Monday, June 28, 2010


The Rosthern Junior College class of ‘60 reunited on Saturday; the decade grads do this every year as a part of the RJC graduation weekend. We talked . . . a lot. Since we are all now 67 years old and more, we noted how our conversations have changed since we last met ten years earlier. Grandchildren and Coping--mainly with a variety of the illnesses of aging--seemed to predominate, with retirement issues a close third.

Later in the day, smaller groups formed and in my case, talked a bit of spirituality, philosophical viewpoints that they’d developed since the end of high school shenanigans and more of the relevant events recalled by people whose lives had already been “mostly-lived.”

In retrospect, the potpourri of dialogue topics reminded me of an adage I’d come across years ago. It says--as closely as I can recall--that there are three levels of conversation. In ascending order, they are about things, people and ideas. Putting aside the apparent snobbery of saying that “ideas” constitute the loftiest plane for the moment, it is nevertheless apparent that our conversations can reasonably be characterized in this way. Although our “conversation” is obviously more than just “talk” (it includes handshakes, embraces, gestures, silences after speech, etc., etc.), here’s my attempt at redoing the adage--in no particular order:

1) Managing the practical conversation: Dialogue about whether RRSP’s are better than tax-free savings accounts, or best ways to deal with crab grass fall into this category, probably our most ubiquitous stream of talking.

2) News and views about people--coffee-row chatter.

a) Gossip: Satisfying a prurient interest in the failures of others in order to make our own seem less disappointing.

b) Spreading community news: a necessary activity if we’re to function as true communities.

3) Confessional dialogue: “Baring our souls” in the search for comforting, healing, forgiveness and restoration.

4) Philosophical conversation: Comparing our personal takes on the questions and answers that fall into the realm of the presently-unknowable, like whether or not time-travel could be possible given what we know about the mechanics of the universe, or whether or not sex is really the motivator for everything we do.

5) Didactic and Religious dialogue: Exchanges primarily geared toward preserving the cultural and religious understandings passed down from generation to generation. Sunday school teachers’ Q and As and most of our education fall into this category, as may sermons or less-formal conversations about the meaning of a scripture passage or the superiority of a certain political system.

6) Assault dialogue: The verbal equivalent of a fist fight or a beating.

7) Spiritual conversation: Prayer, meditation, our conversation with our creator however we experience that. Great music may actually qualify as a spiritual conversation, as might the sweat lodge and sweet grass ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper and the hymn before a potluck.

8) Casual conversation: Dialogue meant primarily to mask the awkwardness of prolonged silence in a group. We ask questions even though we’re not much interested in the answers.

9) Recreational conversation: Meant primarily to entertain, it’s the exchange, for instance, between a stand-up comic and her audience, the storyteller and his listener, the joke teller and the knee-slappers.

10) Sleight of hand conversation: Talk designed to manipulate others into taking actions advantageous to the instigator of the dialogue. Sales people and fraudsters excel in this. Propaganda.

Reunions don’t allow for much prolonged or “deep” conversation, assuming, of course, that some dialogue is “deeper” than others. I think we have an intuition, though, about whether or not a conversation we’ve just had was significant or not. Many of our conversations in the short time we had together may not have been “deep,” but they felt extremely significant, given that we all shared a starting point in lives that once stretched out before us with unlimited possibilities. As graduation added the “end parenthesis” to high school, our reunion seemed to put the close-quote on another phase.

I wonder what we’ll be talking about in ten years.

An aside comes to mind. Are we good conversationalists? Can we express ourselves precisely and fluently, and do we listen attentively and actively? I’ve heard complaints that this ability is not taught well and so isn’t learned, and that the art of skilled conversation is disappearing. That would be a tragedy, I think, if it’s true. But that’s a topic for another day.

And if we talked about that, at what plane would we be conversing?



Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Shack - a commentary

Young, William Paul. The Shack

Rauser, Randal. Finding God in “The Shack”

A lengthy and well-constructed critique of William P. Young’s, The Shack on the Boundless Webzine ends as follows:

“That The Shack is a dangerous book should be obvious from this review. The book's subversive undertones seek to dismantle many aspects of the faith and these are subsequently replaced with doctrine that is just plain wrong. Error abounds. I urge you, the reader, to exercise care in reading and distributing this book. The Shack may be an engaging read but it is one that contains far too much error. Read it only with the utmost care and concern, critically evaluating the book against the unchanging standard of Scripture. Caveat lector!”(The Shack, A Review by Tim Challies,

Although the book has been around for a few years by now, I didn’t take time to pick it up at the library until just now. The Shack is published as a novel, but Challies says that Young wrote it primarily for his children, and one can only assume from the reading of it that it was his intention to leave them with an alternative view of matters (like the nature of God, the problem of evil and the meaning of the fall and redemption), alternatives to standard orthodoxy, that is. The result of Young’s efforts would not, of course, have raised such close attention by people like Challies if it hadn’t become an international best seller.

