Monday, February 25, 2013

Creation or Evolution?

Oh Rock, tell me how old you are!

The basic choice set up by the meeting I attended last night was: Creation or Evolution. In a discussion with some of the other attendees in the church foyer after, I suggested that it should have been called “young-earth vs. ancient-world,” with which the bulk of the presenter’s points dealt.

               Let me say at the outset that I personally interpret much of the Old Testament and considerable parts of the New as being best understood (and in many cases intended to be understood) as allegory, parable or metaphor, illustrative of the human condition as understood at the time of writing. And so, watching for 1 ½ hours the painful shoe-horning of the history of the universe into 6,000 years by a representative of Creation Ministries Canada found me to be one of numerous skeptics in the room.

               The thesis is this: if the Genesis account of creation is not understood as a factual history, then the rest of the Bible with its primary sequence (creation, the fall, Christ and redemption, eternal bliss or exile) falls apart because it all hinges on the entire human race inheriting Adam’s sin (Eve was not mentioned). Without that, there is no need for Christ and the gospels become redundant.

               A secondary thesis presented (among others) was that the loss of youth to the church is caused primarily by their inability to navigate the conundrum presented by apparent conflicts between higher education and their childhood faith and to counter this, we need to give them clear guidelines to reinforce that evolution/ancient-worlds interpretation of history is just one view and that the historical/ Biblical is a different and just-as-valid interpretation.

               The event was housed in a Mennonite Church, hosted by a member of that church and, quite unfortunately, did not offer any disclaimer so that an audience member could easily have deduced that the congregation endorsed the views presented. This was not the case; the congregation is as diverse on this issue as is the rest of the Christian world and the venue was granted for use to the organizers as an expression of grace, not as an endorsement, or so I was led to believe.

Another unfortunate part of the package was a 15-minute sales pitch from the pulpit for magazines, books and videos supporting the young-earth argument. I maintain that being approached with a Bible in one hand and a merchandise catalogue in the other is reasonable occasion for skepticism.

A third cause for puzzlement was the structure of the question period: 20 or so questions were posted on a screen and the audience had only to call out a number to solicit an answer. One question was, “Who was Cain’s wife?” (Number 14?), and the answer, “Simple! Cain married his sister, which was OK because there were no genetic mutations yet, so marrying a relative was no cause for concern.” I had questions, but they weren’t necessarily those on the screen.

There will always be conflicting interpretations of what is read, let alone what is heard and seen. That’s the way humans are. The useful question is probably not, “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” it’s probably “What is instructive and edifying and what is not.” It’s my feeling that Creation Ministries Canada and other causes that proof-text their ways through scriptures have often allowed themselves to be diverted down paths that neither edify nor instruct. Had the principals (in Creation Ministries Canada) been educated in the literary arts and the history and workings of language through the ages, this particular diversion need never have existed to muddy the theological water in a time when the commitment to be Christ’s  influence for peace, joy and justice in the 21st Century is in such great demand.  

As for ordinary folk in the pews who feel torn this way and that by such questions and the voices of conviction on both sides, take heart that Christ’s wish for you is not that you should be ripped apart by what you can and cannot convince yourself to believe, but by trusting the message of the one who came to set us free, not  bind us with better chains. 
Commit to the two condensations of the law given by Christ, namely to Love the Lord your God as much as you are able and to love your neighbour as you long to be loved.

A less controversial path to the essence of the Gospel..

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Chardonnay in February

Fruit of the Vine

Yesterday was judgment day. Did you miss it?
Chapter One: After dinner, I watched Jian Ghomeshi’s panel kick the last-but-one book off the island in the final Canada Reads event on CBC. The long-awaited judgment? Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan is not as good a Canadian read as is February, by Lisa Moore. But both are better Canadian reads than David Bergen’s The Age of Hope, Jane Urquhart’s Away, or Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese.
Chapter Two: The Station Arts Centre held its Wine Tasting Fundraiser last night, an event at which locals who ferment kit and scratch wines enter their wares for judgment. The best kit wine was a Chardonnay; the best scratch wine a Mead.
So now I know what I ought to read and what I ought to drink with dinner. Or better yet, I could read February while sipping a glass of Mead, or Chardonnay perhaps. Quality on top of quality.
The wine judges used a point system to rank the many wines they were obliged to sniff, swirl and taste. The Chardonnay had the best all-round combination of colour, nose and palate, plus characteristics like clarity, balance and finish. It was all done very “objectively.” (Think about that for a moment; can taste, smell, ever be judged other than subjectively?)
Nowhere near as objective was the Canada Reads judgment. As the five-member panel debated the merits and demerits of the two finalists in the contest, I looked for criteria that are normally associated with quality in the novel art form: plot development, diction, setting, verisimilitude, character development, etc. Couldn’t find them. Had this panel been judging visual art, I expect that the debate would have come down to whether or not the moose in painting A looks better (and/or more Canadian) than the muskrat in B.
Mind you, I’m as vulnerable as the general population to misjudging what I see on TV, assuming too easily that what’s portrayed there is a “window on the real world.” As my friend once said, “You’ve got to remember that they’re not making education (or sports, or reliable information, etc.), THEY’RE MAKING TELEVISION!” The corollary being that TV is primarily a medium for marketplace advertising, the programming chosen and styled to keep the audience captive through the appeals-to-consume.
(I guess there’s no such thing as “reality TV”—as if pointing a camera at people doesn’t alter the event that’s being watched. What we know as “reality TV” should be called “shows that appeal to people’s voyeuristic inclinations and are cheaply produced.”)
Canada Reads with its tedious, drawn-out voting, its false suspense and its choosing-by-elimination has clearly adopted techniques of Survivor, American Idol, and the rest of “reality TV.”
I find that disappointing, somehow.
It’s possible that Canada Reads encourages reading, but I doubt it, at least if volume is the criterion. The country divides rather neatly into people who read novels and people who don’t. The people who do are more likely to read February than they would have otherwise, so Lois Moore must be ecstatic about this turn of events. The people who don’t read novels likely turned to the hockey game before Ghomeshi’s welcome.
As to the wine, we who were there knew full well that the event was not staged to help us recognize quality in wines, it was meant to raise money for arts programming in the Rosthern area.
Maybe that’s sour grapes talking (pardon the pun); my Chilean Merlot didn’t win! Not even an honourable mention.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

We are never old to ourselves.

