TV show review: PURE (CBC)

Back at the beginning of the year, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation released a new TV show called “Pure.” It was set in a Mexican Mennonite community in southern Ontario, similar to mine in a lot of ways (and different in some key ways too). It’s a rare privilege to get that kind of media attention, but since the fictional community was involved in the cross border drug trade, most of the Mennonites I know were quite critical of the portrayal.

Since there were only six episodes, and there is no word on a second season, the odds are that if you were going to watch it, you would have already, but in case you are holding out until now, I’ll help you decide if it would be worthwhile for you. All six episodes and some extra features are still available on the CBC website here.

This show is not for everyone, including a lot of Mennonites I know. A lot of people, because of their values and sensitivities won’t be able to enjoy Pure. So, if you are disturbed by the sight of people getting shot, dead bodies (including children) being dragged away to be disposed of, or inaccurate portrayals of Low German Mennonite culture, you probably shouldn’t watch this show.

There was a clear parallel between this show and Breaking Bad (which I haven’t watched, but read people’s tweets about it); an unlikely figure gets caught up in the drug trade out of desperation, and through a combination of virtue, determination and cunning, stays one step ahead of the evil knocking at their door (or do they?)

A lot has been written about the cultural inaccuracies. Their depiction of clothing, transportation, and acculturation are inconsistent with Canadian Old Colony Mennonite life. I suspect those choices were made intentionally to appear believable to the mainstream Canadian audience, rather than a lack of research by Pure’s producers. The use of Low German in the show proved that they had done research, and the actors were clearly coached, and while I wouldn’t expect them to get the accent right, some of the Low German scenes were quite good.

Like most shows, it’s easier to enjoy it if you simply watch it for entertainment without reading cultural statements into the content. That’s just easier to do when you aren’t part of the cultural group being depicted. While lots of people pointed out that their use of horse and buggies was inaccurate, nobody was offended that they didn’t use Chevy Suburbans instead. The offense was because of the insinuations that producing and distributing drugs and the murder and corruption that comes with it is commonplace among Mexican Mennonites. In their defense, the CBC did base this story on real events. There continue to be Mennonites in Mexico being used as mules to bring drugs across the border into the US and Canada, just like there are Mennonites here that produce, sell and consume those same drugs, but that isn’t the majority and shouldn’t be the only story that is told of my people. Fortunately, most people watch TV for fun, without attaching cultural labels. Very few Harry Potter fans are trying out real witchcraft and Breaking Bad fans aren’t asking their local chemistry teachers for drugs.

The truth is that for the Mennonites to be used in this story this way is a compliment. The corruption of these Mennonite characters is the ongoing twist of the show. You don’t expect them to be involved in drugs, but they are. Just like you don’t expect the bad guy to be good, but he sort of is, and you don’t expect the inept policeman to be capable and determined, but he is. The whole story hinges on the positive reputation of the Mennonite people. It would be an easier compliment to take if the opposite wasn’t also true.

The CBC also recently produced a TV show called “Little Mosque on the Prairie” which was based around a Muslim community in a prairie town and their daily struggle to reassure their neighbours that they weren’t terrorists. While it was a comedy and Pure was a drama, the underlying question was the same; have you ever considered that your stereotypes of this religious minority are inaccurate? The Old Colony Mexican Mennonites in Canada aren’t as crooked as the characters in Pure and the Muslims in Canada aren’t necessarily as quirky and charming as the characters in Little Mosque on the Prairie. I have met fantastic people in both communities, models of hard work, graciousness, religious devotion and piety. I’ve also met people in both groups that fall short of their own communities’ standards. It’s just that if your culture is going to be portrayed inaccurately, you would hope it’s a positive portrayal.

In order to get the most out of your Pure viewing experience, you need to be prepared to walk the fine line between valuing the Mennonites’ positive reputation and acknowleging that it isn’t always true. You have to want them to make good decisions and then be prepared when they inevitably make bad decisions to discuss what other bad decision they would be more likely to make.

I regret not watching and analyzing the show sooner, but the experience has given me a lot of food for thought, so this will be the first in a series of blog posts about the show.

Sad songs, happy people

Usually, the podcasts I listen to are sermons from other churches, so that I can steal ideas from be inspired by other preachers. I also listen to a few other thinkers and sports commentators, including quasi-Canadian, quasi-Mennonite Malcolm Gladwell. His podcast is entitled “Revisionist History” and in this most recent season (which you can find here), he had an episode called the King of Tears. In it, he contrasted the sad and complex songs in country music to the simplistic and happy songs in the popular/rock music sphere.

