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.

Witness 2: The Reawakening

The relationship between Mennonites and the entertainment industry hasn’t always been a  good one. On the one hand, “we” (and I use that term loosely) haven’t always been happy with the morality of what appears on our screens.  On the other hand, we are often used as characters in their storylines that misrepresent us.  Today’s reality TV fascination with Mennonite/Amish/Hutterite lifestyle is a perfect example of this. They even use real Mennonite people and they still get it wrong.  I’ve writted up a few ideas for new and better Mennonite themed TV shows, and it was well recieved, but I still haven’t heard back from any studio people.

But this wasn’t always the case.  In 1985 Harrison Ford starred in the movie Witness. It told the story of a cop who found refuge in an Amish community while his corrupt superiors hunted him down.  This was a Hollywood movie with Hollywood values (if you attended a Mennonite church, you probably wouldn’t have been able to watch it in youth group), and yet it presented the Amish people in a positive light.

Witness also served a secondary role in Mennonite communities where if somebody asked you what it meant to be a Mennonite, you could point them toward that movie and then build from there to explain what it means to have Anabaptist Christian values in a contemporary world.  Unfortunately, this movie is fading from public memory, so it doesn’t serve that role well anymore.  Thankfully, the solution is obvious; it’s time for a sequel.

At first it might seem odd to film a sequel thirty years later, but stranger things happen.  Hollywood loves sequels and remakes these days for a variety of reasons.  There is a certain amount of guranteed income, assuming that fans of the original will be more likely to pay to see another version. It also requires less investment of energy and money in terms of generating new ideas.

So, here are the building blocks of the sequel to Witness:

  • Actors/Actresses that were in the original that would be available to be a part of the new film: Harrison Ford (John Book), Lukas Haas (Samuel), Kelly McGillis (Rachel), Patti LuPone (John’s sister Elaine) are all still alive and acting (with varying levels of success) and Viggo Mortensen was a relatively minor character in the story but his star has risen in Hollywood over the years as well
  • The Amish fiction genre has taken off in the meantime (even thought it’s cooled a little since then)
  • Anabaptist theology has become more popular in religious circles and pacifism is still an appealing concept

But there are still a few limitations:

  • Because of lobbying on behalf of the Pennsylvania Amish community, a promise was made to not allow film crews back to Amish communities. This promise was made after Witness as a way of trying to limit the intrusiveness of tourists on Amish property. It may or may not still be enforced.
  • Alexander Godunov, who played Daniel, the presumed future husband of Rachel, has died. He also played Karl in Die Hard. This loss is of course tragic on a personal level, but it also presents a number of storytelling limitations. Finding a replacement actor is always a step down in terms of quality.  If the husband dies off in real life, it is either extra grief on a character or presents some sort of black widow scenario.

So, here is the storyline as I see it (again, I am willing to discuss this with any producers that are interested 🙂 )

John Book moved on from the events in the first movie. He found a wife and started a family of his own. He has also joined an anti-corruption task force within the FBI.  In the meantime, Rachel married Daniel, as expected, but it wasn’t long before everything unravelled.  The suspicions about her that arose within the community never went away and her new husband treated her accordingly.  She had also developped a taste for the outside world.  After an argument, she takes Samuel and they leave their home and the community.  Rachel finds out about John’s marriage and doesn’t try to connect with him.  She finds regular work and writes as a hobby until she writes a novel and becomes part of the Amish fiction craze, which is where the movie picks up.

John’s wife, having heard of his time in the Amish community, is a regular reader of Amish fiction and finds a novel that bears striking resemblance to the story John told her.  She tries to track down the writer to see if it’s the same woman.

Samuel has now grown up, and after his first marriage ends in divorce he is struggling to find out who he is.  Despite his mother’s wishes, he returns to the community where he lived as a boy and because nobody else will break the ban he reconnects with his step-father’s brother Moses (played by Viggo Mortensen) for a short-lived stay in the area.

Meanwhile, John has busted a network of criminal activity in a major police force, and certain people are out for revenge.  They catch up with John’s wife just before she is able to meet up with Rachel, and kidnap her as bait to get back at John.  He has been so busy with his case that he had no idea his wife was trying to find Rachel, but the novel is the only he has to find out where she went.  He tracks down Rachel, and together they follow the clues to discover where his wife is being kept.

