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Posts from the ‘Culture’ Category

Conversion Therapy

No, not that kind of conversion therapy. Just to disappoint (or assuage) you at the outset. I have no desire to wade into the fraught and stormy waters of sexual identity and public policy on such a lovely summer morning. Also, just in case you were tempted to think too highly of me (an unlikely prospect, I grant), I have just ably demonstrated that I am not above the occasional click-baity headline. Sorry, again, to disappoint. Read more

On Burning and Rotting

One does not need to be an apologist for the Roman Catholic Church or for the Government of Canada or for the wretched legacy of Indian Residential schools to be alarmed at and deeply troubled by the spate of recent church burnings that have taken place across Canada. I probably should not need to begin a post with a sentence like that—i.e., it should be fairly unremarkable that a person could feel grief and anger toward historical injustices perpetrated by the church and simultaneously be convinced that burning houses of worship to the ground is wrong—but such are the times we live in. We are forever sorting one another into moral categories. It can be a risky thing to risk the wrath of the online mob by expressing the wrong moral sentiment. Or the right moral sentiment directed toward the wrong group. Or the right moral sentiment expressed with the wrong degree of certainty or outrage. Or… well, you’ve presumably been online in the last few years. You get the idea.

The Roman Catholic church is not a particularly popular or sympathetic institution, at present, for reasons that are well (and appropriately) documented. And the response to these burnings from politicians and other public officials has predictably been somewhat muted. There are condemnations, certainly, but often with a tinge of, “Well, yes, but you see it’s understandable given the history here…” If these were Canadian mosques or gurdwaras or Buddhist temples being reduced to ash, one suspects the public narrative would be rather different (it would not be difficult to find historical injustices associated with these institutions and symbols either, even if these do not have the same emotional, geographic, or social proximity as those connected to the churches that are burning). But our history in this nation, for good and for ill, has been profoundly influenced and shaped by the church. This is where we live.

The act of burning carries with it a lot of symbolic freight. It can be a symbol for the white-hot rage that many indigenous people (again, appropriately) feel toward all that they have endured at the hands of the church. “Burn it to the ground” could simply be an attempt to destroy and consign to oblivion. There may be the idea of something like self-immolation at work—offering oneself or one’s institutions up as a sacrifice to atone for sin (this article conveys such sentiments). It can also take on purificatory connotations. The idea of fire as a tool of refining and burning away impurities is found throughout Scripture (e.g., Zech 13:9). In this case, the church itself represents an impurity, a stain on our more morally evolved cultural moment. It must be purged and refined according to present sensibilities if it is to remain.

I suspect that some combination of what’s described in the preceding paragraph is at work in how we as a nation are viewing these church burnings. They’re wrong, yes, but… We have little fondness for the church or the ugly parts of its history. We lament the aesthetic loss, perhaps, but the thought of those children… and all that abuse of wealth and power… and all that naked racism and cultural imperialism. Many Canadians wouldn’t say “Burn it to the ground” publicly (unless they work for the BC Civil Liberties Association, perhaps), but privately we’re more or less ok with editing this chapter out of Canada’s past. Good riddance. Etc.

Speaking of editing the past. I read an article this morning where I encountered a term that was new to me: link rot. In a world where so much information is migrating online and where there is so little regulation, apparently plenty gets lost along the way. Or modified. Or “updated” to reflect current moral sensibilities. Or deleted. Link rot describes the phenomenon of hyperlinks no longer working or pointing to the same external content that they once did. A link to an article that you posted in 2017, for example may or may not still work in 2021. One study found that “50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked.” That’s some significant slippage.

Even here on my own little blog, I’ve linked to a lot of content over fourteen years. I did a quick check on a few posts that I wrote over a decade ago. Sure enough, over half of the links in those posts no longer work. Who knows, the links in this very article might not work by the time you read it! I could simply remove the rotten links, but a) that would be tedious and cumbersome work; and b) it would make the post that cited them somewhat confusing. A lot of what I write here references specific content and context. If that content and context is lost or inaccessible? Well, then I guess readers just have to trust me.

I remember in the early years of blogging, I realized that along with the obvious power I had to change past posts whenever I wanted, I could also edit other people’s comments. Say they had made a point that was inconvenient for my argument, or they quoted something I had said that was inaccurate or wrong or reflected poorly on me in some way, or I was just generally finding them an irritating conversation partner. Well, I could just change or delete any comment that didn’t flatter me or my story. As it happens, I think that this is deceitful and immoral. I couldn’t live with myself if I was forever editing what other people said or changing old posts that contained things that I wouldn’t say the same way anymore. But I suspect many people could.