This was not a new debate to me. My parents grew up loving country music and were quick to critique the loud, abrasive rock music (or schunt as my father would call it in Low German, meaning garbage) and they feared how the songs about sex, drugs and wild living would influence us.

They wouldn’t have had the ability or desire to analyse the complexities of the songs or the musical styles, but they liked country music at a profound level. They liked how easily you could sing along to country music. They appreciated the sounds of the steel and acoustic guitars. They were drawn to the personalities of the country music scene, upstanding men and women with pretty smiles and clean-cut western clothing. But something was amiss.

Mom and Dad had collected vinyl records before we kids came along and absorbed their disposable income, and we enjoyed listening to those albums too. One song on one of the albums had the lyrics, “wham bam thank you ma’am” on it. My brother and I were too young to know what it meant (and if my older sisters knew what it meant, they didn’t tell us), and it was fun to sing along. All of a sudden that record disappeared from our music collection.

As a teenager, even though I didn’t listen to a lot of rock music, I grew tired of the moral superiority of country music fans. Certainly the industry had good, clean musicians singing good, clean songs, but there were no shortage of exceptions. I could easily find examples of how country songs and the artists who performed them were no more morally sound than rock stars. I happily used those examples to point out the hypocrisy of my parents and others like them. Now, I’ve come around, but I still have questions.

My parents loved Johnny Cash and June Carter’s song “Jackson.” And why not? It’s a fun song performed by fantastic musicians and beautiful harmonies. But it’s a song about a couple celebrating their failing marriage and impending infidelities. “Ring of Fire” is on that same album, a song June Carter wrote about falling in love with a man she shouldn’t and suffering the consequences of that illicit and immoral attraction. The Revisionist History episode I mentioned focussed on George Jones’ song “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song about a man who spun into depression, drug abuse and alcoholism after his wife left him and how he was only freed from that heartbreak and its destructive cycle by his own death. That song was almost a biography of George Jones’ life, as he needed to pull out of a similar destructive cycle just to record that song.

In some ways, you would think that my parents didn’t belong in that world. My dad once got a novelty bottle opener as a promotional gift at some event. The first thing he did when he brought it home was to try to scratch the name “Labatt’s” off the front of it. I’m sure if you asked my parents to explain what the phrase, “snort a line of coke” meant, they would be utterly incapable of the task. Their marriage had issues like anyone else, but when they found about a couple they knew getting a divorce, they participated in the collective Mennonite experience of shame, mourning the demise of a sacred union. This wasn’t always the case, but I now credit most of that to them as righteousness.

So, why did these clean living people sing along so heartily to the sad songs of alcoholic, drug-abusing divorcees? I really think it’s just the rural pop culture equivalent of the songs of lament that our Bible is so full of. We can only climb the mountain tops of Hallelujah after we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.

Psalm 137: 1-4, CEB
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Movie Review: The Shack

For this review, I contemplated ranking my experience of The Shack among my other most profound movie experiences. It was difficult to come up with a list. It might be because I’m getting older and my memory is slipping, but I think there are other factors at work. Sometimes the movies that seek to inspire fail to entertain and so they fail to engage the mind, at least for simple people like me. Sometimes the movies that inspired me did so accidentally because I only watched the movie to be entertained.  Accomplishing both entertainment and inspiration is a rare feat. The profound movie experiences that I remember are the final scene of Das Boot (a german movie about a WWII submarine crew), No Man’s Land (a movie about the Bosnian war), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood is a lonely, racist white guy, and then he isn’t). I watch faith-based films from time to time, but they sometimes fail to inspire because they are trying so hard to inspire and because the content is pushed through the fine filters of orthodoxy that very little of what get’s through (including the reaction of the viewers) is genuine.

If The Shack is filtered for orthodoxy, it wasn’t filtered very well.  I don’t say that as an attack but as a compliment. The story is genuine. The questions, the pain and the tears are real.

The movie, based on the book by William Paul Young, tells the story of a man stricken with grief over the abduction and murder of his young daughter who receives a strange invitation to visit the Shack where her daughter’s killer had stayed. He accepts the invitation and, at the shack, he encounters God, asks some of his own questions and is guided through a process of healing and release.

