Archive for the ‘religion and spirituality’ Category


I’m on CBC’s Tapestry: Sunday, January 9, 2011

January 8, 2011

A long time and no posts.

I’ve had the pleasure of covering some interesting stories the last few months, but with other obligations and commitments, I haven’t been keeping up the blogging habit. Tsk.

I hope to return to my semi-regular posts here. And there’s no better occasion than to announce that an audio essay I began writing in the summer during an internship at CBC Tapestry will air on Sunday (2:05 ET; 4:05 MT; 3:05 PT). I recorded it in late summer, and it’s finally airing. Here’s the clip in its entirety. For those who want to hear the entire episode, it’s available as a podcast (about 40 minutes into the episode).

The essay is about being a Bible school graduate.

Back in 1998, I was a depressed 2nd year University of Calgary student with an intense dislike of my choice of study: biological sciences. Having grown up going to church and not really understanding the religious underpinnings of Christianity, I decided to launch myself headlong into the world of faith. In my young thinking, I thought if faith was going to be part of my life, it would be everything in my life.

I wanted to take God as seriously as God deserved. I decided to go (felt led to go) to Moody Bible Institute, an evangelical Bible school in downtown Chicago.

It was a choice I feel some ambivalence about at this point in my life. But it was fulfilling in many ways as well, and opened up an intellectual faith that I knew nothing about. Going to Bible school is not something I usually talk about, and with the prodding of Mary Hynes (who facetiously said, “But you’re so normal!”), I decided to explore the statement: I’m a Bible school graduate.


Clark Pinnock (1937-2010)

August 18, 2010

Long before my days as a journalist, I was a student of theology. In retrospect, it was partly due to growing up in an evangelical Baptist home, and partly because of my need to understand how thinking works. It’s often intuitive and often counter-intuitive.

Theology — talk about God — is a demanding intellectual discipline, requiring philosophical acumen, interpretive rigour, historical precision, and an insatiable curiosity to probe some of the greatest minds in history. It is also an exciting set of questions: Who is God? What is the meaning of meaning? How do you think faithfully?

Theology is also a discipline that teaches about patterns of thought. Your future shapes your present. Your understanding of God affects your humanity. Your place in the world determines your way of interpreting that world. Salvation is inseparable from your actions, and vice versa (for it all). It’s all interconnected, a web and a matrix. Theology gives you a sense of the beauty of thought, and how the questions you ask have been asked before and will be asked again.

In those days, I cast about for intellectual role models who were faithful to the tradition that I loved and that shaped me, yet who exemplified curiosity and a willingness to change.

Clark Pinnock died from a heart attack on Sunday. He was probably the most important theologian to hail from Canada since Bernard Lonergan. Pinnock was an intellectual pilgrim. Raised a liberal, he became an evangelical. Becoming a Calvinist, he morphed into an Arminian. He was a truly open soul, entering into dialogue with all kinds of thought and all kinds of people. His name was also anathema in many places.

I never actually met Pinnock, but his books were lovely. Flame of Love, Pinnock’s theology of the Holy Spirit, is prayerful and heartfelt. Tracking the Maze, Pinnock’s exploration of the future of modern theology, was irenic and balanced. And The Openness of God pushed boundaries.

Close friends of mine at Regent College took his summer school class in 2002 and spoke of his kindness, as well as his distracting habit of making some sort of clicking noise while deep in thought. Sadly, that was just before the final chapter of his life, marked by the long, dark descent into Alzheimer’s.

Requiescat In Pace



The Sexual Abuse Crisis: Deliver us from Evil and Doubt

July 20, 2010

It’s one of the most difficult religion stories of the past three decades.

And it’s far from over. How could it be?

Glen's Pics (Flickr Creative Commons)

Over the past decade, the Catholic church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals around the world. And for virtually every sin of commission (an abuse victim coming forward), there seems to have been multiple sins of omission (allegations that offenses went unpunished by bishops, archbishops, etc).