When John realizes that his wife was abducted in connection to the case he had been working on, he starts to worry about his daughter. Rachel then sends Samuel to look out for John’s daughter, who is attending a rural Mennonite church in California, and he finds his true spiritual awakening there.

John, Rachel and John’s newly freed wife return to meet up with the daughter (and Samuel), who is not yet out of harm’s way. Moses has heard what was happening, and he follows Samuel to California. In reconnecting with Rachel, Moses apologizes for what happened, and they fall in love. John and his wife grow closer, and while Samuel is too old to date John’s daughter, she faithfully leads him on his spiritual journey.

The bad guys of course meet their fate, delivered via a more or less non-violent confrontation, but there is just enough fighting to appease those movie-goers looking for that.

Again, the Mennonites are presented favourably and it pretty much still fits the formula of a Hollywood movie. Win-win.

An Anabaptist Pilgramage (and no, that’s not a typo)

My theme of “(Re)Discovering Ancient Spiritual Practices” at the Mennonite Church where I serve as the pastor seems a little odd to some.  Those religious rituals having little to no bearing with our Radical Reformation past.  In fact, our spiritual ancestors would likely reject many of these activities as human creation and therefore unhelpful in our walk with Christ. In many ways I agree with these sentiments.  It is easy for us as human beings to ascribe more worth to the activities than what the activity is supposed to point toward.  Still, I would like to make the case that it might be possible to design a pilgrimage that would be perfect for Mennonites/Anabaptists/Free Church folk.

Most pilgrimages in use today retrace steps taken by an important person within that faith tradition.  Anabaptism has a number of important people, many of whom made significant trips as a part of their faith expression.  Pilgram Marpeck was just one of them.

As a young man, he had been trained as an engineer and was growing in influence and prominence as a member of a political family.  The Radical branch of the Reformation meant not only that new and “dangerous” ideas were spreading across Europe, but also that the people holding those beliefs often needed to find safe places to hide from persecuting church-state authorities.  The hills and mines of Austria provided just the relief that these radicals were looking for, but an impending war between Turkish and Austrian forces also meant that loyalty was being tested in every possible way.

Pilgram Marpeck’s job was to manage the supply of wood and other building materials, co-ordinate employee housing, etc.  By all accounts he was good at that, but his superiors added something to his job description.  As a show of religious and civic loyalty, Marpeck’s mining company was asked to give the names of any suspected re-baptizing dissidents or risk being branded as a sympathizer.

It was obvious to everyone in town what happened to people who had joined the re-baptizers. Leonhard Schiemer, who was also an Anabaptist of some note, was executed in the same town Pilgram Marpeck lived.  The specifics of what come next aren’t a part of the historical record, but it’s fair to speculate. Whether or not he came to follow Anabaptist Christianity because of these miners, he would have still lived and worked in close quarters with them.  These friends and coworkers would have been killed if he followed through on his orders.

Marpeck refused to submit these names and soon he had to leave town.  Did he leave to find work somewhere else? Did he leave because of family pressure?  Did he leave because he had already embraced the radical faith of the people whose lives he had tried to save?  Whatever the reason, he left Rattenberg, Austria in 1528 and next appeared in Strassbourg.

What happened in between?  Did he visit other Anabaptist communities in Moravia, Switzerland, or the Black Forest?  Did he wonder if he had made the right decision?  Did he come to a new faith position as he walked?  Did he assemble his new beliefs after having already changed his mind in Austria? Did he lay the foundation of future faith changes which came to fruition once he reached his destination?  I would love to know, but I would also love to retrace his steps.

Pilgram likely did most of his travelling by boat, and even if a modern pilgrim wanted to walk from the same origin to the same destination, contemporary Europe isn’t as free to traverse by foot than it would have been in the era of the reformation.  I will likely never be able to embark on this pilgramage, but maybe someday this will be a route that other Anabaptists take.

