Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Longing to Move Stars

One who doesn't read has no advantage over the one who can't
A long-time friend, AR-F, confided the other day that a series of articles he wrote for our church bi-monthly elicited very little reader response. I admitted that this blog doesn’t produce a landslide of reaction either, although enough to make of it a gratifying avocation, if not a reasonable vocation.
               I’m reminded of a passage in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary 

. . . since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars. 

               That, probably, sums up the core reality for anyone who picks up a pen to write anything for public consumption: it includes a longing to move the stars along with the disappointment that all one has really accomplished is setting in motion the feet of a few dancing bears, and that briefly. How many preachers have delivered sermon after sermon without experiencing reaction or response, let alone genuine dialogue? How many newspaper columnists have ground their teeth in frustration, realizing that only their missteps will be noted—responded to?

               In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville—author of Moby Dick—lamented the writer’s frustration by blaming it all on the ignorance of the public: 

. . . for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.[i] 

Has anyone ever understood “the meaning of [Jove’s] great allegory—the world?” I wonder. The quote alerts us to Melville’s intention that his writing be recognized as illuminating allegory, and that’s been how Moby Dick has typically been reviewed and analyzed. His self-deprecation may be typical of artists of every stripe (“we pygmies;” “our paper allegories”): part low self-esteem; part, a fishing-for-compliments.
               That’s one side of the coin.
               On the other side lies the observation that great writing and great speeches have shaped history from time to time. Once in a while, writers hit some sweet spot that resonates, and what they have written or said, painted or sung ‘goes viral’, as they say in this digital age. Will Shakespeare, Rembrandt van Rijn, Caruso, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain, Karl Marx, St. John, The Beatles, Pete Seeger, all artists who managed to hit the sweet spot; you could name a hundred others, no doubt.
The pen may well be mightier than the sword, but knowing where to point it—and when, and how—remains the elusive goal. There will most certainly always be a thousand misses for every hit.
Not long ago, we staged a great concert at the Station Arts Centre . . . and drew all of thirty people. We planned another concert of Mozart’s life and music and cancelled after only fourteen tickets had sold. More misses than hits. A musician in the former group said that there are now so many bands clambering for stage time that it’s hard to draw an audience and I think he’s right; we constantly get phone calls from artists and performers looking for a venue, longing to be heard, and writers wanting us to sell their books.
So what does it all mean?
The argument that it’s all been said a thousand times before in a thousand different ways may be relevant here. But as a final explanation, that would deny that every age, every generation needs fresh poets and artists to illuminate its world, if simply in response to cultural and material evolution. In the 21st Century, unfortunately, the shifts are so sweeping and broad that anyone aspiring to be an artist is scrambling to find the relevant voice. This scramble is not pretty; there’s enough bad art, bad music and bad writing out there to discourage even the most liberal tastes. Maybe the 22nd Century will have to pick from our plethora what actually qualifies as art.
It doesn’t help that most of the artists, writers, musicians currently at work were trained in the middle to late 19th Century and are scratching their heads over life outside their windows. I’m told we’re witnessing the birth of a “post-modern” age; an age that sees the universe more subjectively following a long period of clinging to the virtues of objectivity. Included in this change of perspective is the rejection of many modernist and pre-modernist categories: male vs. female, hetero vs. homo, black vs. white, planning vs. spontaneity, etc., etc. Can our aging artists convert, or does one have to be born into an age to be a genuine part of it? That’s the burning question. I favour the former but suspect the latter.
The futility in trying to save the silverware when the ship is sinking.
So what if writers, artists and musicians can’t move the stars? At least they can take some satisfaction in the fact that their efforts have set a few dancing bears’ toes a-tapping.
30 at a concert may not be many, but it’s not zero either.
And AR-F, I read your columns and appreciated them; I’m sorry I didn’t say so at the time.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Long live the Democratic State of Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim

