Sunday, January 30, 2011

Isaiah, Dragon's Den, Functional Literacy

Angel Glacier's tears

I watched an episode of Dragon’s Den on TV the other day and the concept appalled me. A group of wealthy entrepreneurs sit on a platform and hear pitches by ordinary people who believe they have an idea for an enterprise that these pharaohs of finance will want to invest in. It appears that the primary draw for viewers is the crude humiliation of the appellants. But that’s not uncommon in what qualifies as entertainment these days.
               One woman had a program that she predicted would boost reading skills in children by a number of grade levels in a short time. They shot her down, partly because they didn’t believe that her statistic of 70% of Canadians being functionally illiterate was true and that she was therefore presenting a false premise yada, yada, yada. She left there a shattered person.
               Literacy is not easily defined, and depending on how you finally choose to describe “functional literacy,” the 70% doesn’t seem improbable to me. If you were to judge functional literacy by people’s ability to make sense of James Joyce’s Ulysses or Stephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time, I doubt that even 10% of the population would pass the test. The key, I guess, is what is meant by functional. Most people can function in this world, even function effectively with a literacy level that allows them to read the newspaper, bus schedules, pill bottles and grocery lists. But it’s impossible to function in a PhD program if literacy is limited to a day-to-day “functional literacy.”
               This morning, my job is to bring as much meaning as possible to the last of the four servant songs in Isaiah. As far as the prophets go, I feel I’m functionally illiterate, at least marginally functionally illiterate. I can’t claim to understand fully what is being said by Isaiah’s: For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth. Former things shall no more be remembered nor shall they be called to mind (Isaiah 65:17). Was this to be read literally or figuratively? Is this a prediction or a prototype? Was it a description of the recent past using a foretelling convention? Was it written for the far distant future or very specifically for the Judean faithful in Babylonian exile? If I were functionally literate, one would suppose I would know the answers to these questions, or else, how could I qualify—let alone function—as a teacher?
               I guess we are all “in development” as regards literacy. The world is full of interpretations of every piece of writing that can be found, everything from the astute to the bizarre. Isaiah is no exception. I lean toward Ivan D.Friesen in his interpretation of the servant songs: they present prototypes, not predictions. (At least, if I understand him, which is a whole ‘nother conundrum) They are not to be read fatalistically, but educationally. They teach the mind of God and the way the world works—good instruction for anyone with the level of literacy to read them with understanding. A stumbling block for those of us who can’t . . . yet.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Martyrs Mirror

the drowning of three Anabaptists in a barrel

I’m working this morning on a book review for the Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan. The book is entitled Tongue Screws and Testimonies: poems, stories and essays inspired by the Martyrs Mirror. It’s edited by Kirsten Eve Beachy and published by Herald Press. The lengthy title tells you what it’s about.
               For those of you who don’t already know, Martyrs Mirror is a massive volume detailing the martyrdom of Christians throughout the ages but emphasizing the torture and execution of Anabaptists in the 16 Century. Written by Dutch Anabaptist (Doopsgezinde) T.J. van Braght in 1659, we’re told that it was intended to awaken the convictions of Braght’s fellow Anabaptists who were becoming comfortable and complacent in Holland in their affluent 17 Century Dutch environment.
               The copy on my desk this morning is a German translation of Braght’s voluminous work published in 1849 in Philadelphia. There are many translations and reprintings available: Amazon, for instance, has plenty to choose from in English. My edition, unfortunately, doesn’t include the pencil illustrations of Jan Luiken (1649-1712) one of which I’ve included above. Generations of Mennonites have had the book in their houses, no doubt for purposes similar to van Braght’s, namely, to illustrate to each generation the bloody legacy through which their spiritual ancestors were required to pass in order to keep “true faith” alive in a hostile world.
               Most of us, I think, skipped the bloody stories. After reading a few, they seemed repetitious and, well, way too many. The illustrations were another thing; the drawings of Jan Luiken were fascinating in their gruesomeness. They were, and still are, overlooked art.
               There’s a great website at with all the drawings and their cut lines. I admit I’ve spent much of my time clicking on items like, burning of the Waldensians and, Torture of the teacher, Ursula. I’m still drawn to the depiction of the macabre in human behaviour. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
               If you want to know what I think about the ethics of voluntary martyrdom in support of faith, forget it. At least until I’ve finished with Tongue Screws and Testimonies. So far, I give it 1 ½ thumbs up. It, too, is available on line.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pay attention

