We do not tell stories as they are; we tell stories as we are… We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.
I don’t know the original source of this quote, but I came across it in Irish poet/theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama’s In the Shelter a few weeks ago and I’ve been chewing on it ever since. On the face of it, these words could be taken as expressing little more than the tired refrain of postmodernism. We don’t have access to anything like “objective truth,” only to ourselves and our own inner states. The stories we tell are little more than the laborious outworkings of our own biographies. There cannot and could never be a genuinely true story, only stories that are true for me, true for you, true for whoever. Which is of course another way of saying that there are no true stories. Read more
I am usually quite suspicious of oft-repeated expression, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Actually, “suspicious” might be putting it rather mildly. I have something bordering on a pathological loathing of this phrase. It’s possible that I have even visibly shuddered in disgust in the various contexts where this expression makes its predictable appearance. I usually encounter it in people who either refuse to consider church in the first place or who have left it behind for the usual assemblage of real or imagined grievances. Or people who can’t be bothered to think very hard about what they might believe or why but like the idea of seeming a bit deeper than they in fact are. Or people who imagine that they have grasped the deeper truth that all religions are inadequately and intolerantly pointing toward. Or people who like yoga. Or people who think that all religions are neat and cool and inspiring except for when they say things that don’t confirm what they already think. Or when they infringe upon personal liberties and preferences… or sleep habits… or weekend plans or… well, when they infringe upon anything, really. “I’m spiritual but not religious” very often seems to me to be among the more vacuous statements that a human could utter.
Oh dear. I did say that “suspicious” was putting it mildly, didn’t I? Read more
In 2009, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered her famous TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story” which discussed the problematic nature of reducing human beings and cultures to a single narrative. She talked about negotiating her own African identity in cultural contexts that often only countenanced a single narrative of what it meant to be “African.” For so many, Africans were poor and they were victims (of corruption or famine or war or some other combination of circumstances). This was just what it meant to be African. There was no room for anything else in the story. No room for an African who wasn’t poor or a victim or in need of Western aid. No room for her. Read more
This morning I was half-listening to CBC radio interview with a Colorado journalist who was suing a local politician for describing a piece he had written as “fake news.” At least that’s what I think he was doing. As I said, I was only half-listening. But there was a lot of discussion about truth and power and the stifling of dissent and questions like how do we even know what’s real or true or reliable anymore when people like Donald Trump can just pole-vault over traditional media sources (which are, of course, all corrupt and biased against him) and present his own version of the story via Twitter bursts which are then gratefully seized upon by his adoring followers? Poor truth doesn’t stand much of a chance in conditions like these. Read more
The shooting at a Quebec City mosque that killed six people has been on many of our minds over the last few days. There has been the predictable outpouring of support and outrage on social media. There have been vigils and prayers and marches organized in response. There have been expressions of love and care for our Muslim neighbours taking place far away from the bleating headlines. All in all, it’s a narrative that our world is growing regrettably familiar with in light of all the religious and ethnically fuelled violence that has unfolded over the last few years. Read more
When her father died she had immediately stopped going to church. If prayer could not even keep your family alive, she did not see what good it was. But after she and Hank moved to Houston, she had started going again. You were marked if you didn’t. She did not really think about whether she believed, though in the past decade her faith had come back, and they said that was all that mattered. Being old, you had no real choice—salvation or eternal nothingness—and it was no wonder who you saw in church, it was not young people with hangovers and their entire lives ahead of them.
— Philip Meyer, The Son
The last sentence of the quote above confirms what many observe and comment upon when it comes to church demographics these days. Churches are full of old people. Old people who still come either because they have been so thoroughly socialized into church attendance that they can’t imagine not showing up, or who are at a stage in their lives where they have nothing left to do but cling to the consolations of religion. Like all stereotypes, it is crude and rigid and doesn’t even remotely tell the whole story, but I suspect that there are few among us who wouldn’t at least nod in recognition of these sentiments and the general trends that animate them. Read more
A bit of controversy around the celebrated author Joseph Boyden has been dominating headlines up here in Canada over the last little while. Boyden, whose books include Through Black Spruce, Three Day Road, and the Orenda, has become something of an indigenous celebrity in recent years. His novels draw from indigenous history (The Orenda, for example, was based on the interactions between the Iroquois and the French Jesuits in the seventeenth century). He has also been an enthusiastic advocate for indigenous self-determination, even serving last year as a honourary witness at the closing event of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Read more
I was texting last night with a friend who is currently in Chile on business. I asked him what he was doing today and he said, “Driving from Santiago to Temuco. It’s about a four-hour drive. We’re going to stop and visit some farms along the way…” I thought about the picture he had posted on Facebook last night from his hotel—about how warm and green and exotic it looked. I thought about my own prospects of waking up to the bone-chilling cold of January and tackling the inevitable (and Sisyphean) Tuesday morning task of chipping away at my inbox. “Sounds fun,” I told my friend. “Think of me while you’re meandering through the Chilean countryside and I’m responding to forty emails… Read more
There’s this fascinating conversation in Jesse Ball’s novel The Curfew. The scene is an undefined dystopic future, as so many seem to be, where a faceless government has assumed dictatorial control over an unnamed city. The people live in constant fear and anxiety, never going out after dark, always being careful not to cause any sort of ripple that might be noticed by the powers that be, living lives of weary resignation, whispering along the edges of shadows that never disappear. William lives with his young daughter Molly and makes his living as an “epitaphorist,” which entails visiting people whose loved ones have died or been killed, consulting with them about the words they want to adorn the gravestones of the deceased. Read more
Attention is the mind’s desire.