Parliament of Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim
Imagine this:
In southern Manitoba a portion of land bordered on the north by Highway #1, on the east by Highway # 12, on the west by Highways 240 & 31 and on the south by the US border is separated from the Province of Manitoba by UN declaration and declared a “Mennonite Homeland.” They are a people who have, after all, been hounded around the world – Netherlands, Poland, Ukraine, Bolivia, Mexico; they are a people who have been martyred for their faith, persecuted relentlessly by both mainline Catholic and Protestant rulers of the 16th and 17th Centuries. They deserve an ethnic homeland, don’t they? Their holy city, Winnipeg, will be shared because it is also a holy city to Grain Exchange stockholders, the ethnics of North Winnipeg, Ukrainians etc. North Kildonan will be the ethnic Mennonite allotment in the city and a corridor will be fenced off to the South Perimeter.
               Over time, Mennonites from Mexico, Uruguay, Saskatchewan and other faraway places begin trickling in to embrace the future of life with “their people,” and land becomes a factor and non-Mennonites “squatting” in this new country are irritants to the goal of homeland. They are bought out if possible, gangs of Mennonites less convinced of the efficacy of non-violence harass them until life becomes too dangerous and unpleasant for them and they leave. Their farms are handed over to the migrants and ethnic solidarity gradually builds.
               But it’s not enough. The country of Canada has always seen this ethnic cleansing as unreasonable and illegal, and launches an attack on the temporary capital of the new country— Steinbach—but the Canadian Army is easily defeated by thousands of men in overalls who know how to use pitchforks. They occupy the battleground—Sandilands Provincial Forest—and begin building settlements for Mennonites from Thompson, The Pas, Glenbush and Peace River who are partial to trees. This, of course, also requires harassing the people already living there until they leave and become refugees in North Dakota, which really doesn’t want them.
               Mennonites in Germany, Netherlands, the USA, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta continue to pour funds into this new country—Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim—in the interest of the existence and prosperity of an ethnic homeland where Low German is spoken and churches don’t have steeples. Security will, of course, always be an issue because Canada, Manitoba and the thousands of refugees who have been driven out will always continue to challenge the sovereignty of Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim, and exiles who abandoned farms that had been in the family for ten or more generations will continue to press for a right of return.
               A few days ago, the current Prime Minister of Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim, the Rt. Honourable Tchnalz Freezen met with President Obama, who urged him to stop building settlements in the Sandilands Provincial Forest and to return the area to Manitoba. Prime Minister Freezen scoffed and declared that “the reality on the ground” made that option unthinkable. President Obama also pointed out that the land the exiles had vacated had never been relinquished legally and that they should be given the right to return to live in Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim if they so desired. This proposal met with similar disdain and Freezen declared that no settlement with Manitoba would ever include the right of return. Freezen then reiterated that the Mennonites have a right to an ethnic homeland and that their existence is fragile because of the unreasonable hostility surrounding their borders and the occupation of the Sandilands Forest was vital to these interests.
               Many said Obama came out of the dialogue looking like an unreasonable idiot.
               Score one for Tchnalz. Long live the Mennonite Kingdom Democratic State of Nee-Mennogrebelmanzheim!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'm off to Sunday school

Valley Mennonite Church near Rosthern
It’s Sunday morning. So let’s think about Sunday school for a minute or two.

Here’s the short form: In many churches, there’s an hour before the worship service in which people are gathered into age-appropriate groups and a leader guides them through a theme focused on a Biblical passage or concept, a current issue from a moral/ethical standpoint or historical stories that reinforce the theology of the particular denomination in question. A simplified definition (and somewhat cynical, to boot) is that for children, it’s indoctrination time and for adults, it’s something to do while volunteers are busy with the children.

Sunday school arose as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and the concomitant rise of a way of thinking we call “modernism” for lack of a better word. Begun by a socially-conscious Anglican minister in England in the mid-18th Century, it was an attempt to provide some literacy education for children working in factories and mines on their only day off. Churches picked up the idea and it grew, particularly in North America.

Child labour legislation eventually cut the children free from the factory floor and to prevent their running wild, compulsory public education was invented. Instead of dropping Sunday school because the need had passed, churches saw in it an opportunity to teach the faith to their children and to proselytize neighbourhood children at the same time. Prizes, parades and picnics were introduced and American children trooped to Sunday school, even if their parents didn’t.

