Sunday, July 22, 2012

What about Shylock? What about Daniel?

Opening the Book of Daniel
Shylock the money-lender
We used to debate whether or not Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, given his creation of the grasping moneylender, Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice
    There were those who felt the portrayal (not to mention the name) of “Nigger Jim” in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn made it inappropriate material for high school study. 
    There’s hardly any doubt that both Shylock and Nigger Jim are stereotypes common to the the time in which they were written, although a case could be made that the writers are making use of caricatures of those stereotypes satirically.
    Concern by educators about how these books should be taught—if at all—shouldn’t come as a surprise given the current climate on the subject of racial profiling.
    It certainly raises questions about the skills required for the appropriate reading and interpreting of texts “out of their time” without—as it were—throwing the baby out with the bathwater. (I really hate it when I have to resort to cliché.) It requires a judgment regarding the writer’s stature in his or her time, his or her intentions, the sophistication of the audience (both Shakespeare’s and Twain’s target audiences and the audience that might be a present-day high school class, for instance).
    I’ve written enough fiction to know that my audience will have some readers in it who will assume that if my character says something controversial, I must hold the same opinion. I wrote it, after all. There are also readers on whom irony, metaphor, and other figurative speech are bound to be misread primarily because their experience with such language is not broad.
    All of which takes me to this concern: how do we appropriately read and interpret one of the most read and revered texts of all time, namely the Holy Bible? More importantly, how do we agree on a way to read it with integrity, a way that might bring about debate, but not quarreling? 

    A man sat down beside me at coffee a few days ago and knowing I had just been in Vancouver at the national church assembly of the Mennonite Church began to quiz me rather forcefully about what had been decided “about the gays and lesbians.”
    “It never came up,” I said, half-truthfully. “We decided on a plan to deal with how we ought to interpret the Bible before making any far-reaching pronouncements on such a controversial subject,” I went on.
    He gave me his interpretation of what the Bible had to say, including reference to all the usual proof texts and numerous mentions of Sodom and Gomorrah. “How’re you gonna get around that?” he asked, as if I were the chief organizer of the Toronto Gay Pride Parade.
    I concluded with a bit of a scolding I tend to use in such situations. “Perhaps we should read the Bible as it applies to us personally . . . and avoid applying it to everyone else.”
    We parted amicably; he thanked me for listening to him.
    It seems unlikely to me that we’ll easily get Christians with a variety of backgrounds, experiences and worldviews to learn to read the Bible differently from the way they have heretofore, any more than we’ll get consensus on whether or not Shakespeare’s creation of Shylock means this or that.
    Meanwhile, Christians generally could benefit from a thorough reading and discussion of N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. But then, that too is a book written in a certain context with a certain style and I can already hear the cries of “Yes, but that’s not what he’s saying!” or “I can’t make any sense out of that!”
    And to what audience is Wright writing? A chapter sub-heading like “A Diminishing Focus on the Narrative Character and Israel-Dimension of Scripture” gives a clue; what percentage of the people in the pews can process that language with confidence?
    In Shylock’s famous “If you prick us [Jews], do we not bleed?” speech, he also says:

If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction (III,i).*

So is Shakespeare an anti-Semite? I don’t know for sure what his private thoughts were, but can’t think of a more enjoyable afternoon than one spent with you interpreting Shylock’s speech! 
    I'm far from ready to tackle the Book of Daniel with confidence though. 

*Roughly paraphrased: If a Jew does harm to a Christian, what will the Christian do to regain his pride? Well, take revenge, of course. And if a Christian does harm to a Jew, what should he do to gain back his self respect? Well, take revenge, naturally. The evil of revenge that you Christians taught me I will practice on you, and although it won't be easy, you'll see that I'll do what you taught me better than you showed me.

Friday, July 20, 2012

When we all get together . . .