The sins of omission are possibly more damning than the crimes themselves. It’s one thing to have sexual abuse within the Church – should we ever be surprised that abuse is coupled with spiritual power? – but it’s another to simply shuffle an admitted child molester to another parish and a new set of victims. Former Los Angeles Times religion reporter Bill Lobdell says that the Church’s attempts at obfuscation led him to abandon his faith.

The New York Times recently published a 4,000-word feature attributing the sin of omission to Pope Benedict XVI. The piece has had some mixed responses. Some media watchers have labeled the coverage as a “tendentious hatchet job.” Mark Silk, on the other hand, is on the side of defending the piece as essentially accurate, if only in need of slight editorial revisions. But whether or not you think Pope Benedict is responsible for hiding the abuse (or think he’s finally exposing it), it’s clear that the scandal will be one of the dismal legacies of his papacy.

Last week, the Vatican announced revisions to canon law surrounding sexual abuse. For one, they doubled the statue of limitations for prosecuting abusive priests. A second change aimed at streamlining legal procedures for prosecution of sex abuse cases.

Critics are virtually unanimous in saying the revisions don’t go far enough. The Church has responded that it’s only a first step. The most glaring omission is that the Church is not requiring mandatory reporting of all allegations of abuse. Here’s the Edmonton Journal’s editorial response:

The Church’s response is particularly galling in light of everything we now know — from lawsuits, criminal trials and public inquiries — of its own role in keeping those allegations secret for so long.

For the Vatican to now appear to be doing anything less than everything possible to prevent future abuse is a betrayal of past victims. But it is also a betrayal of the millions of Catholics who have given their lives to the Church and trusted in its teachings to guide them along a moral path.

It’s hard to write anything other than something along those lines. This is a horrific story with clear perpetrators and clear victims. Steps taken in response to abuse need to be commensurate with the problem. More is needed.

I’ve decided to write a bit about two movies I’ve watched in recent months about sexual abuse in the Church. I highly recommend both films. Both attempt to deliver something more than just criminals and victims and graphic details. Both attempt to provide psychological insights into sexual abusers and the inability of an institution to recognize its fallibility. These are lessons that extend beyond the confines of the Catholic Church.

Deliver Us From Evil (2006): Amy Berg’s documentary offers a unique glimpse into the mind of an abusive priest, Oliver O’Grady.  Between the 1973 until the early 1990s, Fr. Ollie abused numerous children (at least 25) in a series of Northern Californian parishes. After one of the earliest instances of abuse in 1976, O’Grady wrote a letter of apology to the victim’s parents. The parents agreed not to press charges on the condition that O’Grady was to be removed, receive counseling, and not to work with children.

Instead of being removed from the priesthood, O’Grady was passed to another parish within two years, and eventually three other parishes by the time he was convicted on four counts of lewd and lascivious acts in 1993. After spending seven years in prison, he was shuffled back to his native Ireland, where he resided on a Church pension until this film was released. He has since been chased to new locations, most recently the Netherlands, where he was found calling himself “Brother Francis” and helping out at a local church.

Amazingly, O’Grady (or Father Ollie) agreed to be interviewed in the documentary. Father Ollie is a fascinating, even charismatic character (he describes himself as a “people person), eloquently expressing remorse and freely accepting blame (and any label handed him). With Irish whimsy, he delineates the circumstances around the abuse, describes his own moral dilemmas and twisted logic. He describes in detail his interactions with ecclesiastical hierarchy and how he was continually handed new opportunities to abuse. He admits that he should have been removed and more should have been done. He also hopes to make things right by writing a letter to each of his victims.

Deliver us from Evil is most effective when it counters Father Ollie’s testimony with that of his victims and their families. In contrast to the priest’s easy candor, feigned lapses in memory, and over-reliance on euphemisms, his victims are wounded, scarred, and angry. It’s clear Father Ollie is still the sick manipulator who devoted much of his priestly energies to grooming victims, and it’s clear he doesn’t really get what he did. His suggested solution, to meet his victims face-to-face and apologize (hoping not for a hug, but perhaps a handshake), is essentially akin to re-victimization.

