Our daughters’ daughters

There are a few movies in our collection that we bought, partly so that our kids would inherit a broader musical legacy than their peers, Mary Poppins being one of them.  We love how it celebrates imagination in children and highlights the need for parents, even wealthy parents with servants, to develop good relationships with their children.

However, when you remove the nostalgia, there are parts of the movie that don’t stand up to analysis very well, and much of it revolves around the character of Winifred Banks.  I would offer a spoiler alert, but if you haven’t seen the movie by now, there isn’t much I can do for you.  At the end of the movie, her husband, a bank executive, sets aside time from his career and she sets aside her suffragette cause to spend more time with their children.  It’s more subtle with the mother, but it’s suggested that she has been spending too much energy advocating “Votes for Women” that her children have suffered neglect. I can’t imagine that her submissiveness as a wife and passivity as a mother would be received well by either traditionalists or progressives in today’s society.

There’s a background story involved here too. P.L. Travers, who wrote the book the movie was based on, stormed out of the theatre the first time she saw it because she there was so much of it she didn’t like. One of those things was the portrayal of Mrs. Banks, and the underhanded mockery of beliefs that Travers herself upheld. It is also said that Glynis Johns, who played the role, thought she was in line for the lead, so when she was offered this secondary part, as a way of saving face, she insisted she would only play it if she had a solo, so an extra song was written for her. The legacy of “Mary Poppins” is more music than ideology, but the lyrics of this song, “Sister Suffragette,” hint at a different legacy, the relationship between the turn of the century feminists and their female descendants. The lyrics of the song say, “Our daughter’s daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done!'”  So, was Winifred Banks correct?

The film was set in 1910. Glynis Johns was 40 at the time of filming, and Karen Dotrice, who played the role of her daughter, was 8.  So it’s reasonable to expect that granddaughters could have been born between 1927 and 1937, great-granddaughters around between 1952 and 1972, and great-great-granddaughters between 1977 and 2007. So, the majority of women on twitter could reasonably be the granddaughter of a granddaughter of Winifred Banks.

The strength of the recent #IDontNeedFeminism movement might suggest that they don’t adore their suffragette predecessors.  Of course we could argue that each generation’s social cause is independent and that supporters of one won’t necessarily be supporters of the other, but I think it’s presents a different challenge.  Whether or not she was wrong, would Winifred Banks have been less ambitious if she knew that her female descendants would indifferent toward he accomplishments and resentful toward the ideological legacy her group would leave?

I think that while many of us hope that our descendants and those who inherit our legacy will celebrate what we’ve done, it is by no means a certainty that they will. If we look back, our ancestor’s views on gender, race, sexuality, etc often look morally deficient. In a black and white world, if we judge them on those views, we are often left with the choice of either disregarding entirely those who have gone before us, or we need to embrace what the rest of the world sees as archaic views.

The middle ground, relativistic response cannot simply be to say that theirs was a different time. This allows us to judge them on the purity of their intentions, but it also assumes that the purity of our intentions will be obvious.  We cannot predict what the causes will be of our daughters’ daughters generation will be.  We cannot predict how we will look in their eyes.  We do however, need to go about our lives, living out the convictions we hold, seeking the good of those around and those who will come after us, whether or not we will be perceived as having been in the right.

 

The Bear you know

We hadn’t been at our campsite for very long when a truck pulled up and the driver asked if I had a minute. When I approached his vehicle, he explained that he hadn’t wanted to startle the children, but I should be aware that a bear had been spotted nearby. He was on his way to tell the park staff, and he wanted to inform other campers on his way.

Over the next few days we received more warning about the bears, with varying levels of discretion and alarm. Still, nobody seemed to be evacuating the campsite, so we stayed and kept an eye on the situation.

As nightfall approached, there had been no new bear sightings, and so we made sure our campsite and especially our tent were free of food and we retired for the night. Inevitably, the discomfort of sleeping in a tent for the first time in a while woke me up. As I lay there in the middle of the night, I thought about the bear again. Since I couldn’t see in the darkness I found my other senses were heightened. The walls of our new tent felt extra thin. Was there a new smell in the air? Well, my whole family hasn’t slept in the same room for quite a while, so that could be something else, but there were different sounds.