Some Eigenheimers ca. 1902

At Blackstrap Lake
“There has never been a person in an old people’s home that hasn’t looked around dubiously at the other inhabitants. They are the old ones, they are the club that no one wants to join. But we are never old to ourselves. That is because at close of day the ship we sail in is the soul, not the body.” (Barry, Sebastian: The Secret Scripture, p. 177)
I frequently mark passages in books I’m reading—if they’re my books—or I write page numbers and paragraph numbers on a slip of paper if I’m reading a borrowed book. The passage above struck me as pungent enough for marking; I have three siblings in nursing homes so I’m frequently among people who belong to “the club that no one wants to join,” to quote Barry.
It’s true, you know. The ship we sail in is a soul ship, not a body ship. Failing to understand how that works is at the core of our misunderstanding of the people who have had no choice but to join the club that no one wants to belong to. As do many of you, I have occasionally contemplated the meaning of my own possible future membership . . . not without considerable trepidation. Will people assume that my mind and soul have deteriorated along with my creaking body, or will there be people that realize that in my soul, I’m no older than I was when I was capable of running a mile, cooking a big dinner or chairing a board meeting?
I don’t mean that we remain up-to-date, hip if you will. Our souls may have been formed in an earlier time and the learning may not always have kept up with progress around us. But that doesn’t mean that club members lose their feeling of being people becoming, of being actors on the stage of life. The soul ship is always new, its sails always bright and trim, its decks always freshly varnished and clean.
Is this true? Is the discarding of the old then a crime against young souls? I’m not sure. I’m not sure because I don’t know what a soul actually is other than our consciousness and there are too many in the club I visit regularly whose consciousness is being usurped by the same processes that are ravaging their bodies. Dementia, we call it, the inability to capture the horses of memory that break out of their stalls and dance like banshees through our thoughts. Now here, now there, untamed and chaotic.
But then, even the very confused may still be “young,” may still be sailing in a soul ship whose course is recognizable only to them.
I just don’t know.
But this I do know. As I walk through the institution which is now home to one fourth of my family, I can feel the longing in the short conversations with residents. “Please don’t put me in the club, talk to the young person inside me. Sit beside me and we will talk like we did in the olden days. I am still here in this tired body.”
Two observations occur: Talk to the young person inside the old body and as you yourself age, don’t let the world shunt you into that club to which no one wants to belong. Nurture your young person, in other words, and never retire. Start something new instead.  
We are never old to ourselves.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

A Royal Pain in the Assets

My "snug property"

Abandoned assets - you can't take it with you
I’m puzzling this weekend over the meaning of property, ownership and the oft-repeated Biblical declaration that, “. . . the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”

On the one extreme, we have George Bernard Shaw’s “property is organized theft,” and on the other, Maria Edgeworth’s “Some people talk of morality and some of religion, but give me a little snug property!” And then we have the Biblical Levite Joseph (aka Barnabas) who in the early stages of the Christian church is reported in Acts to have “. . . owned an estate which he sold; brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet,”

(To the latter, some cynics and property rights advocates would undoubtedly add, “. . . and went out and applied for social assistance and food stamps.”)

In Economics 101, I was taught that an asset is “anything tangible or intangible that is capable of being owned or controlled to produce value,” a very capitalist definition indeed but pretty much right on in today’s Western economies (and more and more so in China, et al). By this definition, a brain or a strong back are assets, as is an education, as are tools, your home (which could be sold for value in the form of cash which could buy tools or an education, etc.), your savings, your connections (which could land you a better position that generates more value) . . . you get the drift. And in our culture, you have legal title to dispose of, keep or exchange your assets . . . property rights, in other words.

One could argue that exchanging one’s brain or one’s strong back for something else looks pretty impossible, but think about the dock worker who ruins his back in exchange for a living wage and the scientist who labours in the interests of a corporation and property rights can be clearly extended to all kinds of assets over which we hold dominion.

Slavery is a theft of assets; Joseph aka Barnabas’ case was a donation of personal assets to a cause, the persecuted Christian church in his case.

I admit, like Maria Edgeworth I am in love with my “snug property,” my small stash of tools, my electronics, my house and its contents, my paltry savings. Steal any of it and you might feel the wrath of the courts descending upon your head. “It’s MINE, you usurper! Give it back, and speedily!”

It’s not surprising that “talk of morality and religion” normally take second place to property rights, particularly in stress times: property is the measure of a person’s worth, the hedge against poverty and the safe haven in a dark, uncaring world (sorry; sometimes a bit of exaggeration goes a long way!)

So keep your hands off my stuff!

In response to the adage, “You can’t take it with you,” Jack Benny is reported to have said, “Well, then I ain’t going.” He went anyway (December 26, 1974) and by all reports, without his wealth.

I’m moderating a discussion in adult Sunday School this morning on “Giving to the Church.” Wish me luck, or pray for the class if that’s your way of supporting good causes. We’ll be defying the tenets implicit in Economics 101, let alone the entire capitalist club of nations!

Or not.