Inevitably, there has been controversy around this book, and there will be around the movie. Because it presents a Christian message, it will be rejected on both sides; both for presenting truth claims that people don’t like and for not being Christian enough. It’s a no-win situation, but here are some of the controversies/complaints the movie will set off, and my response to them.

The portrayal of God – The most vocal controversy around the film is the presentation of God as a black woman, and later as a First Nations man (played by Canadian Oneida actor Graham Greene). God is also addressed by the seemingly non-reverent title of Papa. There are elements of racism behind the objections to these portrayals, but they are also connected to another problem the film seeks to address. We should broaden our palette so that we can see majestic and revered figures portrayed by actors that aren’t just white men, but we also need to deepen our understanding of God so that we can see God as weak, humble and different from us.

The answers God/Papa gives – I don’t think there are any churches who would say that all of the answers given are what they claim to teach. Most pastors I know would cringe at some answers and/or want to add words above and beyond other answers. The God from this movie is never angry, isn’t uptight about rules, and loves and forgives everyone for everything. People want to believe in an angry God who punishes evil people, and not just rigid theologians and pastors, but people who hear and experience stories of the murder of children. Whether it’s therapy or theology, sometimes we want an angry God, and so this depiction should be controversial and should stir up good and necessary conversations.

The film medium – A book is a limited medium by which to tell a story. Whether a person buys or borrows it, they have to commit hours and hours to focus on it, engage with its content and mentally imagine the scenarios. A movie makes it much easier. A person just needs to sit still for a while (The Shack is long at 2h12m) and the pictures are presented, and very little engagement or thought is necessary. But a film is also limited. Only so much can be presented on the screen. Special effects budget, acting skills and editing deadlines all impact how the story is received. This generally a weakness for faith-based films and this one is no different, but it also touches on deeper questions. Some argue it isn’t good to portray God in human form at all, and then on top of that, each other role that these actors take on risk tainting these portrayals of Christianity’s most revered figures.

The portrayal of pain – I’m not interested in film critics who hate the movie or in theologians who hate the theology, there will be many of both, but I want to know if people resonate with this presentation of pain and the response to it. That’s the real controversy here. There is no more sacred space for me than to walk with people through their joy and pain. I know that for me as an outsider and even as a spiritual leader to try to explain away or contextualize people’s pain is pretty shaky ground. My greatest regrets in ministry are things I’ve said to hurting people. The measure of this movie will not be it’s Hollywood credentials or its theological orthodoxy, but whether it responds to pain in a way that is real and right and good.

Hockey Knights

From time to time the National Hockey League looks around to see if, by any chance, they have left money on the table somewhere. Recently, businessmen in Las Vegas, Nevada expressed interest in buying a sports franchise, and when they were willing to pay the $500 million expansion fee, the NHL gave them a franchise. They struggled for a while to come with a name that hadn’t already been copyrighted by someone else, so when they were ready to announce their name and logo to the world, they made a big deal of it. And whenever people make a big deal out of something, the twitter world responds.

Call me crazy, but I don’t mind the idea of a hockey team in Vegas, and I am okay with the logo and the name, but by gauging the online response,  I may be in the minority. The name they came up with was the Vegas Golden Knights and their logo is a simple green and gold helmet in front of a black crest.

Negative responses were pretty predictable, but one hockey fan in particular latched on to a few things that others hadn’t noticed. As a history scholar, she took issue with inaccuracies and misrepresentations in their branding. First, what else could it mean to be a golden knight, she asked, except that their armour would be made out of gold, and given how soft and valuable gold is it would make that knight weaker and bigger target. Also, she said that the helmet was a Corinthian design, which predates the medieval understanding of knighthood by over a thousand years. She was irate, in a twitter kind of way, that these glaring errors would have been overlooked in the design and branding phase.

The day after her rant, a friend of hers responded, trying to point out something that she might have been missing. He said, “The helmet forms the shape of the letter V.” Not everyone sees it right away, apparently, but it is a central part of the logo, the central part maybe. The V isn’t made out of the metal of the helmet, though, it is found in the empty space around it. In artistic terms, it is created in the negative space. She still didn’t like the logo, but at least she could understand where they were coming from.

This woman isn’t alone in her inability to see shapes emerge from negative space, but that doesn’t stop designers from trying to employ it for that purpose.

Many of us also use this kind of negative space tactic, but in entirely different ways. I hardly drink any alcohol, I don’t cheat on my taxes, and I’ve never been to a strip club. All of those are intentional and they reflect, in some ways, the kind of person I want to be, but if I try to build my identity around them, I would fall short. We cannot create an identity out of what we are not. We cannot be defined by the negative space of our lives.