People I’ve talked to who have read it seem to fall into two camps--some didn’t like it at all and considered it poor literature, and others raved about it as a ground-breaking and insightful way to think about God, a way that rings true, somehow. It seems the reviewers and critics diverge just as dramatically.

(I’d recommend to anyone reading The Shack that they also read Randal Rauser’s book, Finding God in the Shack. I’d also recommend listening to an interview with author William P. Young at the following web address:

There appear to be a number of issues raised by The Shack that mainstream pastors find disturbing. One is its portrayal of the Trinity, itself a doctrinal conundrum since the birth of the church. Criticisms of The Shack use words like heresy to blast Young’s Trinity: An African-American woman who morphs into a pigtailed male figure is God; A Middle-Eastern man is Jesus and an East Indian woman is the Holy Spirit. Some have found this representation of the three-in-one to be blasphemous. I found it a valid literary attempt to grasp the concept of one God with three aspects.

Another controversial issue surrounding The Shack involves the nature of revelation and the authority of the scriptures. The Godhead in Young’s tale is theologically liberal; He/she dismisses the notion of eternal punishment and says that sin is punishment enough, and that he/she is not interested in retribution, but rather, is passionate about redemption. Various quotations also imply that Christ’s death has saved everyone, that there are numerous roads to God and (by his complete absence from the novel) there is no devil as we have come to know him. There’s too much apparent divergence from scriptures to allow this book to be palatable to orthodox (small “o”) Christianity. Various creedal statements of various branches of the Church have made it clear that the Holy Bible is the only trustworthy revelation of God, of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Experiential revelation is a scary thing to contemplate if one holds such a creed as sacrosanct and non-negotiable.

A third difficulty with The Shack, for critics, is in its handling of the law/grace tension. God explains the purpose of the law in a unique manner to Mack, the central character: the Ten Commandments were given to show us how corrupted we had become. In other words, it is patently impossible to keep the law in any case, but its presence won’t allow us to forget that outside of God’s grace, we are doomed. For those who wanted the Ten Commandments to be permanently displayed at the entrance to the US Supreme Court, this interpretation might be hard to take.

The Shack, although also written loosely in a novel form, is as obviously a tract as is the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. As a novel, it is less than memorable; the plot is as contrived as Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, most chapters consist of tedious question and answer sessions and you don’t have to be too far into the book to know exactly where the plot is headed. The dialogue itself is often stilted and the characters representing the Trinity often behave and speak as if they were in a feel-good, Walt Disney movie of the Sixties.

Nevertheless, there is a mighty message in the book, one that should not be dismissed because the book has weaknesses. God is Love, and Love is God. The road to genuine peace and wholeness cannot skirt this truth, and it is most likely for this reason that the gospels emphasize that no one comes to God except through Christ. The central character, Mack, has sunk into The Great Sadness as a result of the murder of his daughter. The road back to wholeness for him forms the backbone of the novel. Predictable, maybe. But simply raising the possibility of a new and better understanding of what forgiveness and love can provide for us in this world is well worth the undertaking.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

the Seed Saver is coming

This summer's play at the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern will strike a chord with many. It responds to the question, "What's on your plate?" as well as to the concerns regarding genetic modification of food plants and the subsequent patenting of seeds. It gives all of this a human face, however, as a family and a community find themselves catapulted into a new world not of their making.

For more information, see the playwright's website at or the Station Arts Centre website at

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How can I keep from singing . . .

How can I keep from singing

I woke up this morning with the chorus of an old gospel song running through my head. It’s most likely a manifestation of a form of obsessive/compulsive neurosis that it has kept playing like a stuck needle through my mind for hours now. Ever happen to you?

Some might say it’s a message from God . . . or some other competing deity out there. They might say that there are no "coincidences," that every act, thought, word, etc. has a precursor.

Here’s the chorus: "Are you washed in the blood, in the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb? Are your garments spotless, are they white as snow? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?"

I once brought up the questionable theology expressed in the lyrics of a song we were rehearsing as a choir. Someone said, "I hardly notice the words; for me it’s the music, the cadence, the harmony, the dynamics," or words to that effect. I write; I notice the words, the sentences, the punctuation. It’s my curse, I guess.