Strassbourg was a free imperial city, meaning that neither the catholic holy roman empire or the German city states could exercise full authority.  Religious rebels flooded into the city and Pilgrim Marpeck was allowed to live and work there for many years.  He was an engineer again and was a very successful one.  He worshipped with other Anabaptists in freedom.  Years later that freedom would expire and he fled again.  He continued writing and offering leadership to various Anabaptist congregations and communities.  He traveled often, and his safety wasn’t always guaranteed.  These later Pilgramages took on a different meaning than the original one, but I would be honoured to be able to retrace those steps as well.

Is missional thinking based in Christendom?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of missional thinking.

I love the challenge to ask how the church can join God’s ongoing mission rather than asking how we can get God to bless our church programming.  I love the emphasis on developing a sense of belonging before the rigid requirements of belief.

But there is something that seems off to me about the way that the missional movement is being played out.

For example, as I type this, my computer is telling me that the word missional is spelled wrong (ironically, the suggested correct spelling is “nationalism”). So, if a movement or an organization is going to be centered around one word, they better have a clear and helpful definition of that word.  Instead, those at the center of the movement celebrate their inability to define the word.  I am a firm believer that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand very well yourself. Certainly there are other words that even like-minded church leaders couldn’t agree on a definition for, like salvation, wisdom, love, etc.  For myself though, if I was asked to support an organization whose motto was, “resourcing salvation minded churches,” I would think they were unjustly setting themselves apart as having a new and better understanding of salvation or that they offer nothing at all to anyone.

The best definition I’ve been given is “renewed theological vision.”  It seems to embrace the ambiguity of the movement, but if you’re only differentiating yourself by being new, you’re not saying the important things, and pretty soon you won’t be new anymore anyway.

Another thing that I like about the missional movement is their reminder that we are living in a post-Christendom time period.  It is no longer accurate or even appropriate to make assumptions about someone’s religious affiliations based on where they live.  We can no longer trust the state to uphold Christian principles in their decision making and we can no longer presume that most people will be motivated by Christian principles or that they will even feel guilty when we point out that they have fallen short of them.  I’m not sure that we ever could do any of those things, to be honest, but at the core of the missional movement is a sense that society (and their view of the church) has changed, and so the church must change to communicate the gospel more effectively.  This is true, of course, but for the wrong reasons.  We need to be continually changing and reforming ourselves, partly so that we don’t confuse our way of doing things with a divinely ordained culture.

In a way, the missional movement is saying, “Since we can longer influence the state, we should adjust to the state to be more effective.”  Or another way of restating things is, “It was wrong of us to try to coerce people using state authority before, so we will be more convincing if we are first coerced by society.”  Those are over-exaggerations, but by using societal change as a motivator for ecclesial change, we are missing the point.  Throughout Christendom, the church never told the state what to do.  It was always the other way around and if we are guiding our decisions based on what the state is doing, then we are still stuck in a Christendom model.

The New Testament has the Great Commission (Matt. 28).  The missional movement is much more comfortable with the Old Testament version, the Great DeCommissioning (Jeremiah 29).  I’m not the most fervent evangelist either, but Jesus says far more about not being changed by societal trends, than the reverse.

A Tale of Two Meetings

I would like to talk about two meetings with some obvious differences and some profound similarities.

The first is a series of meetings that took place across Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba in the early 1920s.  Members of various conservative, traditional Mennonite churches were gathering to discus how to respond to recent government policies put in place to make better British subjects of its citizens.  Most of these families had fled Russia in the 1870s, where similar governmental policies resulted in massive uprisings and eventually civil war.  They discussed whether they should make compromises and stay or follow their conscience and leave.

The second is a meeting that happened more recently in Steinbach, Manitoba where concerned citizens met to voice their concerns over the recently tabled anti-bullying bill.  They were worried that the wording of the bill would mean that people acting out their religious values would be punished.

The obvious similarities make it seem hardly worthwhile to connect the two.  Besides geography, the only connection is that it was a meeting of people with religiously based conscience.  One could argue that meetings of conscience and religion have been happening weekly in this area over the hundred years separating the two events.

The differences are plain, aren’t they?  There are differences in the time period, in the levels of political engagement, in culture, and in the issue being discussed.  So why am I connecting these dots?  Because the differences are an illusion.