Christians are especially vulnerable to doing this. We take pride in the rules that they follow, calling them to avoid certain temptations. We also want to distance ourselves from other believers who we see as wrong about God, so we are Christians, but not that kind of Christian. Yes, I’m still part of the church, but I don’t go to that church anymore. There are atheists like this too. While they are adamant that there is no God, they are very specific about the God they don’t believe in.

The trouble is that this is a much easier way to define ourselves. Rather than doing the hard work to see what makes sense in the context of a hurting world, rather than looking close enough to see the grays where we once there were only blacks and whites, we recline into what is most comfortable. Rather than carving out an identity based on what we do, who are and what we believe, we fan the flames of other people’s animosity by assuring them that we are not the ones they hate. But it’s a futile game. No matter who you are and what you stand for, people will hate you. So take a chance, own who you are and what you believe.

Moving on up

Jerry Seinfeld famously put ‘helping someone move’ just below ‘driving someone to the airport’ on the scale of things you can only ask a good friend to do. I know some people resent being asked to do this kind of favour, but not me. My line of work leaves me with a sense of accomplishment, fulfillment and calling, but not manliness. I don’t know what masculinity would look like in a pastor, and I don’t know if it would be a good thing. But when I’m at work, I don’t swing a hammer, I don’t throw sacks of grain over my shoulder, and when I come home, I don’t need to shower or even change my clothes to look presentable. In my current hobbies, I don’t take slapshots or kick fieldgoals or try in any way to exert my physical dominance over other men. Helping friends move is one of the few ways I have where I can connect with that kind of masculinity.

Now, I recognize that me equating many of those things with what it means to be a man is maybe part of the problem. I do get to “feel like a man” in other ways. When my wife and children come to me for protection, I feel like a man. When they feel that can rely on my love and support, when they know they can count on my continued presence, and when they implement the lessons I’ve taught them and are better off for it, I feel like a man too. Of course these are not the exclusive domain of men, or fathers and husbands. Still, for right or wrong, this is how many of us are wired.

So, when I was asked recently to help some friends move, I was happy to assist. As often happens, the tasks were divided along gender lines; the organizing and cleaning was being done by the women and the heavy work of lugging stuff around was being done by the men. It isn’t just grunt work though, we men were doing problem solving too. We needed to optimize storage space in the moving van, navigate stairwells with long and oddly shaped furniture, and then position the van to best facilitate unloading.

But as we started bringing things into the new place, I observed something interesting. None of us men, even the Man living there, felt comfortable determining where to place things. That kind of decision making fell on the Woman. All of us waited with varying sizes of loads to take instructions from her. Anyone watching from the outside would say that she was in charge, and yet none of us felt inferior for needing her direction. There were no jokes about anyone being emasculated or whipped and no accusations of the wrong person wearing the pants. One might simply say that we all understood our roles within the larger task of moving. We could maybe pat ourselves on the back at being modern, liberated men who have created and are now enjoying an egalitarian paradise.

This exampled is a little overstated, but it does reflect a larger parttern that many people have ben observing lately. More and more, it seems, in churches and various community organizations, the decisions are being made by women, who were perhaps all along better suited for the process of sitting around and talking about the options, weighing the pros and cons, and evaluating if the necessary resources could be made available. And the men, who no longer seem interested in sitting on committees and attending meetings, show up to do the work. The minutes might not show who pushed the wheelbarrow or who sanded and then repainted the equipment shed, but the job got done.

Traditionalists have long worried that women are taking over. All of this has made me ask myself if/when then that happens, and if it’s done right, will the men even mind?

There are a number of tangible and intangible rewards for heping a friend move. The intangibles are probably enough; a hug and a handshake of appreciation, a strengthened friendship, new friends made, the sense that the favour may some day be returned. The tangibles help too; a cold drink in the shade and a hearty meal when it’s all done (I didn’t have time to stay for the food in this instance, sadly.) But this time, each of us men were also given a Starbucks gift card, as a token of apprecition, which at least one of the guys and I immediately gave to our wives when we got home.

* I recognize that much of this post relies on gender stereotypes that can easily undermine the contributions of a lot of valuable people in our society. I know that a couch can be carried effectively regardless of who is holding up the other end, a wall is painted and a committee is chaired well regardless of who is in charge. I don’t pretend to fully understand the nuances of what it means to be a man in today’s society, nor do I pretend to be able to prescribe what modern womanhood can and should look like.The roles of men and women in our world are changing, and from the haze around those adjustments, I offer these thoughts.

