies of marriages good and bad, and the backyard barbecue of the century may be just a few phone calls away. But we miss it, because it doesn’t have the shiny gloss of celebrity. But this is the stuff of life, and it’s happening right under our noses.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

where I've been

I haven’t written much in the past few months – a realization that is usually kind of depressing, since I write here to organize my thoughts, and nothing to write suggests no thoughts worth organizing. It’s true that I have been somewhat free of the pursuits that usually lead to blog posts – I have been reading only fiction, I haven’t been to church very much, and I’ve been working a lot.

I have managed to squeeze in a good amount of time with family and friends, though. And it’s been good. I’ve learned from my six-year-old nephew what happened to the dinosaurs (they all froze and their arms and legs fell off). I’ve had dinner with friends of friends and family of family when I was a visitor in their home town. I celebrated my Grandma’s 80th birthday with my whole family, and she was pleased, even though she’d never admit it. I went winery-hopping on the first real day of summer with some dear girl friends, and then headed back to the boys at the cottage to stack rocks on the beach with the baby and eat a delicious dinner.

And so I’ve been thinking about people. I’m not advocating ignorance of world events, or only caring about what happens in our own home town, but maybe sharing a glass of wine on the deck is true wisdom, because the people you share it with are really what it’s all about.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Money Talks

Back a month or 2 ago, Miss California was all over the news – she was under fire for: 1) stating (when asked by a pageant judge) that she was not supportive of gay marriage; and 2) having posed in sexy photos at some point in her past.

On the first topic – while I don’t agree with her position, she was asked a direct question and gave an honest answer. For Perez Hilton (who asked the question) to come back and call her a stupid cow is problematic on a number of levels: aside from the disingenuity of attacking her for bringing her personal politics into a beauty show when she was succinctly answering his question, I don’t think that dismissing someone with whom you disagree as a stupid cow is exactly the best way to foster constructive dialogue.

And, on the second topic: Swimsuit competition good. Underwear modelling shots bad. WTF? Enough said.

So, Donald Trump, who apparently owns the whole Ms. USA shebang was called upon to decide if Miss Cali should be dismissed for her missteps. The answer was no. However, today, that ruling from on high has been reversed. Apparently she’s been skipping out on appearances she is obliged to make under her pageant queen contract, while at the same time doing unapproved stints in her new role as the poster child for traditional marriage. So, due to breach of contract, the crown is being passed onto the runner-up. I guess that, while I will never understand the blind curves and contradictions of popular American morality, I can rest assured that there are constants – money talks, and at the end of the day, a contract is a contract.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

living in the moment

It seems like I am in the middle of some kind of Zen perfect storm, where all indicators point towards my need to focus on living in the moment. Without going looking for it, it’s been a major theme in a few of the books I have read recently, including In Praise of Slow , Eat Pray Love , and Cold Tangerines . PJ’s been learning about being present in his aikido practice and, generally, I’m just realizing that always striving, striving, leads to nowhere by discontent (see my post from a few months ago on over-achieving).

So, I am trying to slow down and to be present. To realize that I am here right now, and don’t need to always be moving towards some perfect future when I will be the person I want to be. My sporadic attempt at meditation are part of that. Watching my plants grow has been good too – they come up when they’re ready, no matter what the seed chart says.

It’s also about realizing that I am not off on some grand adventure right now, but here in Ottawa, and there are plenty of things going on here. I am trying to get out and do things around town a bit more, instead of always going home and spending the evening reading or watching DVDs. Even when I am home, I am trying to do more “active” pursuits. Cooking something new and making dinner an event. Working on some crafts. Anything that engages my brain or my body, and is good.

I am trying to give myself grace, too, because sometimes I am just tired and need to vegetate. I don’t want my attempts to live in the moment to be another pressure on myself to always be bettering myself, but I don’t want to let the moments slip by, while I’m waiting to start saving the world.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

green stuff

I do not have a lot of experiencing gardening, but this year, Rah asked if I'd like to share in the garden that she is planting for the first time in her back yard. So, under her super-organized instruction, I've been getting ready. We spent a chunk of Saturday digging beds, sifting rocks out of the soil, and counting the prolific earth worms.