Khortitza Mennonite Church ca. 1895

When we all get together - MC Canada Assembly 2012

It was 6:00 pm. We'd just concluded a lengthy session of debate on three resolutions, a process elongated by a move to change some wording and considerable back and forth before the proposed change was rejected. It was probably a good suggestion but clearly, the 250 or so delegates in the room had had enough talk on the matter. Subject fatigue had set in. It happens.
    I fled to my room, practically trampling a number of good friends with whom I should have taken the opportunity for a greeting at least, if not conversation. I turned on the TV to a Hamilton/Toronto football game, a contest in whose outcome I had no interest whatsoever, put my feet up and promptly fell asleep. After three days of meetings, conference-floor interaction, taking minutes, listening to material I already had in my head, I was suffering from acute verbiage fatigue. I found myself nodding like a bobble head, not so much in agreement as in the faint hope that it would hasten speakers' inclinations to stop talking.
    I woke up late for the evening worship, but fortunately, it began late. I realized as I sat down in the auditorium that I should probably have had a meal before coming. Prayers were said (one involving the batting about of balloons; the purpose eluded me), a worship band led us in songs I'd never heard before with no notes to guide where on the scale we were to sing and inspirational Bible passages and other words were spoken. I wasn't “into it,” apparently and I realized that—is this really possible—I might be suffering from worship fatigue. Can there be too much lofty dialogue, too much invoking of the Spirit, too much robust praise singing for the human mind to endure?
    More people came in—behinder than I was apparently. Seats filled up around me. The world was closing in—my exits were cut off. I began to feel claustrophobic and as the moderator of the service worked valiantly to set a worship mood, I contemplated ways to escape gracefully. None presented themselves. By now a tingling, near-numbness was beginning to assert itself in my gluteus maximus. I was definitely suffering from chair fatigue.
    Next morning, a fellow delegate and I met in the hallway. I asked her, “So how's it been for you?” and she gave back the standard "It's been OK, but very busy" answer.
     “I'm ready to go home,” I said.
    “Oh, so am I!” she said. “So am I!”
    I know that if we're going to bring a lot of people together at great expense in order to be democratic and even-handed, the effort to cram in as much input as time will allow in hopes of harvesting a vast amount of product seems logical. What we may not consider adequately is that it's not  just time that is limited, it's also energy. When we ask people to take on a task, the relevant question should not be j
ust, “Do you have time for this?”
    Our energies sometimes run out long before the clock ticks down.
    Conference fatigue: a phenomenon that is the sum of chair fatigue, worship fatigue, verbiage fatigue, subject fatigue and—possibly—face fatigue (we seem always to be SO MANY!). It probably affects us to different degrees, but I suspect we're all prone to it.

But on the other hand . . .
    Mennonite Church Canada brings together up to 450 people to its national assemblies, many of whom know each other personally and all of whom share a common faith and vision. Well, let me qualify that last statement: although we range from a traditional to a post modern worldview, though some are what could be called “agnostic Christians,” others clearly Biblicists and many of us somewhere between, we feel with considerable certainty that we are swimming in the same pool. We call this the Holy Spirit, a common warming at the fire ignited by Jesus Christ so long ago. A spirit that unites despite differences.
    It's most evident in the singing; the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel may have to re-shingle,. Song after song extolling the majesty of the universe and the God who made it. And it's evident in its themes, in the eloquence of our great speakers throwing life-giving light on the assembly: Tom Yoder Neufeld, Gerald Gerbrandt, Sheila Klassen-Wiebe.
    A disinterested observer would probably draw attention, though, to our similarity to a corporation. We have a board and commissions that carry out the business of the conference and we are obliged to hold “shareholder” meetings so the actions of the boards and commissions can be vetted. Debates and decisions are regulated by a relaxed version of Robert's Rules of Order. What's not similar is the brevity of the business meeting, the preponderance of social activity, communal worship and sermons. This afternoon at our post-assembly board meeting, a staff member noted the glaring difference between the two “states of being,” the communal worship and the business, and we all knew what he meant; someone said, “we're still so European.” It was an interesting observation considering that much of the worship was led by congregations of the Asian Mennonite churches in Vancouver and we'd been welcomed to Vancouver by a representative of the First Nations of the Vancouver area. 

    The signs that we're shedding some of our Germanic anal retentiveness, though, are promising.
    Conferences require travel; we finished our last afternoon meeting early so I was in the Vancouver Airport fully five hours before my flight to Saskatoon. At about the time we were scheduled to board, they told us that the flight would be delayed for three hours and issued us dinner vouchers for $10.00.
    Unfortunately, I had eaten and paid for a big dinner three hours earlier. 