It’s a tricky business, this editing of the past according to what we prefer in the present, whether the tools are an outraged conflagration or sneakily changing the narrative online. There is something rotten about our zeal to “burn it down,” whether literally or digitally. If we cannot access the past truthfully, how will we understand the moral trajectory that has led to our present vantage point? How will we cultivate the capacity to cultivate even a bit of self-critical distance from our imagined righteousness and moral purity? And, at the risk of stating what should be obvious, what gives us such confidence that our current vantage point is so free of moral contaminants? How, I wonder, will future generations evaluate our particular cultural and moral moment? My strong suspicion is that it will get rather mixed reviews.

Earlier I referenced the notion of the “refiners fire” found in Scripture. As I said, I suspect many Canadians privately view these church burnings as a kind of purificatory symbol in light of our nation’s sinful past. The main difference, of course, is that in Scripture it is God doing the purifying and refining, not us. A rather important distinction, it seems to me.

Orange is the New Red and White

It’s the early hours of what promises to be a blistering hot Canada Day. I’m sitting at my laptop, drinking my morning coffee, wearing an orange t-shirt. As you likely know, at least if you live in Canada, the orange t-shirt has come to become a symbol of solidarity with our indigenous neighbours, specifically those who endured residential schools. The idea for the orange t-shirt emerges out of the experience of a young indigenous girl who was given an orange shirt by her grandmother to wear on her first day at a Residential School in British Columbia. The shirt was confiscated, and she never saw it again. Read more

Jostling Angels

I have several friends who have recently been through diversity training at their companies. This is not uncommon these days. Many corporations are scrambling to keep up with the ethos of the moment, desperate to demonstrate the appropriate levels of commitment to equality and inclusion, terrified that they might be held liable for a stray comment or inappropriate action by one of their employees in the domains of sexuality, race, or gender. Diversity training is the way to cover their backsides. “Oh, and so said or did bad thing x? Well, we did what we could. They received diversity training. We can’t really help it if it didn’t take.” Read more

Is Justin Bieber Allowed to Suffer? (and Other Indecent Calculations)

Over the last few months, no fewer than three people I know and respect have told me that I should listen to Justin Bieber’s new album. These are all people that know me well enough to understand what a musical stretch this would be for me. Each recommendation was met with slightly hostile incredulity from yours truly. Justin Bieber?! Seriously?! You might as well ask me to forfeit my soul. How would I even begin to salvage the tatters of my reputation? But three people. And people I respect. Hmm, what to do. Read more

Running on Religious Fumes

Freddie deBoer is, I gather, known as something of a “nice atheist.” He’s not explicitly hostile toward religious belief. His atheism represents more of a surrender than a decision. He believes an atheism that doesn’t come out of a process of loss and pain isn’t worth a whole lot. He’s not going to try to convert you to his unbelief. He has no evident interest in a world where people suddenly cease to believe in God. He would, however, like for you to take it a bit more seriously if this is in fact what you claim to believe. Or, at the very least, for you to be a bit more consistent. If God is the point of the whole show, then you should at least have the courtesy to act like you believed it. Read more

On Textbook Characters

There’s a scene in the opening pages of Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Jack, where the eponymous protagonist has contributed to an unpleasant dinner experience with a certain bishop’s daughter named Della. The walk home is tense and the dialogue is strained. Jack has, evidently, really stepped in it:

She said, “I have never been so embarrassed. Never in my life.”
He said, “Well, you haven’t known me very long.”

Read more

Sunk Costs

Last week marked an anniversary of sorts, at least in the life of many churches. It’s been one year since the pandemic closed our doors, drove us online, kicked into motion myriad restrictions for eventual physical gatherings, etc. It’s obviously been a long and difficult year for many, and for a wide variety of reasons. Read more

Beyond the Limits of our Puny Selfhood

Well, here’s a breath of Friday fresh air from the New York Times. It’s an article by Leigh Stein called “Influencers are the New Televangelists” and it compares modern-day social media quasi-spiritual wellness influencers like Glennon Doyle to religious hucksters from yesteryear like Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. The comparison is apt, in my view, even if the content of their message could hardly be more different. Read more

If I Ran the Zoo

My wife got a little heated over breakfast today. Not at me, thanks be to God. No, the object of her displeasure this morning was the story of Dr. Seuss running afoul of the cultural gatekeepers that broke yesterday. Evidently, six books from the well-known author and illustrator will no longer be published due to “racist and insensitive imagery.” Classics like The Cat in the Hat and The Sneetches are safe (for now), but And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and If I Ran the Zoo did not make the cut. My wife does not normally have much interest in the culture wars, but, like many, she grew up on Dr. Seuss and this was just a bit too far. “I need a platform to protest this!” she said. I reminded her that I had a platform, modest though it may be. She wasn’t interested in writing a guest post, strangely. At any rate, I don’t run the zoo, but if I did, here are three things I might say.  Read more