Something was outside. Those were definitely the sound of an animal footprints. Soon I was pretty sure that I heard it pulling grass, so it must be just a herbivore, like a deer, or was it a moose? Would a deer attract a predator to our campsite? In the morning my wife wasn’t sure if she remembered hearing panting or if it was in a dream. Do wolves pant?

Last summer we camped at Waterton Lakes and we saw a number of bears and never really lost any sleep over it, and so we didn’t think it would be a problem this time around either, but it was.

We speculated that maybe it was because in Waterton we saw the bears, we saw how mellow and disinterested in us they were. If I revise an old adage, maybe it was a case where the only thing worse than seeing a bear when you’re camping is not seeing it.

From time to time I have reason to believe that there is a bear around the corner, and the fear of encountering it can paralyse me, that is until I encounter the bear, adjust my distance and speed, and I continue on.

Non-corresponding cruise

This past week my family and I were on the road. We drove across the prairies, from our home in Alberta to a conference being held in Winnipeg. It’s an odd kind of gathering where most of the people you see are happy to be there but not at all excited about the task at hand. I was in the same boat; there were people I was looking forward to seeing, and the worship and celebration parts are always uplifting, but I carried little enthusiasm for the discernment portion of the assembly. (One of the speakers would later poke fun at our group, suggesting that ‘discernment’ was really just a euphemism for what we were actually doing, fighting.)

I’m not a fan of conflict of any kind, and so I approach this kind of conversation with dread. In years past we’ve debated what we do (or should) believe in common. This year’s approach was more along the lines of what it means to have unity when we don’t have uniformity of belief. I was much happier with this approach, but I was still not looking forward to the process.

I’ve driven across the prairies before, and once again I came to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, the charm of the various small towns and the simplicity of rural lifestyle. I mulled all this over while I drove, and as I drove, as sometimes happens, the trip became a metaphor for the destination itself.

I was also reminded again though of the frustrations of long distance driving. We all know the anxiety of sharing the road with people driving much faster than we want to, those people who follow too close and pressure us to speed up only to eventually pass us wrecklessly swerving from one lane to another with no apparent regard for their own safety or the safety of other people on the road, not to mention their complete disregard for the law that governs the roads. Some of us also know the impatience that can develop within us when we share the road with people who drive much slower than we want to. While the rest of us have places to go and timelines to keep, these people sit in their cars oblivious to the realities of the world outside their usually old and poorly maintained vehicles.

This time though, I found myself unusually able to extend grace to those drivers. The people driving too fast may very well have had a good reason to be moving with that kind of urgency. Maybe they’ve been driving like that for a long time and their skills and reflexes have adjusted to make them well suited for that pace. They were probably operating from a timeline that was entirely different from mine. Either way they were quickly past me and no longer a concern to me.  The people driving too slow were often carrying a heavier load and sometimes the vehicles they were travelling in weren’t equipped for highway speed.  Over time I’ve come to appreciate the people who follow the rules, as legalistic as it may seem to the rest of us, and make a safer world for the rest of us.

There’s almost a kind of community feeling that develops among people who drive the same speed. When I see a fast car off in the distance pull into the passing lane, it’s probably to get around a car like me. Inevitably I catch up to a slow car and I congregate with other cars begrudgingly graciously waiting for their turn to pass. Especially on the prairies, you can drive a long ways with other cars. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that you could drive for an hour or two with the same vehicle(s) in your line of sight, which can be oddly comforting on an otherwise lonely trip. You also get to know a lot about these people as you drive near them for a long time, you might get to know their eating habits, their music listening (and singing) habits and some of their bumpter-stickered political affiliations. The road would be a safer, and I think friendlier place if we all drove exactly the same speed.

On this particular trip, I started to find myself getting annoyed by the people driving my speed, mostly because it turns out they weren’t driving my speed. I had set my cruise control at a consistent speed, and still sometimes the cars that I had passed would pass me again, and again. Sometimes I had adjusted my cruise to stay with a particular group, and then their speed would fluctuate too. I could no longer count on people driving consistently 5 km/h over the speed limit. I could no longer find comfort in other people approaching the road the same way that I did.