This five words leaped off the screen when I read Joseph Clair’s fine essay “Our Own Devices” over at First Things this morning. The whole piece seemed like a living, breathing personal indictment, truth be told. But those five words, they thrust a question that I often do my best to avoid right to the front of my consciousness: what does the object and quality of the attention that I pay say about the nature of my desire? Read more
So, words like “truthiness” and “post-truth” are rudely and forcibly inserting themselves into our collective consciousness and public discourse. The former, according to an article today in Macleans, refers to people’s “preference for concepts they wish were true over ones that actually are true” (sometimes referred to in distant bygone ages as “illusions” or “lies”); the latter points to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals.” Neither addition to the Oxford dictionary flatters us much as a species. Is it possible to repent for making such additions necessary? Read more
So, the world is today waking up bleary-eyed and incredulous to a Donald Trump presidency. Most of the people in my social media orbit are stunned, shocked, angry, grieving, horrified, anxious, fearful, and whole host of other grim adjectives. I can’t recall encountering this volume of doom and gloom before breakfast in quite some time. The once-laughable prospect of someone as reckless, crude, ignorant, arrogant, childish, and spiteful as Donald Trump ever occupying the White House has now become a reality. Read more
I have been known, on exceedingly rare occasions, to exasperate my children (and my wife… and, um, other people…) with my insistence that language be used with as much precision and accuracy as possible. Many a pleasant mealtime has been rudely interrupted by a certain irritating someone insisting that a word was being used incorrectly. An unwelcome rupture in the proceedings, if ever there was one, and invariably followed by withering glares and the measured rolling of eyes. Still, I bravely soldier on. We all have our crosses to bear. Read more
Midway through last week, someone encouraged me to periodically attempt something like modern “retellings” of Jesus’ parables during my sermons. In other words, rather than drily “explaining” the stories Jesus told, just try to tell the story in a new way. So, I gave it a shot yesterday. These stories are based on Luke 18:9-14, the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. What follows is, it should be noted, a work of fiction, even if it is obviously informed by various stories and experiences I’ve encountered along the way. Read more
“So, what do you Canadians think of our election campaign?” The question was accompanied by a wry, knowing smile from an earnest young man as we were finishing dinner at a restaurant along the shores of the Susquehanna River during a recent trip to Pennsylvania. As it happened, it was October 7, the very date that the recording of Trump’s lewd comments about women were setting the Internet on fire. And Americans, it seemed, could talk of little else. Read more
The most boring question you can ask of any religion is whether it is true.
So says Alain de Botton, philosopher, writer, and founder of an organization called “The School of Life,” a kind of church for atheists. de Botton started the school out of a conviction that religions have a few useful traditions, rituals, and practices that are worth borrowing and adapting in the ongoing project of becoming kind and fulfilled and generally decent human beings. The truth of the matter doesn’t really matter. What does matter is whether there might be some useful things to salvage from these historical traditions as we continue the steady march of secular progress. Read more
There was a headline yesterday, the day after the big US presidential debate, that made me despair of being a human being in the twenty-first century. I guess to be precise, it was a tagline underneath a headline, but it was no less depressing for being in a smaller font. The tagline wasn’t found on some trashy tabloid website where you would expect to find a predictable parade of click-baiting garbage. No, this was a national mainstream media article. The offending sentence read thus:
Find Out Who Lied About What and Why Read more
Canadians are, apparently, shaving an average of six years off of our lives due to our poor habits and lifestyle choices. According to a recent study, “alcohol, cigarettes, lack of exercise and poor nutrition… contribute to half the deaths in Canada and take six years off our lives.” Six years. That’s kind of sobering. Apparently, largely sedentary lifestyles supplemented with generous doses of fast food, booze and tobacco isn’t in our collective best interest and puts no small amount of strain upon an already over-burdened national healthcare system. Go figure. Thank goodness for long-term studies like this one to deliver these remarkable insights to us! Read more