Wonder Shining in My Eyes

I wonder if one of the central tasks of faith at this middle stage of life is that of reimagination. To unlearn the notion that faith is a “whoever dies with the most correct ideas about God in their head wins” kind of game. To open oneself to the possibility that when it comes to the things of God, it’s less about arguing than evoking, less about proving than reminding and revealing, less about heroically thinking enough right God-things or doing enough good God-things than loving mercy. Sigh. Even as I look at the preceding three sentences, I hate the soppy mid-life cliché that they sound like. Perhaps one of the other tasks of the middle-stage of life is to somehow come to peace with the cliches that we inevitably become. Read more

Forgive Us Our Sins

Last year at the beginning of Lent I decided that rather than giving something up I was going to take something on. I would read Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion. What better way to journey toward Good Friday than by immersing myself in a serious theological reflection on the cross of Christ? I made it just over a hundred pages. I wish I could say I had a good reason for quitting, but I don’t really have one. I suppose I could blame COVID’s arrival in Lent 2020 and the way it colonized most of my mental bandwidth, but mostly it was just a combination of distractibility, apathy, and preoccupation with other (lesser) things. What can I say? The truth isn’t always flattering. Read more

The Good Guy

Over the last few months, I have regularly encountered recommendations, whether from friends or articles and reviews I’ve read, to watch the television show Ted Lasso. It will restore your faith in humanity, I heard. It’s the perfect antidote to this soul-sucking pandemic, I heard. It will make you smile and laugh and feel good in the midst of all that is bad in the world, I heard. I heard a great many things, very few of them bad. So, yesterday, my wife and I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. We had planned on watching one episode but by the time we turned the TV off, we had plowed through half a season. Read more

Amidst the Flames

For the last four years or so, our church has taken the stretch of time roughly between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent to focus our sermons on questions of faith from members of our congregation. These questions range from the existential (Does God exist?) to the hermeneutical (What is the meaning of passage x) to the socio-cultural (What does a Christian response to this or that thing going on in the broader culture look like?). Needless to say, it’s a sermon series that forces me out of my proverbial comfort zone. I am sometimes thrust into issues and texts that I might prefer to avoid. I am also at least partially liberated from the confines of my own subjectivity and forced to read Scripture, experience, and the broader culture through the lens of other people’s questions. Which is good.  Read more

On (Not) Working Backwards

The events of one week ago at the Capitol in Washington, DC have produced a veritable torrent of outrage, analysis, reaction, despair, fear, defiance, and many other things besides. The vision of a mob of rioters descending upon this hallowed symbol of democracy was unsettling, to put it mildly. Even more distressing, from a Christian perspective, was the sight of religious imagery and language (crosses, signage, etc.) on display throughout. There is a kind of perverse irony in the fact that this event took place on the Day of Epiphany, a day when Christians celebrate the revealing of Jesus Christ as the light of the world that pierces the darkness and reveals the path of peace. There was indeed a revealing on this Epiphany, but it was not of God. Read more

What If?

I wonder if it’s any coincidence that an essay called “What if You Could Do It All Over?” seems to be getting a lot of traction near the end of the darkest month of what has been a fairly bleak year? It’s fairly natural, on one level, to wonder about lives that might have been when we’re all living lives that we never imagined we would be and that few of us want (I suspect the bloom is coming off the proverbial rose even for those extreme introverts who half a year ago were joking that all this enforced social isolation was just what they’d always been dreaming of). Not to mention, it’s easy, when we’re all stuck at home for long periods of time, to wander off into nostalgia, romanticizing the past, and hypothesizing about what might have happened if we had chosen y or z way back when instead of x. Unlived lives can often serve as both reproach and escape. Read more

Trust Me

I’ve been thinking a lot about trust lately. As the global pandemic grinds into its ninth (tenth? eleventh?) month, I’ve noticed a decidedly weary and cynical thread in many conversations. People are fatigued, obviously. They are tired of restrictions, tired of uncertainty, tired of agonizing over how the bills will be paid, tired of being unable to spend time with people they love, tired of feeling guilty when they sneak in a bit of illicit social connection, tired of politicians and health officials wagging moralizing fingers at them daily. But beyond this, I detect a sort of resigned cynicism, a sense that nobody can be trusted, and nobody really knows what’s going on. This is a dangerous place to be. Read more

Twitchy

A few people have asked me over the last few weeks how it’s been since I deleted my Facebook account. The short answer is that I haven’t really missed it. There have been a few times when I have felt a little in the dark, not knowing something what others in a conversation did because I hadn’t seen what this or that person posted. I’m sure I’ve missed out on the odd article that I really should have read or an important update in someone’s life. These are among the expected trade offs that are part of the deal. Read more