There is science at work here. No matter how much people or machines try to keep their vehicles at the same speed, there will always be fluctations.  You may have recognized a while ago I wasn’t just talking about cars anymore, but that the journey to the conference was a metaphor for the conference, and life itself. The task to get everyone to drive the same speed will always be futile. The challenge instead is to pick your own speed and then drive responsibly and with integrity.

What I don’t like about Frozen

If you’ve ever had a kid knock on your door and then get mad at you for opening it because you were interrupting their song, you might have a kid that’s hooked on Frozen. Even though the DVD was released a long time ago, excitement for the movie and its related merchandise is still at high levels. In fact, children will probably only stop caring about the film shortly after I’ve shelled out an unreasonable amount of money for Nordic themed Christmas gifts. But despite the anxiety I feel over this kind of popular culture phenomenon, and the fact that I’m understanding that part of my father’s personality better all the time, I don’t actually mind Frozen all that much.

I think that both Ana and Elsa, despite their complexities, are good role models for my daughters. I like the avoidance of a romantic happily ever after ending. I especially like that the rescue was a collaborative effort, and that both male and female characters (as well as the non-human sidekicks) demonstrate courage, self-sacrifice and creative problem solving. But despite these and many other things right, Disney got what I think is a big thing wrong (even if it was accidental.)

In 1995, Big Idea Promotions released a Veggie Tales movie called “Rack, Shack and Benny.” As always, they presented Bible story reenacted by computer animated vegetables. This time it was the story of three exiled Israelites who refused to bow down and worship a Babylonian god. As punishment for their stance, they are sent into a raging furnace, from which they are miraculously saved. In the cartoon adaptation, the vegetables work as slaves at a chocolate factory and refused to sing the song of praise to “the bunny.” In this song they would have to sing that their love for the bunny superseded their love of their own parents and their desire to attend church or school. By refusing to sing this song they demonstrated their faithfulness and their point about standing up for what you believe in was made. There was just one problem. The Bunny Song was really catchy and fun to sing. So, the moral of the story was lost in the entertainment value of its primary song.

There is no question that the biggest song in Frozen is “Let It Go,” and while it doesn’t commit the same blunders as “The Bunny Song,” its message is inconsistent with the moral of the movie. I would even argue that it runs contrary to the overall story. Again, don’t get me wrong, I love the song. I especially love how the mournfulness of the first verse transitions so easily into empowerment and celebration. It’s almost as though in every second Idina Menzel stretches out “and now they know” you can feel the emotional momentum shifting, and everyone listening who has a secret they are hiding from the world gets just a little feeling of release.

But moments later Elsa’s release starts to fall apart. As she is made aware of the consequences of her actions she sings one line that cancels out every word of “Let It Go.” As the tension builds, she cries out, “I’m such a fool, I can’t be free” and we are all back down at rock bottom with her. “Let It Go” was supposed to be Elsa’s freedom song, but Elsa didn’t need freedom, Elsa needed redemption.

I get it, it’s fun to sing along with her. Who doesn’t want to throw off the burdensome expectations of the people around us and find our self-worth by embracing our own uniqueness? But there is a price we pay for isolation. There is a price the people around us pay when we isolate ourselves. Every problem in Frozen is the direct or indirect result of Elsa letting it go.

In the end, Elsa realizes that she is loved and that she has love to give. Love doesn’t mean letting go. Love means holding on to someone and allowing them to hold on to you.

Servanthood on Parade

Why would I pay attention to the parade? I knew what to expect from the parade. I knew that some local C-list celebrity would be the parade marshal. I knew that all the aspiring and elected politicians would be seated prominently in expensive cars. I knew that the biggest, most elaborate displays would be signs of wealth and excess. Those weren’t the things I was there for. I was supposed to see the people stories, the human interest angle.  I am a pastor after all.

At last year’s High River Little Britches rodeo parade, the river was low and the spirits were high. This year, the river was relatively high, there was still some anxiety in the air.  It wasn’t long after last year’s parade that a freak storm dropped an abnormally high amount of rain on a ground that was frozen unusually late so it couldn’t absorb enough moisture and on mountains that were holding an exceptional amount of snow for June.  That resulted in major flooding in Calgary, Canmore, and the Siksika Reserve, but the flooding was so bad in the town of High River that the whole community was blocked off and inaccessible to its residents for a whole month.