    Agnes would have to meet me in Saskatoon at 3:00 am; I phoned her with this unwelcome news.
    I'm a nervous air passenger in the first place and the excessive turbulence of the flight had me declaring “never again,” . . . again.
    This is a personal reflection and shouldn't be assumed to be the general experience of people who attend assemblies and conferences; I know people who can't get enough of travel, debate, visiting and taking notes on lofty subjects. It boils down—in the end—to how intentional communities survive in a changing world. Video conferencing and similar technologies may end up being cheaper and less intrusive in terms of cost and time spent, but I doubt that there will ever be a satisfactory substitute for the handshake, the embrace, the singing together in harmony, the absorbed listening to subject, nuance, body language, tone that makes up a great sermon, and can only be appreciated by those physically present.
    So be it. The fatigue, the travel, the inconvenience will all pass.
    Bring on another conference!
    But not before a really substantial break, please.




Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sunset at Little Manitou

Manitou Beach, Saskatchewan
IT was once a glacier-melt spillway, they say, abandoned when in the aeons of time-before-man, the ice melted back to its Arctic home where it belongs. Now it's a sausage-shaped lake about ten kilometres long and half a kilometre across between rolling, grassy, banks.

Centuries of waters seeping through the Saskatchewan soils, picking up magnesium, sodium and potassium salts and with no outflow have created a brine five times saltier than the oceans and half as salty as the Dead Sea; lie on your back in the waters of Little Manitou Lake and you'll marvel at your cork-like ability to defy gravity. Make the mistake of splashing its waters into your eyes and you might wish you'd stayed in your beach chair. 

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

And one thing the Creator gave to the Aboriginal people who valued these waters is the legendary healing quality often associated with the great spas of the world. I remember watching a man at a mineral spring in Aachen in the late eighties; dressed for business, he nevertheless washed face and hands under the fountain built there for that purpose, drew a cup from inside his suit, filled it several times and drank the contents. Faith in the curative powers of mineral waters is evident in various cultures, it appears, and should not be dismissed lightly no matter how absurd it might seem to insist that water on the skin could affect one's inner organs.

Manitou is the English-spelling-version of an Amerindian word for the "Good Spirit," the Creator. The name for this lake therefore suggests a spiritual more than a physical healing, although legend has it that some were cured from Smallpox in its waters.

Skeptics might well invoke the "I'll believe it when I see it" aphorism . . . (or its antithesis: "I'll see it when I believe it.") Soul-health is fundamental to all-around health, though, and for some, a certain place  may provide the avenue toward soul-healing, especially if its unusual nature arrests and turns routine, counter-productive thought patterns onto new and better roads. "Rebirth" comes to mind.

Is Little Manitou Lake one with Lourdes, Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem—a place for rebirth, for renewal of spirit? Is it a place that heals only if you believe in it? Is Little Manitou Lake drug or placebo?

We were in a cabin with sticking old windows and sloping floors on the shore of Little Manitou Lake on Tuesday. After a violent storm, the electricity was off more than on for the night and the next day. Apparently even Manitou's country is not immune to the darker fits of nature; slashing rain and hail, lightning and thunder, wind and threats of tornadoes. It gave me some time to sit back and read the brochures and ponder again the meaning of healing.

I cut my thumb recently but it healed. I can no longer tell which thumb it was (even though I have only two) because it's been restored to the state of health it enjoyed before. The biology of cell reproduction as the great healer of physical wounds is pretty well understood by us, although we still have a long way to go in encouraging our bodies to restore themselves from Heart Disease, certain Cancers, Huntington's Chorea or Lou Gehrig's Disease, for instance.

These days, I need to go to the East Wing in a nursing home if I wish to visit my sister. It's the dementia wing and everything about it says that there is no restoration to health expected here.

My sister is a most positive person, most open to joy in my family, maybe in the entire nursing home, maybe even in the world. When we moved her from her previous rooms, she watched from the doorway as we discarded or saved, bagged and boxed, left or carted off the many items she'd accumulated over the years. I asked her if she was OK with what we were doing. "I think I'll go sit outside," she replied. "The less I see, the less I need."