More excitingly, I started my seeds a few weeks ago, and I now have a bevvy of shoots in my little window-side garden, waiting to get tough enough to head on outside. Every day, before work and again after, I go and check out my shoots. The peppers were slow-bloomers, and I thought I'd failed completely, but they are now shooting up left right and centre. The zucchini came up just when they were supposed to, and I've already transplanted two of them to larger pots. And, honestly, it's a miracle, how these little seeds turn into little shoots with 2 leaves, and then four, and then more and more until there's food. We'll see how they do when I actually put them in the garden, but at the moment, I am tranfixed with wonder every time I look at my little plants and all of the possibility they hold.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

silence

This weekend, I read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Part of the book (which chronicles the true adventures of the author while she spends a year trying to find “balance” in her life) takes place in an ashram in India. In the ashram, she spends a lot of time (no surprise) meditating, and she talks in the book about her experience of learning to still her mind. Which has got me thinking – I am not very good at stilling my mind. I don’t just sit and try to listen to God. Even when I am praying, which I don’t do enough, I am always talking. Or else I multi-task – praying while working out or while biking to work or while trying to drift off to sleep. Never just listening. I would probably benefit from sitting in silence. But the thought of trying to add that to my schedule stresses me out. How sad is that?

what's been really bugging me . . .

I have not been reading the news about the Afghani Shiite Family Law too closely. This is partly because of a challenge in the last issue of Geez that got me thinking about my consumption of the news - it made me question whether I am making the world a better place or myself a better person by being constantly bombarded with everything horrible that is happening all over the world. So, I've heard about it when I had the radio on and seen the headlines, but I haven't delved in.

Even in that limited exposure, though, there have been something about the discourse that has rubbed me the wrong way. I take it as a given that marital rape is bad, and that governments shouldn't legalize it - the fact that this is a "no brainer" for me is one of the reasons why I didn't feel the need to "follow" the story any further. However, what's been sitting poorly with me is the way that the media has covered this issue. Today's Globe and Mail says, in a line that is indicative of what I've been hearing, "The law, passed last month, says a husband can demand sex with his wife every four days unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse — a clause that critics say legalizes marital rape."

A clause that CRITICS SAY legalizes marital rape?! I don't know if the media is trying not to be judgemental, but if they do have their facts right, and the law does indeed say "a husband can demand sex every four days", then there is no other side of the story - that's not a controversial interpretation by critics: this clause legalizes rape. Are the Canadian media outlets trying so hard to be culturally relativist and sensitive that they are suggesting that rape might be okay in some contexts? If there was a law that said a man could kill his wife for adultery, would the papers report that "critics say" it legalizes murder? I find the suggestion that there are any shades of grey concerning whether forced marital sex is rape to be offensive to women both in Afghanistan and around the world . . . apparently even in the western media a woman's sexual autonomy is still open for discussion, rather than a given, and that's sad.

Friday, March 20, 2009

post-evangelical

I recently read “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg, and it was like coming home. Borg reads the Bible in a “historical-metaphorical” way, rather than literally, and manages to find great meaning and power in it without saying that it’s God’s instruction-book for our lives. What to do with the Bible has been one of the major challenges in my faith venture in the last several years – I didn’t take it literally, so I didn’t know how to, as Borg says, use another framework to “take it seriously”. The method that Borg offers makes sense to me, and actually made me feel like the Bible might have something to offer for the first time in a long time.

One of the things I also realized was that Borg often stated that the theological interpretation he was advancing was accepted by most mainline churches, and it made me miss my mainline roots. Ecclesiax is an amazing community, and I can’t imagine going to church anywhere else right now, but ideologically, I feel like the United Church is my home. Which is interesting, because while I’ve always had great affection for the United Church, there was definitely a period in my time when I thought that many of the positions I now long for were dead wrong. And this, coupled with all of this buzz about “Christian hipsters” (see my last post) has made me think about the fact that I truly in a “post-evangelical” space (an interesting realization, since even at my most “Christian”, if you want to call it that, I never really wore the term evangelical completely comfortably).