Permission to feel pain

It’s fun to watch a group of adults when children are playing nearby. The parents especially interesting, because while they are mindful of their children and any inherent risks involved in their play, for their own sanity they like to interact with other adults while they can. Of course, the civilized discourse is inevitably interrupted by a child screaming, but before any parent or caregiver goes running to respond, they all listen to see whose child it is. It is remarkable to me how a parent knows immediately that their child is screaming, but nobody else has any idea who it is. It doesn’t work 100% of the time, but these parental instincts come in handy.

I’m not sure on the science of it, but, in some ways, this works because parents are, in some ways, wired to feel the pain their children are feeling. Our son has tested this empathy a few times lately. A while ago, Sebastian woke up fine but very soon started crying. Another instinct I developed as part of a large family was telling the difference between a cry born out of pain, anger or just the desire for attention. My children are capable of all three, but this was definitely a cry of pain. There was no indication that something had happened, no external marks or bruises, and little to no explanation was possible through his cries. Since it seemed to be an abdominal pain, I suggested he sit on the toilet, while I went to talk with his mother about how I had no idea what the problem was, whether or not we should administer pain killers and who was prepared to take him to the clinic. While we talked, we heard a light chuckle from the bathroom. “I’m better now!” he declared. This cause of immense pain, that we were unable to diagnose, was simply a full bladder.

Another time we had returned from a family drive and the two girls were awake, but when we pulled in the driveway, Sebastian was asleep. Rather than wake him and transport him to a bed, I decided to stay in the van until he woke up. I sat reading social media updates on my phone while his napped continued. Again, he woke up, looked around, and then started screaming in pain. I investigated his leg wher he said the pain was coming from, and again there was no bruising or any evidence of something poking him. None of the more dramatic possibilities made sense, so amidst his assertions that it really, really hurt, I asked if it felt like a whole bunch of little needles were poking his leg. He agreed that this was a reasonable description of the pain he was feeling. So, I tried to do for him what I always do for myself when my leg falls asleep, and that’s to massage the muscles until the feeling goes away. He insisted that it was making things worse, not better, and didn’t let me do that anymore.

I had to stifle a laugh that the cause of this great tragedy was simply a lack of circulation, and not all of the more serious possibilites I had conjured up. I continued to reassure him that it would go away soon, and as I did I realized that from time-to-time, I would like it if someone would sympathize with my pain when my legs go numb from sitting the wrong way.

A time will probably come when he can laugh at the notion of these sensations creating those anguished cries, but in the meantime, he has a right to feel that pain. Grief, sorrow, anxiety and pain can make us act differently than we normally would. Other people who are unfamiliar with our pain can often make things worse with their lack of empathy, but that doesn’t mean that our pain is any less legitimate. I believe that pain is part of a God-given process that tells something is off, in our bodies, in our relationships, and in our world. Pain is often our trigger to repair the problem, and so it is a necessary, albeit unpleasant, part of the solution as well (when a solution exists).

This world needs fewer people criticizing the pain we feel and the ways we respond to it, and more people to walk with us in our pain towards a healthier body, community, and world.

Arriving on Jet Plane

A significant event in the life our church happened this week, but it was even more significant for another group of people. The Syrian refugee family that we are sponsoring arrived in Canada, and I went with my family to meet them at the airport and sit down for supper with a small group of others. It was a beautiful evening, and I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t want to do a typical “listen to all the misconceptions I had blown away, and so if you stil have the same misconceptions I had yesterday, shame on you” kind of posts. Still there were a number of things that came to my mind that I thought were noteworthy.

It was chaotic at first. Airports are confusing places sometimes, and so for a little while, there were three groups; my family and other church members who arrived late because of unexpected traffic problems, representatives from our partner agency Mennonite Central Committee who had been at many welcomes like this before, and the newly arrived family, all waiting in different parts of the airport. When we finally found each other though, there was still a delay. The wife and children were with us, but the father and one of our volunteer translators were not. We asked where they were and we were told that they were helping another Syrian family, friends from the same plane. Assuming they were friends from Syria we said it was great that they could travel together with friends, but in fact, this was simply another refugee family they had connected with on the airplane. They were supposed to meet a government representative after they got off the plane, but they missed them and came out to the terminal. Once that was worked out, we were free to go, but the people we were helping were also helping others. The circle of help continued at other times of the evening as well.