All of this was too much change for conservative branches of Mennonite churches, and both Sunday school and public day school were seen as modernistic, worldly encroachments on the faith while other, more liberal branches saw in these developments a golden opportunity for a better faith in a better world.

But time always overruns even good ideas, and like the Sunday bulletin, the Christmas concert, the mass, a style of baptism, innovations like Sunday school eventually fossilize and become routine.

There’s been a steady decline in church and Sunday school attendance since the 1960’s. The word post-modernism could be applied but it might not explain much. If you don’t attend Sunday school anymore—or never have—you can possibly provide us with some good reasons for the decline. For my part, it seems obvious that failure has been built in from the start. Where the rubber hits the road—in that little classroom off the gym, in some cases—a lay-teacher is passing on to children whatever she or he has gathered up in concepts, preconceptions, prejudices, priorities, etc. picked up who knows where, possibly through radio and TV religio-babble. The next year’s teacher may present an entirely different message, and so on, and so on.

It’s always been an institution built on a foundation of sand. All you had to have to become a mentor and teacher to children (and to adults, for that matter) was a pulse and a church membership. Far too little screening or training has ever been done to allow it to be taken seriously as school.

Educationally, the Sunday school has faltered. In its community-building function, it’s shown itself to be a poor pastiche of the public school system. As a proselytizing mechanism, its age has all but passed. What’s left?

The post-modern age we live in allows us independent thinking, and so I’m sceptical about agreement on what should replace it, what it’s focus should be and who should have the right and the responsibility to make it happen. Robert Raikes saw a social need and a church obligation to address that need, and so he started a Sunday school in 1780. Could something similar happen again? Could there be someone who would so succinctly name the relevant needs of 2011 and initiate a workable response that would address them?

Or would we independent-thinking, post-modernists bury that someone under reasons why it could never work, etc., etc., etc. Or would we squelch the attempt under a mountain of indifference?

I’m leading an adult Sunday school discussion this morning. The topic is Sunday school: past, present, future. No need to be there.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Slip slidin' Away

Mennonite Heritage Museum
I am currently board chair of the Mennonite Heritage Museum. Occupying the historic first-campus building of Rosthern Junior College, it houses donated artefacts, photos, books, etc. reminiscent of Mennonite settlement in the valley of the two Saskatchewan Rivers.
               Museums, auto restorers, antique collectors, nostalgia magazines—seem to me—are all working toward the same goal. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to describe it. Call it conservation, preservation, call it pickling-the-past-so-it-won’t-go-bad, if you like. You can probably describe it better than I can.
               At age 69, I’m the youngest member of the board. I’m reminded of the lyrics of Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away:
God only knows, God makes his plan
The information's unavailable to the mortal man
We're workin' our jobs, collect our pay
Believe we're gliding down the highway, when in fact we're slip sliding away.
And then, the haunting chorus:
Slip Slidin’ away. Slip Slidin’ away
The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.
I suppose it’s a natural consequence of living; unfortunately—as Simon says—the information’s unavailable to mortal man. This much we know: as we near our destinations, we become more “preservative” in our thinking, become more nostalgic about the myths of “good-old days,” become more burdened by the prospect that we and our lives will be unappreciated, forgotten. That what we have learned and found to be true will not be passed on to a next generation.
               So we create museums, write memoirs, collect artefacts.
               What we should have cultivated—along with the collecting of material objects as “preservative tools”—is the art of storytelling, of myth and legend building. There’s an enormous difference between looking at a Woodland Cree stone hammer lying under glass in a museum and a wrinkled elder holding it in his life-worn hands and telling its story to a rapt audience.
               Let me put it more bluntly: what are slip sliding away are not the collections of stone hammers, samovars and Roger’s Golden Syrup pails; they’ll be here long after we’re gone. What is urgent is the preservation of language itself:  

Hey! Hey! You! You!
I don’t like your girlfriend!
No way! No way!
I think you need a new one
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I could be your girlfriend
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I know that you like me
No way! No way!
I know it's not a secret
Hey! Hey! You! You!
I want to be your girlfriend