I am also uncomfortable with the term “post-evangelical”, though, because it suggests that I am at some higher stage of growth that evangelical Christians, and I don’t like saying that. I used to think that I was right and people who thought the way I now do were wrong. My experiences, study, and self-examination have led me to another point of view, but I don’t want to fall into the same trap, and consider that I was initially mistaken, and NOW I am “right”. I know that there are people of the faith who will start praying for my soul when they read these words, but I am becoming more and more comfortable without certainties as time goes on. I don’t know if that’s “growth”, but it’s “change”, and it feels right.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Christian hipsters - el Maggie jumps into the fray

I recently came across the blog post “are you a Christian hipster” by Brett McCracken, a guy who is apparently writing a book on the concept of Christian cool. I thought that his description would be all about suburban evangelical kids with nice hair and cool cars, so I was quite surprised that he’s actually talking about the “emergent” end of the spectrum – apparently Christian hipsters don’t like contemporary Christian music and do like Henri Nouwen. There are hundreds of responses to the blog post, ranging from “Hey, I’m a Christian hipster – good for me” to “uh, you’re just describing most mainline denominations” to “Christians should never strive to be hip”.

While I think that the author’s idea is to explore the relationship between the church and popular culture, I also found that he kind of missed out on the roots of what he deems the “Christian hipster” movement. I am not completely sure, from his writing, where he’s coming from, but it seems that he is suggesting that Christian hipsters are doing various “cool” and “edgy” things in an attempt to mimic mainstream hipster culture (as embodied in the skinny-jeans-wearing rebels of today) within a Christian context. This, to me, misses the point.

Many of the “hipsters” I know come from an evangelical background, but have not found themselves at home in either the evangelical movement or Christian pop culture. For many people at Ecclesiax, at least, this journey began with a dissatisfaction with the sanitization of the church and the unwillingness to embrace doubt or accept darkness as part of life. From there, it moves into exploring alternative ways that Christian communities have interacted with each other and with God, and claiming what is relevant to the community in question. As such, the practices that seem edgy from an evangelical point of view are often ones that are practiced in mainline churches, or were popular in other periods of history.

So, yes, there are questions to be asked – why are young protestants moving away from the evangelical church and into a, in some ways, more “catholic” mode of worship? How comfortably can Christianity and popular culture co-exist (but this is only worth exploring if both “Christian pop culture” and the interactions of secular pop culture and Church are considered)? The more established churches would do well to consider why the hipsters McCracken is examining are becoming more prevalent, but to consider them as Christians that just want to be cool is selling short what could be a fruitful dialogue between different branches of the faith.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Over-Achievers Anonymous

I want to foster meaningful relationships, practice my hobbies and develop new ones, weigh ten pounds less than whatever I weigh at any given moment, cook all locally organic food from scratch, read books that will teach me more about the world, and excel at my work. For some reason, I can’t quite pull that off. So, I end up feeling vaguely guilty when I am sitting on the couch eating canned soup for supper.

And it’s not just me – I’ve had this conversation with multiple friends recently – when I summed it up as I have at the beginning of this post, one of my girlfriends said “Get out of my head!” – that’s exactly the way she feels too. So here we are, a bunch of over-educated thirty-somethings paralyzed by the weight of the expectations we put on ourselves. And what we expect out of ourselves isn’t bad. It’s good to want to be creative and to want to care about our footprint on the earth and our physical health, so it’s hard to break out of the pattern.

On the other hand, though, we just can’t achieve everything that we want to. And while I don’t want to make it an excuse for spending every night of my life sitting on the couch eating canned soup, I’ve been trying to give myself grace for the times when I can’t achieve everything – maybe sometimes I need to give up the organic meal or adding another workout into my weekly schedule to spend time with friends, or get a bit of quilting done.

I also try to acknowledge the little steps that I have taken – I am not eating all local organic food cooked from scratch, but we’ve moved to eating about 90% local organic meat, and trying to make sure there are homemade soups and stews in the freezer at all times. It’s a good step. I am not learning any new hobbies, but I am finding a few that I like and trying to make time to keep them up.

Another way to get over the guilt associated with falling short of your over-achiever expectations is to honestly examine how much of those expectations really come from ego. Yes, it’s good to be fit and well-rounded and competent at work, but do I want these things so that people will look at me and see how good I am at keeping all the balls in the air? If I examine my motivations, and they aren’t as pure as they might seem on the surface, this also helps to let go.

I am a long way from being a recovered over-achiever (though going to law school was great for putting things in perspective . . . I’ve managed to find a profession where I am slightly less type-A than most of the other type-As, so I look positively slackerly at times . . .), but I am trying to keep a balance, and giving myself grace to accept that I am only one person with only so many hours in the day.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

plus ca change . . .