The repairs in the downtown, like the repairs in many of homes in the town, are still not completely done. In fact, on some buildings you can still see the water line of where the water reached it’s highest and it sat there for days and days. The water line behind us while we watched the parade this year was chest high.  The route had been altered because of repairs and ongoing work, but there were probably just as many people as other years, and with rain in the forecast, a number of people who would have otherwise come probably stayed home.  So, despite a lot of things not being back to normal, the turnout was surprisingly good.

These are the things I was paying attention to, the turnout, the weather, the mood and so on.

As the parade began, I was hoping that maybe in the floats and the displays I might see symbols of perseverence, signs of the human spirit overcoming difficulty, or some evidence of God working a miracle in this town.

At the front of the parade, there was no marshal. I asked the people around me who the marshal was and they told me there were four marshals. Rather than having one celebrity, as I expected, but a representative from each of the four rebuilding and relief agencies that are active in the community were serving jointly as the marshal. The Mennonite Disaster Service crew had trouble finding enough people, not because they didn’t have enough volunteers, but because many of them were uncomfortable with the attention.

The parade continued, and the politicians happily greeted us. The provincial representative and presumptive federal candidate rode by with big smiles and ambitious waves. There weren’t any local municipal politicians though, maybe they would come later. The mayor deserved a higher profile. It’s his town after all. The first marching band was approaching and so I turned to look which one it was.  There were two men walking down our side of the road handing out candy to the kids.  I wouldn’t have even noticed them, except that one of them looked awfully familiar. I looked down and as he gave a lollipop to each of my kids, it hit me. That was the mayor.  The man who volunteered to make unpopular decisions and lead and anxious people toward a more secure future turned down a luxury seat and a high profile position to hand out candy to kids.

As the parade drew to a close, I began to reflect on all the people it took to make a parade work.  There were large marching bands, there were elaborate floats and there long lines of trained funny car drivers, but the biggest group was still to come.  To my surprise, it was a group that simply identified as the local Filipino community. They had a pick-up truck with a banner and some flags, otherwise it wasn’t all that elaborate, but there were people, lots of people. Now, there may have been Filipino doctors in that crowd, and professors, and philanthropists, and celebrity athletes, but most of the time, when people in this part of the world come into contact with someone from the Philipines, it is in the service sector. They are the Temporary Foreign Workers that make it possible for me to pay just over four dollars for my morning coffee, donut and muffin.  Many of these people work as our servants, but at this parade they walked past us with dignity, joy and pride in who they were and in their opportunity to be here with us.

My kids went home with a bunch of candy, most of which my wife threw out, but I went home with a reminder that service is leadership, and leadership at is best is service.

A New Slate of Biblical Movies

There has been a lot of talk lately about how much we should mix church and Hollywood.  If producers made movies to generate good reviews, they would likely make another Biblical movie.  Like it or not, in the show business world, there is no such thing as bad publicity.  For every negative review that was written about Noah, with Russell Crowe, a few more tickets were sold, because the more people that talk about the movie, the more people that think about the movie, which then leads to more people watching the movie. It seems Hollywood has learned a lesson here, and so they will continue to make Biblical movies.

There are a few different categories of Hollywood biblical movie, but Noah is a Biblical epic, and I thought it might be fun to suggest a few more stories to be used for upcoming movies.

First, I thought it might be necessary to spell out just what exactly constitutes a Biblical epic.  It is a story of a grand scale, with some supernatural act, and preferably some violence (or at least the possibility of adding violence without fundamentally altering the story.) The story needs to have a grand central figure, like Jesus, Moses, or Noah.  There needs to be an enemy and a means by which that enemy is overcome.  There is no shortage of Bible stories that fit this description, but there are a few more criteria that a contemporary Hollywood movie needs. It isn’t enough anymore to hate an enemy because the Bible says we should, the movie has to make the enemy hate-able. To me, that was the biggest challenge of making a movie based on the story of Noah, is that you have to inevitably kill off a whole bunch of people, and for the audience, even a Christian audience to be comfortable with that, you have to make them pretty evil, and you have to make Noah really, really good. (BTW, if it strikes you as odd that I’m suggesting a Christian audience is more pre-disposed to hating an enemy and generally more comfortable with killing off hordes of people, GOOD, that should strike you as odd. Even though it’s true, it SHOULD strike you as odd.)  Also, there needs to be room for an extra-biblical twist, a side story or point that isn’t in the Bible, but allows the director/studio to have fun/make a point/generate controversy.