Station Arts Centre at Night - photo by Rod Andrews

I’m teaching a Bible class this morning based on Isaiah 48. The chapter is addressed to the Children of Israel during the period of Cyrus the Great’s defeat of the Babylonian Empire and his subsequent release of the Jewish captives to return to Judah.

Speaking for God, Isaiah says something like: If only you’d paid attention to my instructions earlier when you were still in Judah. You would now be rich as if a river of good fortune had rolled over the land. Your success would have been as unstoppable as the waves on a stormy sea. The population of Judah would rival that of any kingdom on earth; you would be rejoicing in the multitudes of children and grandchildren surrounding you. The well-being of your nation would have been secured for all time. If only you’d listened to me!

Bob MacDonald, science consultant to the CBC’s The National, explained how La Ninya caused the massive rainfall that’s been flooding Brisbane. When asked if there were other factors in the tragedy, he replied that the human factor was significant. Brisbane, like New Orleans, is built on a delta, the low-lying deposits of a river as it exits into the sea. A swamp in other words. Humans like to be near the water. As a result, Brisbane inhabits a flood plain of sorts that is very obviously vulnerable to such disasters.

We might think of some of the river valleys in Canada where people have chosen to live too near the water or in low-lying areas vulnerable to similar flooding.

If only the builders of Brisbane, New Orleans had paid attention to the lay of the land.

Paying attention, though, is seemingly not enough. Acting communally on what we know and have heard is quite another problem. Climate change is going to alter substantially the quality of life on much of the globe. We know this, and yet our leadership (the current government) encourages us to clap our hands over our ears and pretend that it’s all business as usual.

Someday we’ll look back and say, “If only we’d paid attention earlier when we were still in Judah.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

Snow on Snow on Snow

January 10, 2011 - accumulated frozen water vapour
Because of the particular “shape” of the water molecule, water vapour forms a six-pointed crystalline structure called a “snowflake” when it freezes. In cold climates, water vapour aloft forms snowflakes that fall to earth, blanketing the ground for months in the winter. Since snowflakes are light and don’t cling together in cold temperatures, even a slight wind will pick them up and carry them for miles until they reach some sheltered spot where they settle in “drifts.” As the weather warms in spring, these drifts and the snow blanket gradually melt leaving ponds and rivulets of water.

That’s all there is to know about snow.

But wait. If that’s all there is to it, why does it awaken in me such strong, distinct instincts and feelings?

Driving home from church yesterday morning, the threads and wisps of snow drifting across the road awoke in me a spiritual memory. Part déjà vu, it recalled to mind a moment of looking through the back window of the horse-drawn caboose when I was very young, on this very same road, watching the drifting snow begin to fill in again the rude tracks the horses’ hooves and sled runners had made.

Silently drifting snow evokes a pensiveness, a nostalgia for things beyond the ability to describe as if of days lived before one was born, before  fathers and mothers were born, before recorded time itself. Snow and wind together have always been, will be after the last traces of life on earth have been eroded into nothingness and the earth sinks again into the quiet of the universe. Snow is drifting today over the graves of my parents, my grandparents, my daughter, my brother. Sooner or later, it will drift silently over mine.

I confess a kinship with the inchworm—“measuring the marigolds.” But something is lost when we assume that size, colour are all there is to know about marigolds, or clouds, or music, or art . . . or snow. If it were, then there would be no art, no music, no reason even to walk out into the world.

There would only be data.

The drifting snow has awakened in me a peace that defies explanation. I long to sit on a hill in the Grasslands National Park out of sight of all human activity . . .
. . . and watch the snow drift.