Our whole group sat down for supper at the home where the refugee will settle in for a few days before moving into their apartment. It wasn’t big enough for everyone to sit around the table, but there would be room in adjacent rooms, so we started grabbing food and plates. I sat down with my kids at the main table, but very quickly I realized that we were out of place. The other children went through the line too, but they followed their mothers to the nearby living room, and when they were done eating (not necessarily when their plates were empty, just like my kids) they went to another room where there were toys and video games. Without anyone directing us, the group was pretty soon mostly segregated, with the men around the main table, the women in the living room and the English and Arabic speaking kids playing together in the games room. If we had all formed one large circle, it would have been cozy, and we would have had moments of cultural learning, but it would have been unnatural. All of us enjoyed and learned from our circles, but not as a result of forced interaction.

Already, as a minor player in the process, I didn’t want to force my voice into the conversation, but I found myself holding back even more than normal. As it turns out, it’s pretty tough to talk about why a family would leave a country, what past and present events led to that country turning out this way, and what needs to be done to improve things, without talking politics. It also turns out to be pretty tough to talk about politics without betraying your allegiances. Maybe it’s my Canadian cultural sensitivities, my Mennonite Christian theological leanings or my introverted personality playing out, but I really shut down in these settings. Partly I’m worried about offending someone, partly I’m worried about being labeled as being part of a political camp that I don’t identify with, partly I see the futility of investing my emotional energy into which countries and leaders are to blame and which US presidential candidate can make things better or worse. Maybe, if someone had said ahead of time to avoid political conversations, the conversation may have been more civil (meaning only that the volume of voices wouldn’t have been raised as high). But, like our dinner, this would have been forced and would have provided only a theoretical benefit.

This process will be a long one, with lots of work and learning ahead for many people involved, but there is excitement about where it will take us.



The Kingdom of Heaven is like an All-Star Game

There was once an All-Star event where the players were lined up to be introduced to the fans. At the far end were two men, different in almost every way. One man, named Patrick, was a little under six feet tall, but highly skilled, highly paid, and high scoring, with few penalty minutes. The other man, named John, was well-over six feet, but low skill, low salary, and almost no points and many, many penalty minutes.

When it was almost time for them to be introduced, Patrick turned to John and said, “Watch, I’ll get booed, and you’ll get one of the loudest cheers.” It was seemingly an absurd prediction, but these words served as a reminder of the obvious; Patrick belonged there, John didn’t. Patrick had played in the All-Star game before, and John hadn’t. Patrick broke a record for scoring points this season, and John had one point, an assist, all season long. Patrick’s was a marquee name in one of the league’s oldest and strongest fan bases. John spent most of the season, sitting more than he played, on a team with arguably the smallest fan base in the league.

In order for fans to vote for John, they had to bypass all of the options the website suggested (including Patrick) and manually type in John’s name. This only happened because a journalist concocted a plan to vote John into the All-Star game sarcastically. You see, the All-Star game has become a bit of a joke, where some of the players who are voted in don’t show up, and many of the ones who don’t try very hard. So the plan, in some ways, was to respond to a joke of a game with a joke of a player. Voting for John was an insult, at least many perceived it that way, an insult to the league, and an insult to John. The league responded by telling John he didn’t belong and that he should decline the vote. John agreed, telling fans he didn’t belong and that they should instead vote for the other all-stars on his team, but he didn’t say that he would decline the vote. Maybe he was so convinced that he didn’t belong that he didn’t think it would come to that. So the league pushed again.

Just a few weeks before the game, John’s team traded him, and his new team sent him down to the minor leagues. The trade didn’t make a tonne of “hockey sense” and it led many to suspect that the league had engineered it. With him playing on a different team and even a different league, it would spare the league the insult of having a man play in the All-Star game who didn’t belong.

Whether or not they made the trade happen, it was clear that the league didn’t think John belonged in the game, and they haven’t hesitated in the past to work behind the scenes to make sure non-deserving people are excluded. Not only that, they are also willing to do what it takes to make things easier for the people who do belong, people like Patrick. Over the summer before the All-Star game, Patrick was accused of doing something very bad. Something so bad that just about anyone else in a public role would be asked to step away for a little while, or even be smart enough to do so voluntarily. The criminal charges have since been dropped, but other similar accusations have been made. Patrick was also charged in a different violent attack that happened a few years before. Still, Patrick is popular enough with the league, so not only does he not have the same obstacles as John, he lives under the league’s protection.