There was certainly healing there, if not of the physically-restorative kind . . . not to mention a pretty substantial sermon thrown in for free. Healing in the midst of separation and apprehension.

We spent a total of 2 hours in two sessions in the healing waters of the spa fed by Little Manitou Lake. We floated, thrashed, joked and floated some more. I felt pretty good and slept really well that night.

Perhaps salt waters do heal . . . somewhat. Or perhaps all waters do.

If you let them.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

. . . Can't get level

. . . the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil

I’ve been reading The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett lately. Recommended to me by a reader (Thanks Dave S), the title caught my attention immediately. I’ll review the book at in a few days.
    At the centre of Wilkinson’s and Pickett’s thesis is that it’s not poverty that breeds crime and addictions and school-dropoutism and all the other illnesses we’ve come to associate with slums, reserves and other places where incomes are low, but that the real culprit is inequality. I can hear you jumping to the question: “But inequality in what? Wealth? Education? Gender?” Wait for the review, but for now, let’s say it boils down to money. Let’s say the primary method by which our North American society is herded into strata is the possession of means, and that from that stratification all kinds of ills arise.
    This would, after all, be Biblical:   For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. (I Timothy 6: 10). (An aside: from the King James Version to the New English Version “the root of all evil,” turned into “a root of all kinds of evil.” I leave this significant difference to text scholars to elucidate.
    Think about the income inequality question at a more local level for a minute, let’s say the town of Glad in rural Maniskatchewan. The town has an upper-middle class group of astute business and respectable professional families who have done very well, earned a living over the years with enough surplus to build large houses, own several vehicles, spend winters in warmer climates, and in general, live securely and comfortably . . . plus. 

   But it’s also a place which some sociologists call “a Canora situation:” the modest housing abandoned by the wealthier citizens has been bought up by real estate entrepreneurs who rent them, primarily to social services who place their charges in them because they are all that’s available. Many of them happen to be young, unwed mothers, indigent families and individuals from nearby First Nations, seniors and poorly-educated younger persons from marginal farming areas north of town, etc.
    Glad has become a test case for the effects of income inequality, with a huge gap between the woman in the fur coat who doesn’t even check prices in the grocery store and the unwed mother who is down to Kraft Dinners for her children this week. They may well be courteous to each other as they pass in the grocery store, and the unwed mother may have benefitted on occasion from the can of soup the lady in the fur coat drops routinely into the food bank basket at the front door of the Groceteria.
    But it’s not these two women I’m concerned about. It’s their children and their grandchildren. What happens in school for instance, when children in cheap and worn clothing, poorly fed, unable to afford sports equipment, are placed adjacent to those with IPhones, mountain bikes, designer jeans, etc.? Well, we know what happens. Stratification. A caste system. The children of the parents that run the town, run the playground. Status is conferred. Status is denied.
   And with it, dignity is conferred and denied. And those who are denied dignity and status drop out; the system, after all, clearly doesn’t belong to them. They will find their status in another “playground” and the children of the elites in Glad will cross this other “playground” at their peril.
   The USA and Singapore are by far the most “income-unequal” countries in the world according to the sociological markers Pickett and Wilkinson are using. Japan comes close to being the most egalitarian in this regard. The homicide rate in the USA is 62 per million population annually; in Japan, the corresponding number is 3. Canada rests at 17. Now there’s obviously more than inequality involved here, but there’s no disputing that inequality contributes mightily to social illness when looked at statistically.
   What’s most alarming is that the gaps are growing. No, actually, that comes second. The most alarming is that we don’t have politicians smart enough to understand which is cause here and which is effect. How thick do you have to be to meet the problem of social illness by building more jails!
   There is no substitute for the fair distribution of resources that the earth provides for its citizens. There are groups and individuals, of course, who work at plucking individuals from the morass of illness that predominates in the underprivileged classes and settling them on a higher, safer plane. Applaud them for attempting to help in the only way they know how, but urge them to know that their efforts don’t deal with the cause of the illness itself, and may in fact be perpetuating it.
   I finish with a gem from Fay Wattleton quoted in The Spirit Level: “Just saying ‘No’ prevents teenage pregnancy [in the same way] as ‘Have a nice day’ cures chronic depression.” (p.119)