So, here are my three suggestions for upcoming Hollywood movies in the category of Biblical epic.

Gideon – you may not know this story, but you should, and you will after the major motion picture comes out.  Gideon is an unlikely military leader called out of obscurity by God to lead an Israelite army against the oppressive Midianite forces. He tests God to see if He is really there, and God answers.  Gideon assembles an army, and God intrevenes and says the army is too big.  Then Gideon, his small army, and God drive the enemies away in dramatic fashion and the Israelites can live in peace.
Passage: Judges 6-7
The hero: Gideon
The enemy: The Midianites
Why we can hate them: The Israelites are dying of hunger because the invading Midianite hordes keep stealing their grain and gold, etc.
Extra-biblical twist: Without too much reworking the behaviour of the of the Midianite army could be written to look suspiciously like another country that has military forces in that part of the world.

Acts of the Apostles – this is a collection of stories about how the church evolved from a group of people who literally followed Jesus to a religious movement encircling the Mediterranean.  From Paul’s conversion, to surviving shipwrecks, to his persuasive arguments, this movie would follow his life as he goes from church to church to try to build up a movement.
Passage: Most of the book of acts, and snippets from Paul’s letters
The hero: Paul
The enemy: Paul (I know it sounds like a trick, but he struggles with himself a lot, so that could be the theme here, does he use his own arguments? does he interpret the earthquake as a miracle so he can escape and allow the jailor to kill himself? does he let the fame get to his head? etc)
Why we can hate them: Of course we love Paul, but he writes a lot about falling into patterns of temptation, and this movie could be written to draw out that pattern, making us hate his (and our own) propensity to fall into those patterns that threaten to undermine everything that he was doing
Extra-biblical twist: Two options here (among many) 1.) What is the thorn in Paul’s flesh? Scholars have speculated it was a physical ailment, a recurring sin, a disagreeable wife, his sexual orientation, etc. Pick one, run with it, make it a big deal, and people will talk about your movie or 2.) add a compelling female character. Paul is often accused of being a mysogynist, so seeing him empower women in his life would create fodder for conversation at least

Patmos – in what would be the most controversial and talked-about biblical movie ever, an exiled former slave sits on a slave trading island shouting condemnation toward the dominant empire of the day.  He records his visions and predictions into what we would later call the book of Revelation. Who was he? Where did he come from? How did the culture of his day influence his writings? What symbols and images did he borrow?
Passage: the whole book of Revelation
The hero: John of Patmos
The enemy: Rome, the whore of Babylon
Why we can hate them: They devour everything in their path and slander every religion they can
Extra-biblical twist: Make John a divisive character so that his life takes on the identity of his writing, ie. some churches love him, some ignore him, and some build everything they know around what he teaches them.

Forgiveness

One of the events on the calendar at the recent Truth and Reconciliation gathering I attended in Edmonton was an inter-faith panel.  Representatives from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and First Nations spiritual communities were present.  Each panelist spoke about how their faith teachings lead them to deplore the abuse that so often happened at these residential schools.  They also each spoke about how their faith might point toward a path of reconciliation. Without exception, they spoke about the need for forgiveness, that whether it was earned, or even asked for, the victims would not find peace in their hearts until they were able to forgive their oppressors.

Like many of the events at the Edmonton TRC, this gathering was full to capacity, but of all the audiences I was a part of, this was by far the whitest.  This must have been the kind of academic exercise that was much more suited to the settler experience than the First Nations experience. The First Nations community leaders that I have talked to couldn’t think of a First Nations person who holds to an atheistic world view. The First Nations people, in one way or another, are a very spiritual people. Still, this didn’t seem to be the kind of spiritual gathering they were interested in attending en masse.

When the panelists had each finished their presentations, the MC invited questions from the floor, and a line formed at the microphone. I left after the second question, when it seemed clear to me that it would be a string of negative comments directed toward the Christian representatives, whether or not their own branch of the church was directly responsible.