Patrick’s absurd prediction was correct. When John’s name was read, the arena thundered with applause, more than for any other star. When Patrick’s name was read, people booed, people who cheered for rival teams and people who think victims of crime should be taken seriously. But why would people cheer for John? Well, as the march toward the All-Star game went on, we, the fans, learned more about him. He wasn’t just a violent cartoon character goon we imagined him to be, but a man worthy of our respect and our support.

As it turned out, there was a moment where the story changed. John was considering turning down the invitation to the All-Star game, and in an effort to persuade him to do just that, a league official told him that if he went to the game, he would make a fool of himself and embarrass himself in front of his children. And that’s when it changed. Perhaps in John’s own eyes he didn’t belong, but he knew that in the eyes of his children, he did. And that was partly what made the trade that much more tragic. It meant that John, his two kids, and his eight months pregnant wife had to pack up everything and move from Pheonix to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

We don’t know for sure, but it looked like John wouldn’t be able to play in the All-Star game, until enough fans made enough of stink, that the league swallowed their pride and let him play. And he loved it. While other people seemed to be just going through the motions, John was having fun. When Patrick got booed, John laughed really hard.

During the games, John scored two goals, and his team won a million dollars in prize money to share between them. When it was all over, his teammates lifted him up on their shoulders, all 250 pounds of him. When it was time to announce who was the Most Valuable Player, and the winner of the new car, John’s name was called, and the camera panned to his beaming wife and joyful children. (She would later say that she cheered so hard after one of his goals that she had to tell herself to take it easy. The game was played on a Sunday, and she was scheduled to be induced on Thursday.)

This is one of the reasons why I love sports. I know a lot of people who, like John, are convinced that they don’t belong; that they aren’t good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, rich enough, etc. John belonged in the All-Star game. He had enough votes, and that’s all that mattered. But it was only when he started to believe that he belonged that the All-Star game became worthy of him.

The David Bowie Effect

This has been a rough week for celebrity deaths. Yesterday, Celine Dion’s husband and manager, René Angélil passed away. Before him well known film actor Alan Rickman also died. And before him stage actor Brian Bedford. Each of these men were famous enough to trend on twitter, at least in Canada, after their deaths, but the one that started it all off was the iconic singer David Bowie.  Bowie trended the longest, because for a long time, everyone was talking about him. There was even a little bit of backlash, with a few people writing about how too many people were talking about him. And while they felt some backlash of their own for their perceived lack of sensitivity, they raised a valid question. But they weren’t simply saying that too many people were talking about his death or that he didn’t warrant the attention, but that given what they knew about the friends that share social media space with them, the amount of attention Bowie had been given after his death far outweighed the attention he had been given before his death.

There might be something bigger at work here. In some ways, this is the way that we as a society collectively mourn, but posting articles, videos and musings about a celebrity after they have died. It’s a pretty good bet that if someone older than 60 is trending on twitter, there is pretty chance that they’ve died. But there was something about David Bowie that I think made his death different.

I should make clear that I wasn’t a David Bowie fan. It wasn’t that I actively chose not to like him, but I was (and in some ways still am) just mostly so far outside the popular currents that I don’t know who is big and why. So, I am commenting, not as a fan, or as a critic, simply as an outsider.

But the nature of the comments about Bowie were different than other celebrities. With Rickman and Bedford, people talked about their acting abilities, and about the connections that they as fans made to the characters they portrayed. Alan Rickman was great at being a bad guy, but I also appreciated how he walked the fine line between good and (perceived) bad as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and as Harry in Love Actually. And while I wasn’t a frequent guest at the Stratford Festival, I did appreciate Brian Bedford’s voice performance as Robin Hood in Disney’s animated adaptation. While there were some fans talking about their love of David Bowie’s music, as many or more were talking about the “roles” that he played. And I don’t mean the parts he played in various TV shows and movies (although I loved his appearance on The Extras) and I’m not saying that his presence was anymore artificial than any other celebrity. But David Bowie was the kind of celebrity that was known as much for his personality as he was for the art that he performed (as though the line between art and personality can neatly be drawn).