The Hebrew people would sacrifice animals as an offering to God, lambs included. If I recall correctly, they would slit its throat and collect the blood in a bowl for ceremonial, "kosher" disposal. It’s a gruesome image, but probably no more so than the slaughter of animals for food. We sacrifice animals to ourselves, drain the blood down the sewer.

In Christian theology—and hymnody—the death of Christ on the cross is compared metaphorically to the animal sacrifice in that its effect is the relief of the burden of guilt and makes a soul once again acceptable in God’s eyes. For this, the innocent lamb must die as a sacrifice. The scapegoat . . . or scapelamb.

To wash oneself in the blood of the lamb, however, is probably a case of extending the metaphor well beyond what was ever intended and, indeed, into the area of the macabre. There’s nothing to like about this hymn except the cadence, the harmony, the dynamics of the tune. It’s catchy. It won’t leave my head.

It’s probably impossible to measure how many innocents die daily as sacrifices for the sins of others. Soldiers conscripted into battle, victims of "collateral damage," children killed by drunk drivers, etc., etc., ad infinitum.

I expect that the writer of this hymn got it all wrong. The meaning of Christ’s death is far better understood in the light of the collateral damage of human greed, selfishness and inhumanity than in the metaphor of the lamb slain on the altar of propitiation.

I’m waiting for a better song today. Maybe it will be that wonderful Robert Lowery tune. "My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation. I catch the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation."

An hour later: Agnes and I went biking for half an hour and running through my head now is the following: "No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I'm clinging. Since love is Lord of heav'n and earth, how can I keep from singing. It worked.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Devil and Miss Prym - Paulo Coelho

The Station Arts Centre

Paul Coelho’s “Novel of Temptation,” The Devil and Miss Prym, is an alternative way of looking at the functioning of the human brain (alternative, that is, to my previous commentary on the Charlie Rose series on Detroit Public Television—thanks, GF for providing me with the name of the moderator of that series on brain function). Coelho’s characters have the devil on their left shoulders, an angel of light on their right. The temptation coming from their left shoulders, in this case, is to sacrifice (read murder) an apparently useless member of the village in exchange for unheard-of wealth. Unapologetically contrived, this plot nevertheless constitutes a parable worth reading about the wrestling match between the demons of fear, aggression and self-preservation with the angels of social decency.

A wealthy arms dealer concocts an experiment to prove to himself that humans are basically and intractably evil. He’s come to this conclusion as a result of the kidnapping and murder of his family in an aborted attempt to extract money from him. His bet is that if he offers ten bars of gold to a certain staid and steady village—if they will murder one of their members—they will conclude that the sacrifice will be worth it. Oh, they will rationalize it somehow—even so far as to say that since Jesus was sacrificed for the benefit of the many, the sacrifice of the old widow (who may be a witch, in fact) follows that precedent!

Temptation and human fallibility are, of course, ubiquitous themes in the body of our literature, from Genesis to Macbeth to Faust to Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many. Coelho employs that ancient metaphor where temptation is personified as“the devil,” virtually another god competing shoulder to shoulder with the good God. The panel on Charlie Rose on PBS would likely describe temptation as the urge to ignore civilization-imposed limits on genetically or environmentally transmitted impulses (like sexual lust, or greed).

Some of Coelho’s “sidebars” end up being meatier than his story, actually. Here’s one that I read a few times, probably with a quizzical look on my face. “Playing the part of a charitable soul was only for those who were afraid of taking a stand in life. It is always easier to have faith in your own goodness than to confront others and fight for your rights . . . and it’s only at night . . . that we can silently grieve over our own cowardice (p. 44) .” Coelho raises the possibility that piety arises from fear, not from strength. Not a new argument, actually.

This theme is repeated frequently. Historically, Coelho’s fictional village was inhabited by bandits and murderers and it was only cleaned up after a huge gibbet was constructed in the town square for all to contemplate on a daily basis. At one point, “the devil” says, “There is no such thing as Good: virtue is simply one of the many faces of terror . . . (p. 84).

When goodness is boiled down to the basics—reverence for creation and abiding consideration for those around us—the ancient tension between God and Satan and the more current biological explanations are generally pulling us in the same direction. I, for one, would like to see us carry less of the baggage of good-evil-sin-guilt in favour of more of the light that science has been shedding on the human condition. Biologists, geneticists, after all, are working at the same task as the prophets, namely, understanding what God has made.