But the first question/comment was powerful.  One of the few First Nations voices in the room spoke up and said that it was just a little bit too easy for them to speak about forgiveness, but for the people who had been affected, the pain was very real, and forgiveness was a very difficult thing to do.

Of course she was right. None of the panelists would have disputed her.  A number of the panelists I’m sure could have spoken of their own tradition’s very recent stories of overcoming victimization and how forgiveness was and is a central part of their healing.  I’m sure the Jewish, Sikh and Cree leaders could have told first- or second-hand accounts (even the Mennonite on the panel probably could have done the same).  But they didn’t.  Nobody said they knew how she felt.

In an event based on an apology, Stephen Harper’s official government apology to victims of abuse at Canadian residential schools, it might have been appropriate for one of the panelists to apologize for the ease with which they had spoken. None of them even made a half-hearted apology for any perceived insensitivity. Nobody was sorry for what they had said.

The pain this woman was feeling was clear in her voice and the way it quivered.  The stories of what happened to women like her were still resonating in our ears from what we had heard in other rooms at other times during the assembly. Nobody was going to deny her pain.  Nobody was going to force her to forgive or tell her that it would be easy to do so, but the conviction was the same, that anger and bitterness would only delay the healing.

The religious sentiment, almost without exception, toward this woman was empathy. It was visible in the faces of the panelists. Emotion in an academic setting, who would have thought. There was pain in her life and there will continue to be pain, that was obvious. While she is entitled to that pain, and her abusers are not in any way entitled to human forgiveness, that is where her healing will the begin.

A Truth Commission with Reconciliation Pending

Last week I spent a few days in the city of Edmonton to attend the final gathering of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  I had attended a previous gathering in Montreal a year ago and for almost two years I have sat on a committee that has been discussing how to bring the issues that the TRC presents to greater level of prominence within the local Mennonite constituency.

Having attended one gathering already, I sort of knew what to expect. The various kinds of smoke have the capacity to overwhelm the senses; grass, paper, tobacco and animal oils are burned as part of spiritual, ritual and social gatherings.  A variety of music and dance that is unfamiliar to most will quickly become normal, as the drumbeats, the shouts and the harmonies continually emanate from some room, somewhere in the building. The TRC is also a very colourful event. Flags and banners are waved, beaded clothing, jewelry and cultural artifacts are displayed, sold and proudly worn throughout the building.

Another thing that is sadly familiar is the ongoing narrative of residential school abuse, of teachers, priests and nuns, friends, fellow students, who over-stepped the authority given to them. Stories of excessive punishment, systemic degradation, and wanton sexual predatory behaviour can and should never become ordinary, but this is what a person needs to be ready for if they are going to attend a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in Canada.  Naturally I heard some of these stories. People talked about their trauma, of the pain it caused, and the various ways that they tried to mask and otherwise deal with that pain.  I heard these stories, but not as many as other people heard.

The event was set up so that different gathering were happening in different places at the same time. Based on what other people told me, I’m sure I missed the heavier stories. I got to hear stories about how the various systems, governmental, societal, religious, had failed the First Nations people. I got to hear these stories from a position of weakness in Montreal too, but what I was excited to see this time were stories of strength.

I know lots of people that want to hear these stories of strength. I know of people in and out of the First Nations community whose desire to hear stories of strength pushes them away from the weakness that is shared at the TRC.  But all around me I saw and I heard stories of strength.

I heard stories of promises made to newborn children, that they would inherit equality, not the fight to earn it.  I heard of promises people made to themselves that the cycles of violence, addiction and despair would end with them. I heard about the power of rediscovering cultural identity and cultural pride. I saw children hugging their mothers. I learned a new word, “aunties,” that First Nations people use to describe any woman in their community who has participated or continues to participate in their upbringing.

First Nations people often complain that they are only in the news if they are suffering or protesting. At this year’s TRC, I saw evidence of strong communities, strong families and strong national networks.

Moving forward, there will still need to be more reconciliation. It shouldn’t take an event like this for well-intentioned neighbours like myself to hear and see this strength.  We, as dominant settler Canadian culture, need to remove the walls of division in our minds, so that when these stories are told, we will have ears to hear them.