I recently read Three Nights in Havana, a book ostensibly about Trudeau’s state visit to Cuba in 1976, but more generally about the Cold War, the Cuban revolution, the personalities of both Trudeau and Castro, and Canada-Cuba relations. In reading that book I learned that the FLQ was socialist (which makes sense, considering the time, but I’d never made that connection before) and that anti-Castro Cubans bombed Canadian government buildings. Missing out on the height of the cold war (I was a blissfully ignorant child regarding the significance of the wall coming down, even if I am old enough to vaguely remember it happening), it had never really struck me how much uncertainty people lived with for the whole period after WWII until the late 80s. And it made me realize that in every era there has been some kind of uncertainty and upheaval. I think it’s easy for our generation to feel like the “post 9/11 era” is completely uncharted territory. And, in some ways, it is – but I guess what I realized is that every generation has faced its own challenges and its own uncharted territory. In a way, it is the uncertainty of the situation that links us with history, and I find that oddly comforting. Maybe the world that we know it is coming to an end, but maybe the world that we know is always coming to an end and every day a new one, in some ways better and in some ways worse, is being born to take its place.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

reserved Obama-mania

Like millions of people around the world, I watched Obama’s inauguration yesterday and, like millions of people around the world, kinda wished he could be our guy. I am generally not given to being more interested in American politics than our own – unlike many people I know, I passed over the Biden/Palin debate to watch our own leadership candidates duke it out. Obama is exciting, though. Not only is he the first black president of the United States, which is amazing when you think of how recently black Americans actually got their civil rights, but he’s also a visionary who seems ready to lead his country in the current challenging times, and to give them a sense of identity and pride.

And so I watched the inauguration with excitement yesterday but, while I have a bit of charismatic leader-envy, there were elements that reminded me how different America and Canada are, and made me happy that I belong to this relatively boring and laid-back nation.

The first thing that struck me (and many of my colleagues have also mentioned it) was the overt Christian-ness of the whole process. While Obama did point out in his speech that Americans are of all beliefs, they still had Rick Warren give his very Christian prayer, leaving no question that American is one nation “under God”. The religious background of most Canadian leaders is a non-issue – I hear that Ignatieff is Orthodox. Who knew? And who cares? We let our leaders’ personal beliefs quietly affect their convictions, and judge them by their actions more than their affiliations. I like this – it gives more room for people from diverse backgrounds to truly feel like they belong.

The other thing that I have always found odd, and noticed again during yesterday’s ceremony, is the role of the First Lady. Both Michele Obama and Biden’s wife held the Bible when their husbands were sworn in. While it is true that the role of President of the United States is going to affect a person’s spouse profoundly, it still made me think of the way that churches expect pastors wives to find their own fulfillment in supporting their husband’s vocation (see my rant on this subject here ). I like our method better, where the wife of the P.M. generally does whatever she does (lawyer, full-time mother, hippie/debutante), and while it’s probably not good form to get drunk with the Rolling Stones, she is more or less left alone.

I feel like Obama is going to be a defining voice in our generation, and I will be watching him from up here in the North, but as much as I would love to have a leader whose speeches make me cry (ahem . . . in the good way . . .) I would not trade our pomp-free ways for all the inaugural balls in the world.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Tuesday Afternoon Philosophy

“I need to figure out what I believe in metaphysically and morally, and how the two are related. That’s the essence of a spiritual identity.” This thought wandered through my head while I was trying to get to sleep the other night. Not as bad as my brain adding to my to-do list for work the next day, but also not as conducive to drifting off as thoughts of summer vacation. It might just have been my mind processing the philosophy of a character in the book I was reading, or I might to be onto something. So the first step in answering this question is to probe the premise – is there a link between morals and metaphysics – and is that, indeed, where the crux of spirituality lies?

Is it possible to have a moral system without it being linked to your understanding of the nature of the universe and your place in it? It seems to me the answer to this is no. At least, I can’t think of any examples – even if you don’t believe there is a God with a will who is pleased by some things and displeased by others, to even have a sense that there is “right” and “wrong”, you have to have an idea of how your actions fit into your larger context . . . and I don’t see how that can be done without an idea of what that larger context is. Even pure moral relativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Alright, so if there’s a link – so what? If I figure out where my morality comes from, will I know what I think about the nature of God? Or if I figure out what I think the nature of God is, will it guide me in right living? If I believe something is inherently good or bad (or that there is no inherent good or bad), that belief must come from some measurement of utility, that seems it would come from my understanding of being. It seems a bit harder to make the link in the other direction, though – in any worldview in which there isn’t some kind of anthropomorphic god, how do we take cues from the nature of the universe to shape our action?