Towards the end, however, the film gets sidetracked with heavy-handed moral outrage (the newscast seen at the beginning of this clip). Abuse victims pull a stunt at the Vatican. Crusaders for victims rights are given free reign to analyze the shortcomings of the Church. It’s a shame, really, because the message doesn’t really need reiteration or amplification. It’s damning enough on its own.

Doubt (2008): Not a documentary, but a play-turned feature. Doubt’s stellar cast includes Meryl Streep as a harsh, authoritarian nun, Amy Adams as a young, slightly naive nun, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a young, charismatic priest.

Adams stands in for the viewer, a new arrival at a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, trying to understand the internal politics of the place.

Give credit to Hoffman for a nearly flawless performance of a priest who is a gifted communicator, a modernizer, and yet falls under suspicion. Streep is brilliant as always, in her portrayal of a hurt human being who only allows herself to be the school’s no nonsense bad cop.

It’s hard to say much else about this film. It’s heartbreaking.


The Fantastic Karamazovi

April 11, 2010

Many people feel a deep, personal connection to a particular book.

Maybe it’s a memorable piece of children’s fiction which resonates throughout life. For others, it’s an Austen, Dickens, or a Bronte. It could even be a graphic novel or an Oprah book (she does pick good books).

My book is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I first plucked a wrinkly purple softcover version from a bookshelf in high school. The classic tale of patricide fascinated me with its complexity, offbeat humour, compelling, rich characters, and equal infusions of faith and unbelief.

Only recently did I decide to check out TBK on film. People say movies are never as good as books. It seems that would go double for a 700-page philosophical detective drama. And I’m obviously not the only one (picture at right based on a hilarious Onion article). But nevertheless, I proceeded.

Lo and behold, look up Karamazov on IMDB and you’ll find no less than 10 film versions of the Brothers (only three of which are in English). Two intrigued me: the Yul Brynner vehicle The Brothers Karamazov (1958), and Karamazovi aka “The Karamazovs” (2008), a recent Czech adaptation. The first is an overly long vehicle for featuring Brynner (as Dmitri) opposite a 27-year-old William Shatner (as Alyosha). Skip it.

But the second is an absolutely compelling piece of film.

It begins on a bus. A Czech theatre company (from the actual Dejvicke Theatre) is on its way to a Polish foundry to put on a production of The Brothers Karamazov. They’ve received a grant to bring art into industrial settings.

Upon arrival, the crew also learns a disturbing fact about the foundry: a small son of one of the workers recently fell off a platform and is in critical condition in the hospital. The worker is nervously hanging around as he awaits news of his son, a foil of the story of Ilyusha Snegiryov.

The bulk of the film is the theatre group’s rehearsal of TBK (the Evald Schorm adaptation) in front of a skeleton crew at the foundry. In this adaptation, the patricide is a fait accompli at the beginning and is followed by a series of austerely staged flashbacks starring the passionate Dmitri, the contemplative Alyosha, the cynical Ivan, and that obsequious, wily bastard, Smerdyakov.

Having staged the play for nearly a decade, the actors’ performances are flawless. The modern story amplifies the themes of the play. Why is that worker watching a play and not at the hospital with his family? The cast whispers offstage that the story is a construct of the director determined to get the most out of the cohort.Family photo: Dad's in black!

The Polish foundry setting lends the play a cold, desperate feeling. A picture of Karol Wojtyla – Polish pope John Paul II – substitutes for an Orthodox icon. Enormous industrial hooks tie the play to the present; the worker identifies them as hooks mentioned by Fyodor Karamazov as he mocks the faith of his son, Alyosha.

“These are the hooks,” he calmly tells the actor playing Ivan. “This is hell.”