First, the issues.  The first group were concerned that they were going to be forced to run their schools in English, rather than German.  The second group was concerned that their religious schools may be forced to provide funding and staff for a student club that endorses homosexual lifestyle.  These issues are different, but they are both related to education and both point directly back to the issue of religious freedom.  After all, isn’t Canada founded on the value of religious freedom for all?

That brings us to our second “difference,” political engagement.  The first group was not political.  There were no politicians in their meetings and their members were forbidden from any kind of political involvement.  The second group had three sitting MLAs (members of the legistlative assembly, regional representatives of the provincial government) and other politicians from other levels were either present or have since voiced their support.  The similiarity however, is more profound.  Both groups were working with the understanding that their past political activities would prevent exactly this type of problem from occurring.  The first group had only come to Canada because their delegates had negotiated with the Canadian government a promise that they could run their communities, churches and schools, in whatever way they wanted.  The second group has been voting in Conservative party politicians habitually since before the first group had their meetings. They do so partly because those politicians usually live out the family values their constituents uphold, but mostly because they promise to protect the special interests of that riding. So in both meetings, there is a high level of frustration that despite their political engagement, their special interests had not been protected.

The last perceived difference I want to talk about is culture. The first group gathered in Mennonite churches, defending their right to teach their schools in German, and wanting to protect their cultural communities. The second group met in a school, they met in English, and it was billed as being open to the entire non-denominational community. So ths is the greatest, non-negotiable difference, isn’t it? Much has been written lately about the inappropriateness of germanic ethnic expressions in theologically Anabaptist churches, but that presupposes that Mennonite churches are the only places you will find Mennonite cultural expressions. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that this second meeting, this multi-denominational/non-denominational gathering, was thouroughly a demonstration of Mennonite culture. The family names of the pastors and politicians were also reflected in those first meetings in the 1920s. Anabaptist theological convictions of a “pure church separate from the world” have incorporated themselves into Mennonite cultural practice. Sometimes that means we neglect the call to evangelize, sometimes that means we don’t allow ourselves to see the needs around us, sometimes, sometimes it means that we are spared of the corrupting influences of our world. If you ask people who have left Mennonte ethnic communities, many of them will tell you that this kind of insular behaviour is part of the reason that they left. Just because people leave Mennonite communities and churches, doesn’t mean that the cultural expressions will stop.

So then, if these meetings are more similar than either group would like to admit, then what is the remaining critical difference? One group stayed and remained bitter and unchained, and one group had the courage to pack up and live out their convictions in a strange and barren land.

What makes a Mennonite?

Mennonite is a term that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Many of those meanings can be summed up in three categories; Mennonites are known by seed, by deed and by creed.

… by seed. – Mennonite is primarily a faith position, but throughout time and in many parts of the world, people with Mennonite convictions have lived together in communities and formed distinctive cultures. Aspects of that culture will reveal itself in our church, but that is not at the heart of what we do and who we want to be. In many places, Mennonites are known for their distinctive dress and exclusive community lifestyle, but you will not find those elements at most contemporary Mennonite churches.

… by deed. – Mennonites take seriously Jesus’ words “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” and the Biblical admonition that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (Matthew 25: 40 & James 2: 17, TNIV) Accordingly, we are happy to participate in and lend our support to various disaster response and global relief and development efforts. Although that work is not done to receive attention or credibility, in many places Mennonites are recognized by the charitable work they have done.

… by creed. At the core of our beliefs are statements about God’s sovereignty, the inspiration of the Bible and the nature of the trinity that would be in keeping with most other churches. Some of our distinctive are as follows:

  • Jesus at the Center – we believe that Jesus reveals to us, better than anything or anyone else, what God is really like. We believe that everything else in the Bible builds up toward his coming or builds on top of the foundation he laid. We seek to follow him before all others.
  • Separation from the world – we believe that the church should be motivated by different things, work toward different goals and be structured differently then mainstream society. Various Mennonite cultural expressions have come from a physical separation from society, but much more than that we emphasize a mental and spiritual separation.
  • Others centered Love – we believe that Love was at the core of what Jesus taught. “Love your neighbours as yourself” calls us to live and give graciously and “Love your enemies” calls us to live peacefully and embrace the people we might otherwise think we should hate.