This is twisting my head, and I don’t think I’ve yet figured out if it’s useful or not. I guess that’s why I am a lawyer, and not a metaphysician (or metaphysicist, which sounds much cooler, if you ask me . . .).

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

feminist rant #84

I resent that I have to be careful. I resent that I have always felt uncomfortable walking home from the Transitway late at night, and that those twinges have been confirmed as something more than paranoia by the news reports of a sexual assault (in mid-day) on the path between the mall and my street. And I resent that our government no longer funds Status of Women Canada, because it considers that women have obtained equality. No man that I know worries about how they’re going to get safely home in Ottawa.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

the affleunza report

Since the book club read Affluenza as our November pick, I entered into the holiday season thinking about consumption of stuff stuff stuff. In the lead-up to Christmas, I also came across a great website - Advent Conspiracy - which is pragmatic in its approach to giving less over the holidays. Realizing that most people like to give gifts, it doesn't advocate the "buy nothing Christmas," but instead encourages people to give one less gift and to focus on gifts that bring people together.

We headed into the season making our own attempts to kick the bug in the butt - we drew names with PJ's mom and sisters, so that we each only bought one gift; we managed to make a fair number of gifts; including our usual canning for friends (which we completed in the fall when there was still stuff to can); I passed on some books that I had read, rather than buying new copies; I resisted the urge to buy one more thing for my parents (who have everything they need and more) just because I felt like I wanted to give them gifts; and when I was dry on ideas to give PJ, I decided to give him coupons for 5 dates to do some of his favourite things.

What was cool to see, through the holiday season, is how other people in our lives are thinking in the same vein, and so I want to share some of the amazing consume-less gifts we received:

- Rather than buy them new, my grandma, who has spent years of her life collecting antiques, gave us two dishes out of her collection
- PJ's stepmother made us an amazing blanket with Swedish embroidery
-some of our friends made a donation in the name of our group of friends to a charity that helps send girls to school in Tanzania, and my sister and her husband gave PJ an Oxfam goat (i.e. the goat has been given to a family in need on his behalf)
-several of our friends gave us home-made baking, and another couple also did canning
- a couple of our friends have, for the second year, given some bottles of their favourite environmentally friendly cleaning products

I like giving gifts and I like receiving gifts (unless, to be honest, they are things that have no function and will just sit around my house). It is an ingrained part of our culture at this time of year, and I like the generosity of a season in which everyone shares. It is exciting to see more and more people in my life finding creative ways to participate in this tradition without going into debt or adding to the mass of consumer goods in our homes and landfills.

Friday, January 2, 2009

good to be home

We've been back from our Christmas south-west Ontario junket for a few days now. As usual, the first part was spent frenetically visiting everyone while shuttling back and forth between PJ's mom and dad in Waterloo, and the 2nd part was spent drinking wine and reading books at my parents' place in Walkerton. It was a good trip - despite some horrible driving, we saw all of our closest friends from our pre-Ottawa lives, including one dear friend who lives in Europe and I last saw 3 years ago at a wedding over on that side of the Atlantic, and a few others who have gone away for the past few years when we came home for the holidays, but were all around this year. It's amazing how, with good friends, the passage of years does nothing to stilt the conversation.

Now, we're back in Ottawa. We had a wonderful quiet New Year's Eve with some close friends, making "gourmet diner" food and playing Rumoli, and a great day yesterday, alternating between being productive (finished the latest baby quilt, got the new wireless router installed, made 2 soup recipes out of a new Christmas gift cookbook - which is all vegetarian recipes which feature alcohol as one of the ingredients . . . ), and ODing on DVD television.

And the funny thing is - it was good to be "home" where we grew up and where we used to live, but then it was also good to come "home" to our little nest and our regular lives here. It's horribly trite to say that "home is where the heart is", but I guess it's one of those sayings that is over-used because it's true. I like that I have multiple homes, and can feel like I belong in a variety of places.