Saturday, October 21, 2017

Grace in Alias Grace

Alias Grace

The new CBC/Netflix collaboration Alias Grace is excellent, a compelling television adaptation of one of Margaret Atwood's best novels and Sarah Polley's writing for the small screen captures the mystery of the story. Sarah Gadon as Grace manages to convey so much emotion in her stillness. Mary Harron is the fine director, so strong women are all over the place in Alias Grace.

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I have noticed the role of one of the minor characters, a male. He is played by acclaimed Canadian director David Cronenberg, although I confess I didn't recognize him in his brief role as a clergyman. I paid attention to his portrayal of a minister or priest who seems to have compassion for the servant girl who is convicted of murder. He is part of a group who wants to overturn what is in their eyes a wrongful conviction.

So often men of the cloth (there are hardly ever women clergy in film) are portrayed as harsh and judgmental. This story, based on an actual trial and conviction, is set in the mid-nineteenth century when the law often superseded grace, so I found this refreshing. Margaret Atwood does not view religion as an enemy, so perhaps she deliberately chose to cast the minister in a somewhat positive light, or this may be supported by historical records. We do know that in every century some of the most positive initiatives toward equality and justice began with the church in its various expressions so I welcome even this small acknowledgment.

Has anyone else been watching the series? It is available to be streamed online, so you can watch the first four episodes this way, as we have.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Way of Forgiveness

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Two days ago I heard that the 2011 murder conviction of Mark Edward Grant had been overturned, the result of a retrial. Candace Derksen was only thirteen when she was murdered in 1984 and doing the math points out that it was more than 25 years after her death that Grant was sent to prison.

Justice Karen Simonsen told a packed courtroom in Winnipeg on Wednesday afternoon that "the totality of the evidence before me ... falls short of the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

The Derksens

This news caught my attention because Candace's mother, Wilma Derksen, has written several books two of them thoughtful, powerful explorations of the subject of forgiveness. The earlier book was called Unsettled Weather: How Do I Forgive? The other, released this year is The Way of Letting God: One Woman's Walk Toward Forgiveness.

By coincidence, or serendipity, or providence I tuned in to an interview with Derksen on CBC radio's The Current yesterday, less than 24 hours after the verdict. As I listened I was struck by the grace and dignity and wisdom Wilma expressed despite how raw her emotions must be. She agreed that the judge had made the correct ruling because of the errors made in the earlier trail. She expressed her hope that Mark Grant would make the best of the second chance for life he has been given, even though she may feel he is guilty.

Anna Maria Tremonti did an excellent job of interviewing Derksen, asking whether she had been able to forgive. Derksen's response is that she is a process person, so she will continue to work through the complex realities of forgiveness, including forgiving herself for not being there at the right moment for Candace. While that might not be a reasonable expectation of herself, guilt is rarely rationale, and neither is hate.

Tremonti also asked about the importance of faith in this process. I am aware that Derksen is a Christian but as she answered she was generous in saying that while her faith is in God for others it may be a Higher Power or some other way of describing faith. She also spoke of the importance of friends and family through what can be a lonely journey of letting go.

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Candace Derksen

I spent years in ministry listening to the anger of parishioners wrestling with the "unforgivable." I have my own issues with letting go and forgiving which will likely continue for a lifetime. I found her witness inspiring.

I recommend listening to the interview, and the link is below. Did you hear it? Are you intrigued because of your own issues with forgiveness? Does faith make a difference for you in forgiving others or yourself?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Niqab & Religious Freedom

I've said before that I don't believe the niqab is a requirement for Islamic women. I've listened to observant, scholarly Muslim women who reject the niqab, viewing it as a cultural expectation and nothing more. I've also said that despite my own strong reservations about the niqab and the possibility that it is primarily a form of subjugation of women I don't support legalized rejection of this form of cultural or religious dress. The niqab does not pose a security threat and there are many ways of insuring that the persons wearing it can prove their identity.

Of course, the Quebec legislature does not agree with me and passed into law a ban on providing services to women who are wearing facial covering. While the argument is that this applies to any facial covering including a balaclava or a scarf this is so phony it hardly deserves our attention. The National Assembly passed Bill 62 with the principle resistance coming from parties farther to the right which wanted the law to be even stricter.

Now niqab-wearing Quebec women who want to ride the bus, visit the library, go for a medical check-up or meet with their child’s teacher are legally required to uncover their faces while receiving provincial and municipal government services. This is absurd. Already bus drivers are asking how this law will be enforced and what their role will be. C'mon, how many women in Quebec wear the niqab? A few hundred, perhaps?

I'm hugely disappointed in the Liberal government's acquiescence to the latent racism and Islamaophobia of a vocal segment of the population. We have seen disturbing acts of violence against Muslims in Quebec, including vandalism, rejection of an Islamic cemetery, and even murder. The current government decries these acts yet passes legislation which may not stand up to a legal challenge on the grounds of religious freedom.

The news of this decision has been reported around the world and I am ashamed as a Canadian and Christian that this has happened in a country which upholds inclusivity and diversity.

What do you think about this?

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Tragically Courageous

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When The Tragically Hip announced lead singer Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer in May of 2016  Canadians were shocked. The guy was only 52, and the band was still active and beloved. I found it off-putting that people began to eulogize this icon of the rock scene as though he were already dead and buried, and I said so on social media. It seemed to be a macabre response to what was a difficult time in the life of Downie's family.

Remarkably, Downie made the best of the next year and a half until his death today. There was the memorable cross-Canada tour, culminating in a concert in Kingston, the band's hometown.

