Anabaptism Book Reviews

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.

Book Reviews Resourcing the church

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.

Book Reviews Musings

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.


Book Reviews

In which I review “Jesus Feminist”: part II

I couldn’t narrow my thoughts about this book to one blog post, so this is second of a two-part review of “Jesus Feminist” by Sara Bessey.

One of the great things about running a blog is that I get to declare decisions that I would have made, even though I am in no position to be making those decisions. And so, in reading some other reviews of Jesus Feminist I found that there were a lot of people writing about what the book could have been. Even though the writer makes clear that she hadn’t set out to write a highly academic piece, and that she probably isn’t the person to write that kind of book anyway, a number of people still would like to read/critique the more academic treatment.

Now, if I was the editor, and someone came to me with a proposal for a book called Jesus Feminist, I would have something else in mind. Technically I do run a publishing company. Sure it only has one author so far (me), and zero sales, but the concept isn’t entirely absurd. From time to time, I read about some crisis that has the feminist community up in arms, and it strikes me that Christians are one group of people that should agree with them. I don’t just mean one quadrant within the church, I mean everyone from the left-leaning, intolerance-hating, peace advocating Christians to the right-leaning, God and country, literal reading (except for gluttony and loving enemies) believers. I would love it if someone would take the overlapping areas of agreement and flesh them out, or maybe just bring them to public attention.

If it were up to me, I would love it if this was was a book that tackles a number of pressing feminist issues and devotes a chapter to explaining why Christians and feminists already do agree in potentially very constructive ways on each particular issue. Maybe this could be the sequel, we could call it, “Jesus and Feminism: why can’t we be friends?”

At the very least #JesusFeminist could be the hashtag that people use when they tweet about apparent agreement between Christian belief and Feminism. Let me give a few examples of what that might look like.

One issue that feminists often complain about is the double standard in society that men are often lauded for the sexual promiscuity and called studs, while women are derided for the same behaviour and called sluts.  With this general principle, the church should whole-heartedly agree.  Of course feminists would like to advocate a woman’s right to choose her own sexual behaviour without social consequence, and while many in the church would disagree with that interpretation, I think there is still room for us to tweet our agreement.

“There is no double standard in the Kingdom. Formerly promiscuous men and women both welcome. #JesusFeminist”

“The grace of God is so great, even studs can be forgiven. #JesusFeminist”

“For it is by grace that we are saved, through faith, lest no stud may boast. #JesusFeminist”

Another issue that flairs up with the occasional mispoken word from police men and government figures that suggest a woman invites/deserves to be sexually assaulted because of how she dresses. While we shouldn’t expect to see the church defend a woman’s right to dress however she wants, we should expect them to hold the men involved accountable for their actions.

“God will not tempt you beyond what you can bear, and neither will scantily clad women. #JesusFeminist”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘She was asking for it,’ but I say you have already committed adultery in your heart. #JesusFeminist”

“It isn’t unloving to say men are accountable for their own actions, it’s unloving not to say it. #JesusFeminist”

Finally, one issue that won’t go away in both the church and in feminist debates. Studies have shown over and over again that women get paid less than men for doing the same work.  While the gap seems to be closing, many still hold this up as a fundamental justice issue.  The church has largely been percieved to be unsympathetic in this cause, partly because the loudest voices within the church expect women to be content to be unpaid home makers.  Still, there should be room for agreement here.

“Please, pay our women more, so they can tithe more. Sincerely, – The Church. #JesusFeminist”

“There is pay equality in heaven. Equal jewels for equal service. #JesusFeminist”

“Work like Ruth, remmunerate like Boaz. #JesusFeminist”

Sure it’s just a collection of tweets right now, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a twitter account or hashtag resulted in a book contract or sitcom.

I guess neither of these posts constitutes an actual review, but this was my take on what it could have been.

Book Reviews

In which I review “Jesus Feminist” : Part I

I couldn’t narrow my thoughts about this book to one blog post, so this is first of a two-part review of “Jesus Feminist” by Sara Bessey.

Sarah Bessey is someone that I follow with a great deal of interest, for a variety of reasons. First, she embodies a lot of the ways I see myself. She is Canadian, and we need more writers who spell colour with a ‘u’. She’s also a parent to kids the same age as mine. If they ever meet as adults, I’d like to think their conversation would go something like this: “Your parents over-shared about you online as kid? Mine too.” She not only enjoys telling stories, but also seems to write as though she believes that telling the story well is at least as important as staying within the bounds of orthodoxy while you tell it.  So, while she recognizes the pitfalls of the label, there might be some days when she would identify herself as an evangelical Christian.

There are also ways I wish I could be more like her. She tells stories well and approaches complex subjects simplicity, graciousness and humour. She’s a great writer, she’s such a great writer that she has parlayed a blog into a book contract, and that book is what I’m reviewing now.

Not to be entirely outdone, I have managed to parlay a significantly less successful blog into a self-published book. This also means that I am open to learning ideas from other authors about book promotion, and the grass roots promotion of this book was brilliant. She invited her readers to take pictures of themselves, holding up signs that read “I’m a … and I’m a Jesus Feminist.” It demonstrated popularity, it communicated accessibility, and it was fun. I had even envisioned what mine would look like; me holding a piece of paper that read, “I’m a Mennonite pastor and ..” while standing in front of my church sign that read “I’m a Jesus Feminist.”

I had to hesitate though, as I wondered about the accuracy of that statement. Am I a Jesus Feminist?

In many ways, the answer would be yes. Do I agree with the tagline on the cover, “God’s radical notion that women are people too”? Of course. Do I believe that women are equal to men in the eyes of God? Yes. Do I believe that women should be equal to men in the eyes of the law, and therefore be entitled to equal pay for equal work, and full voting, driving and legal protection rights? Do I want my wife and two daughters to live in a world where their merit is evaluated independent of their gender? Yes. In fact, I’m sure that I would meet most of the academic criteria to classify myself as a feminist.

I recognize too that many people will use a different definition for feminism, that include things that I am not comfortable with. I recognize too that there are a variety of things that empowered women feel entitled to do, and I unapologetically don’t think that those things are in their best interests. So, using that rationale, there will be people on both sides of the feminist fence that would argue the label doesn’t fit me.

Now, if I left that message on the sign for any length of time, I might turn some heads, I might help Ms. Bessey sell a few more books, and I might even generate some healthy conversation around God’s view of women etc. I also know a long list of people who would want to offer me a corrective semantic argument by explaining to me the evils of feminism, and in various theological circles I would be branded accordingly. But as inconvenient as they might be, I don’t fear the ghosts of feminist present or future.

Most of all, I fear the ghost of mysogyny past. At various times, many of us will take the path of least resistance, whether or not we are aware of the consequences. For the better part of my youth, the short cut to an easy laugh, social acceptance and evangelical orthodoxy was to oppose feminism, and I recognize now that in the process, I hurt some people. In the process, I propped up systems and institutions that under-valued and devalued some of the exact same people it was supposed to be protecting and upholding.

So, am I a feminist? Don’t ask me. Maybe ask my wife. Maybe ask my daughters in their first year of university.  Better yet, wait until my new, less automatic view of women produces more good than my old view caused harm, but by then, the answer to your question will be obvious.