It all makes for a deeply moving rendering.

In every era of my life, I’ve returned to The Brothers Karamazov and always found it rich and rewarding. When I first picked up the book, I was a novice in the big questions of life. Ivan’s Grand Inquisitor struck me with the haunting idea of freedom and the nature of religion, and Father Zossima offered a living, contemplative faith. To venture with Alyosha into the messy world seemed my calling as well.

Critics may deem the novel too long, convoluted, and replete with too many characters. Still it is undeniably a masterpiece. I own several copies and frequently evangelize on its behalf. I will now do so for the considerably shorter film as well.

Karamazovi is no substitute for The Brothers Karamazov, but it is a joyous discovery.


Lost and Proud of it

January 27, 2010

In a photo from the early 1990s, my sister is dressed as a stubbly-faced fleece-wearin’ man with her arm around Lost cast member Evangeline Lilly.

It’s quite the picture. I wish I had it to display here.

Long before she became pouty ne’er-do-well Kate Austen, Lilly was a teenage camper at Green Bay Bible Camp near Kelowna, BC. My sister spent a summer as a ne’er-do-well camp counsellor. On a costume-themed night, my sister went to great effort to make her 120 pound frame look remotely mannish. It didn’t hurt the appearance of faux-masculinity to have her arm around the petite, feminine Lilly.

Granted, it’s a tad tenuous for a connection, but it’s my Kevin-Baconesque tie to one of the most popular dramas of recent memory. After 8 months off the air, Lost is beginning again on February 2nd (NEXT TUESDAY!!).

For the last couple of months, I’ve been watching old episodes, making up for years of inattentiveness to television drama. At first it was casually viewing as I did chores or cooked supper. But as the show went down the hatch and through time, I progressively became hypnotized by the enigmatic clues the show routinely serves up.

Lost is eminently loyal to its fans, offering complex characters while confounding plot expectations. As I got into season 5, I began perusing the AV club’s lost page after each episode. With its hundreds of comments, it’s not for the faint of heart.  Since then, I’ve pored through the mobisodes, podcasts, and DHARMA orientation films. Yeah. Obsessed.

It got so bad I can appreciate this hilarious video from the Onion: Final Season Of ‘Lost’ Promises To Make Fans More Annoying Than Ever

Hopefully I’m marginally less annoying than the worst fans, but I have a theory why the island inspires such irritating levels of loyalty:

1. Our brains crave the challenge of mystery. Given a bunch of unconnected details (polar bears, mysterious numbers, and dreams of axe-wielding hippies), we’re naturally inclined to search for pattern and meaning. I have my own theories for the way things work (such as Ben Linus’s tantalizing claim of a box which contains whatever you want). But check the AV club comment boards or a few of the nearly 6,000 articles on the lostpedia wiki page, and you’ll know there’s theorizing aplenty. Usually, I’m just resigned to let it all wash over me and not sweat it.

2. Losties bring the devout together, religious or unaffiliated. And like the world of spirituality, I’m sure there are casual viewers out there. But nobody really notices them, do they? Aside from those who just drift away because they can’t make a lick of sense of it, there are recent converts and loyal followers. After five seasons, they are the chosen remnant: there’s something to be said for a shared experience of 12 million viewers in a fragmented media market.

3. Lost is full of iconic moments. I’ll never see backgammon, nosebleeds, or hieroglyphics the same way. From the opening dilating eye to the fade to black (or white!), Lost makes amazing use of curiosity, repetition (and variation). I, for one, love the craziness of DHARMA and Egyptology on the same show. Genre-defiance of the best possible type.

4. Lost raises all the questions of meaning in a non-parochial way. The Island itself is philosophically intriguing. Beyond the fact that half the people have recognizable names and nobody seems to be remotely hungry or malnourished, islanders are always asking key questions most of us are too damn sleepy to raise aloud: Am I in it alone or living together? Am I free or confounded by destiny? Am I a leader or a follower? Am I being lied to? No wonder the Oceanic 6 were lured back after returning to boring old everyday life.