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Then there was the powerful project to honour a First Nations boy named Chanie Wenjack who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from a residential school. There is a graphic novel called Secret Path which tells the story. It's written by Downie and illustrated by Jeff Lemire. When we watched the animated television adaptation Ruth, my wife, commented that this should be required viewing for older school children in Canada and I agree (as always!) Gord Downie also released a musical project called Secret Path, on this day a year ago. All proceeds from the album and book are being donated to the University of Manitoba's National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. It was touching to watch an ailing Downie connect with Chanie's family members in their home setting.

For all The Hip's musical success through the years, with unapologetically Canadian themes, the Secret Path project may be his greatest gift to this country. As we struggle toward truth and reconciliation and frankly make a hash of it, we can be grateful that he used his waning strength and considerable creative abilities to raise the issues before Canadians and presumably fans from other countries.

As denominations which participated in the tragedy of the residential schools look for ways to reconcile, The Secret Path might be an avenue for exploration within congregations.

God be with Gord Downie's family, friends (including members of the Wenjak family), and his life-long band-mates.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tragedy in Mogadishu

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This morning I listened to a CBC interview with a medical doctor from Hamilton whose family emigrated there years ago. They were from Somalia and she has returned there to run a medical clinic in Mogadishu, her contribution to an emerging nation. She has become an essential part of the response to the horrific bombing which took place in the city over the weekend. At least 300 people were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. The Islamist fundamentalist militant group Al-Shabaab took responsibility for the massacre which took the lives of street vendors and shopkeepers in the blast area.

Why these groups, including Al Qaeda and Isis feel that killing the innocent will advance any cause, let alone the intentions of Allah is beyond comprehension. Al Shebaab has only a few thousands adherents and they are hated by most people in East Africa yet they inflict such great harm. When will these radicalized haters realize that their acts of terror do nothing to change the resolve of everyday people wherever they strike?

The doctor interviewed this morning had hardly eaten or slept for days. She was emotional as she wondered aloud about the hard questions others have raised about this incident. Why does the international press give less attention to such tragedies when they occur in Africa? Is it because of a veiled colonialism or racism? Is it because the perpetrators identify as Muslims, even though the majority of their victims are Muslims who reject their violent misinterpretation of the religion?

I think it's important for those of us who identify as Christians from so-called Western nations to examine our own biases when it comes to the tragedies and travails of those in developing nations. We can bring the same prayerful and practical compassion to these incidents we do when terror occurs on the streets of London, or in a public square in Los Vegas.


Monday, October 16, 2017

At Home With Monsters

Foyer at Bleak House

We were away for the weekend so that I could speak at a United Church in Ancaster, Ontario for their 63rd anniversary. 1954 is a very good year for births.

On our way we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the Guillermo Del Toro: At Home With Monsters exhibit. Del Toro is a master of the fantastical on film with Pan's Labyrinth as his greatest accomplishment to date, at least in the minds of many.

At Home with Monsters is his stuff, from his place in Los Angeles called Bleak House, an homage to Charles Dickens. It is a bizarre, spooky, creative collection of art, artifacts, books, and props. As Del Toro puts it “To find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal. To be moved by genre. These things are vital for my storytelling. This exhibition presents a small fraction of the things that have moved me, inspired me, and consoled me as I transit through life.”

A small fraction?! There are rooms and rooms of his stuff, including thousands of comic books, mock ups for the weird creatures in his films, and art work galore.

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The exhibit notes Del Toro's fascination with childhood, it's blossoming and it's wounds. Pan's Labyrinth is set in the years following the Spanish Civil War and depicts the horrors of war infiltrating a child’s imagination and threatening the innocence of youth. Del Toro is convinced that we are diminished when we see unusual others as outsiders and monsters.

The exhibit also highlights the themes of crucifixion and resurrection which recur in his work. There are paintings with crosses in them and an interesting set of graphic comic panels depicting scenes from the story of the Prodigal Son from Luke's gospel.

I would recommend visiting the exhibit and will probably get there again, even though I had one of my worst nightmares ever the following night!

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Afterlife Rituals

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Macabre.  Barbaric. Gruesome. These were all words that came to mind as I started into an article on a strange tradition of tending to the dead. In the Guardian piece entitled Cleaning the Dead: the afterlife rituals of the Torajan People I discovered that they continue to care for and clean members of their family as though they were sick, sometimes for years after their deaths. I found the article on my phone and I was stunned when I realized that the photos were of the dead.

For the Torajan people of Indonesia, death is part of a spiritual journey: families keep the mummified remains of their deceased relatives in their homes for years – and traditionally invite them to join for lunch on a daily basis – before they are eventually buried. Even then, they are regularly exhumed to be cleaned and cared for.

In contrast to Western norms, Torajans people, who live in the mountains of Sulawesi in Indonesia, treat their beloved relatives as if they are sick –not dead... In Toraja, it’ is customary to feed the deceased every day and to keep the corpses cozily bedded in a separate room of the family house until the family can afford a proper funeral.

I was appalled by the image of a child alongside the bodies of dead grandparents. Surely these children will be scarred for life?

While I'm never going to come around on these practices, they did get me thinking about our antiseptic, death-denying burial practices in North America. Our deceased loved ones are whisked away, embalmed and covered in makeup. Children are often kept away from funerals out of concern for their emotional wellbeing. Many services now do not address the realities of grief and when we go to cemeteries the artificial grass discreetly hides the actual earth into which a casket will descend.

Now that you've dealt with the shock, what is your take on this? Are we death-deniers in our culture. What is the balance between Western denial and the grim practices of the Torajans?