Contrasting Avril Lavigne’s I wanna be your girlfriend to Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin’ Away is by no means a fair fight. But consider this: if we lose the art of myth, legend, storytelling that bridges the past to the present and the future, will our language then be all and only about our personal appetites and desires expressed in monosyllabic utterances? Will we cease to contemplate matters beyond ourselves if we forget how conversation, storytelling and listening happen; if we no longer have the words to express much beyond hey, you, I don’t like your girlfriend?
               We are to blame in this. We’ve flooded the world with books, cartoons, games geared for pre-schoolers, then children, then adolescents, pre-teens, young adults, all appropriately scaled to “their level of understanding and interests.” What we’ve missed in this process is that our efforts have served to retard their language learning when we thought it would advance it. Watch “children’s television” for an hour or so if you don’t believe this. It’s the Sesame Street curse on the human race. We’re in danger of wiping metaphor, allegory, parable and poetic appreciation out of our cultures in just a few generations.
               And no collection of artefacts will ever make up for that unless accompanied by the storyteller who’s not afraid to turn off the TV and gather the children ‘round.
               Don’t worry if the last washboard is lost; worry that the story and the storyteller may be slip slidin’ away, gagged with the duct tape of mediocrity and material relevance.
               Have a happy day: tell your grandchild a story.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

A Post-election Harp

Don't jump; it's only four years!
I was right about one thing: “the economy” is issue enough to win an election. Harper harped and harped on “the economy” to the exclusion of other issues and it turned out to be the winning formula.
 What I was wrong about was pretty much everything else: I thought “contempt of parliament” was basic enough to our democracy to turn the tide. I thought the selective de-funding of agencies as a back-door policy-making strategy would strike more people as fraudulent. It didn’t. I thought the dictatorial management of Harper’s backbenchers would make enough of a difference in local politics to get some voters to say, “Now wait a minute; what about MY issues.” It created a barely-perceptible ripple. I supposed that a substantial block of anti-abortion, pro capital punishment Conservative supporters would revolt at Harper’s ineffectiveness in promoting rightist social issues. They didn’t.
All of which serves to convince me that the 60% majority that lost the election—practically speaking—has its work cut out for it.
 A functioning economy is a wonderful apparatus; it distributes needed goods to people, encourages entrepreneurship and innovation, rewards hard work and punishes slothfulness. But this isn’t the economy that Harper was talking about in the campaign; he was talking about “less government, lower taxes, highest possible growth” model, the very model that brought the USA to its knees and is keeping it there.  It’s the model the corporate world has convinced a lot of Canadians is somehow a basis for stability and wellbeing, when it is actually its opposite. Boom and bust economies—and I hesitate to even call them ‘economies’—are the mothers of unemployment, disappointment, short-term gain for long-term pain, massive profits for a few, the high-speed rape of natural resources . . . 60% of Canadians know the risks and cast their ballots against it. It wasn’t enough.
Harper won the propaganda battle.
But let’s not worry too much. Four years of Harperism will be plenty to disenchant even their base. Harper is presiding over a caucus divided—some of our Saskatchewan MPs for instance, are expecting this majority to produce socially-conservative reforms, which it won’t. Lower taxes means less revenue for health care, the military, you name it, and cutting will be required. Cuts alienate people, even the Conservative voters who bought into the myth that you can spill half the pail of Kool-Aid at the picnic and still have more for everybody will begin to feel disenchantment. Backbenchers will turn on their leader.
But I was wrong before and I could be wrong again. Maybe less government, more guns, lower taxes do pave the road to happiness. Maybe the corporate world will actually ensure that the benefits of less government do trickle down to the masses. Maybe you actually can put the toothpaste back into the tube.
We have four years to find out. For many people, it feels like the Babylonian exile has just begun, and so I would like to comfort them with the words of the prophet Jeremiah in 29: 4ff: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce, Marry wives and beget sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters and you may increase there and not dwindle away. Seek the welfare of any city to which I have carried you off, and pray to the Lord for it; on its welfare your welfare will depend.” Putting aside the diversion that women are spoken of as if they were brood mares, there may be good advice embedded here for the disappointed 60%.