At the peak of his celebrity, David Bowie was “weird.” (I don’t use that word derogitorily, but any alternative I could think of, ie. outsider, different, alternative, freak, etc. either also carried the same stigma or just sounds too soft to be accurate, so I add the quotes to lessen the blow.) That was just who he was. And maybe it helped to deliver the “weird” music that he was writing, but it also helped to endear him to young people who saw themselves as “weird.” And I think therein lies our current juxtaposition. It is surprising to see how many people now identify as having been fans of David Bowie. For most of us, there is room in our social sphere for “weird” people, and we expect them to like and identify with “weird” celebrities. It can be surprising now to see which of our friends was a fan of David Bowie, because we didn’t see them as being “weird” then, at least not “weird” enough that they needed a “weird” hero to give them the courage to continue living out their “weird”ness.

The thing is, most of us saw ourselves as “weird.” Despite our constant striving to be “normal,” many of us accepted that we could never quite fit in, or that the only reason we did fit in was because people liked the artificial self that we were presenting more than the “weird” self that we were hiding. You can test this out. Look around the high school classrooms of your memory and estimate what percentage of people you thought were “cool” and which ones were “weird.” Now do the same in the professional and social circles today. But don’t just think about it, ask people if they were “cool” or “weird” in high school. You will be surprised at how many thought they were “weird.” From time to time we get reminders of the emotional trauma people carry from the social rejection of their youth. Maybe we can call this the David Bowie effect.

There is a lesson here, that many of us learn as we age, but we don’t always manage to teach it to our young people. “Cool” and “Weird” are artificial and unhealthy. Striving for those labels for ourselves and attaching them to other people are destructive for us, for other people, and for the prospect of building authentic, life-giving relationships with them. There are still young people in our world who need a David Bowie to make them feel better about who they are, but even more than that, they need regular people to throw off these labels that limit and hinder us.

Sensitive, not accurate

I don’t know anyone who was actually offended by the red cups controversy at Starbucks. Maybe I just don’t have the right social media contacts, I don’t know. This isn’t the first time what we call the time around Christmas has stirred up a media frenzy, and it probably won’t be the last.  I’m not the kind of person who gets offended at the idea of being wished Happy Holidays, but I wonder how accurate that sometimes is.

Now, believe me when I say I’m aware of the various other religious holidays happening around this time of year. Ever since calendars were based on the sun and the moon, people have used the Winter Solstice as an excuse to have a holiday. In fact, that has more to do with when we celebrate Christmas than any sense of historical accuracy. But while there is a veritable pantheon of other reasons to be festive, in a commercial setting, I think “Merry Christmas” is often the only one that is accurate. I’m not saying that this should be case, but sadly it is.

In our western culture, we’re very good at getting offended on behalf of other people. So, if a non-descript imaginary retail store had a bold “Merry Christmas” greeting for their customers, they would probably get more complaints from non-religious people, and even Christians, than they would from adherents to other religions with overlapping festive schedules. From my experience, most religious minorities in Canada are happy to experience religious freedom and are far more interested in interacting with others living out authentic versions of their own spirituality, rather than live in a world artificially free of religion. I wonder if those complaints were collected, if they might sound something like this:

“Why wouldn’t you include my faith group in your signage? We shop just like Christians; a whole lot in November and December and then not again until April.”

“For your information, I’m not buying Christmas gifts. My people too have allowed their sacred festivals to be absorbed into the western commercial process.”

“Rather than absorbing myself into my religious calendar, I am trying instead to simply buy my faithfulness, so if you could make your holiday greeting a little more generic, that would make it easier for me to do that.”

This is why I am not perturbed when I don’t see a Merry Christmas greeting written onto the receipt, the coffee cup or the walls of our commercial establishments. It our post-modern western society, we dare not leave anyone out, unless we offend them, so rather than say anything offensive, we do our best to say nothing at all. It is a shame to be left out, unless what we are being left out of is corrupted.

I wonder what the response would be if, instead of writing generic holiday greetings, stores would include holidays greetings specific to the other religious festivals being marked. What if people realized that the “Kwanzaa gifts” they found on sale were manufactured by slave labour overseas? What if we were greeted at entrance of store by an image of the Hindu god Ganesh pointing with his many hands to various items you could purchase there? What if the Hanukkah themed mall display included manikins wearing women’s underwear with Maccabeean tassels? Maybe this already happens in more metropolitan places than I’ve lived, but I suspect that somewhere along the line, leaders and adherents of these other religious and cultural groups would stand up and say ‘no thanks.’

In our most commercial settings, only ‘Merry Christmas’ is fitting, because only the church, by aligning itself with western states and western culture, has allowed one of its most important holidays to be co-opted like it has. I only wish it weren’t so.