So, in summary, isn’t life just a matter of piecing some pretty weird stuff together and trying your damnedest to live together and not die alone? Consider me among the losties, and try not to roll your eyes.


Getting the Blues: A Review

October 29, 2009

Stephen J. Nichols, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation (Brazos, 2008), $22.99 CDN. 192 pages.

Check out my review of Stephen Nichols’ Getting the Blues (Part 1Part 2), published last spring in Crux, Regent College’s quarterly journal. I had almost completely forgotten about the review, which explains why I’m putting it on the site a year after I wrote it. Picture 1

The review was actually in the can long before spring. I had pitched the idea to a receptive editor at a fairly large religion and culture website. When the economic downturn left him on the outside, there was nobody available to read my finished review (despite trying for months!!). Frustrated, I finally sent it to the good folks at Crux, who quickly gave it a home.

Publishers Weekly calls Getting the Blues “a splendid little book,” and I would have to agree. The blues, in all their variegated splendour, have a lot to teach us, and Nichols is an excellent guide to the genre. There are no prerequisites required. Nichols packs his little book with information, a veritable who’s who of the blues.

Like many evangelical academics, Nichols self-consciously reflects on evangelical identity in a pretty honest way, and says the blues has much to teach Wheaton and Colorado Springs.Picture 2

It’s one of the facets of the evangelical subculture that might surprise outside observers. Mark Noll might be right, there’s not much of an evangelical mind, but you can still find some pretty sharp ones if you care to look (for instance, at Noll himself). Nichols has written other books along these lines, including Jesus Made in America, a cultural history of American Jesuses.

For all of that, my review stops short of unqualified endorsement. Any book on the blues might do well to take stock of black theology, which has already tread upon these grounds a quarter century ago. Nichols stops short of really engaging with black theology, admittedly not an easy task. He also has a tendency to push the blues into a systematic theological frame, where it doesn’t quite fit.

But read this book for yourself.


News Seeking: Habitat for Honduras

October 26, 2009

Check out my new post at News Seeking. It’s basically part of a profile piece I wanted to write this summer, but never got the chance.

Dave Hubert’s an interesting guy. As I go on to say in the post:

“The former teacher and government employee has helped start many things: the Edmonton chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, the Edmonton recycle program, as well as a variety of education programs at Norquest and Portage colleges, where he spent several years as principal.”

A search through the Edmonton Journal archives revealed a few pieces on the latest thing he was up to through the years, as well as a series of letters to the editor regarding Canadian foreign policy.

Untitled-2You see, Dave likes to take on the belief that unblinking support for the Canadian military is a good thing. When I met with him, he had his latest letter ready to go. He was upset the Canadian army had promoted a former Col., Serge Labbé, to Brigadier General in 2009 (with retroactive pay). Labbé was found exercising poor and inappropriate leadership in the Somalia affair in 1993, where Canadian soldiers tortured and beat a Somali teen to death. While Labbé was not deemed personally responsible, he was excoriated for failing to uphold the rules of engagement.

Hubert’s open letter says the promotion is an attempt to rewrite history, without addressing the causes of the Somali incident:

“The large number of complaints of enlisted personnel indicates that the social pathology that characterized the military at the time of the Somalia debacle persists. Instead of trying to learn from their mistakes and the pathologies that the Somalia Inquiry would have identified had it been permitted to conclude its investigation, the generals stonewalled the Inquiry at every turn. They never learned anything and they never forgot anything. And so the social pathologies persist and the number of complaints of the brave enlisted men and women in uniform multiply.”

Understandably, the archival search for “Dave Hubert” also revealed a series of retorts by Edmontonians perturbed by his unpatriotic words.

But whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to fault Hubert. His incredible humanitarian achievements are matched by a gentle demeanor and an eagerness to live out his faith with integrity and passion.