Tuesday, December 07, 2010

God is in the Details

How to Change Your Life and Find Your World

The traffic in front of me inches forward. I grimace and check the clock. 4:06pm. Not yet rush hour, but in Toronto, even more than Los Angeles, every hour is rush hour. It's frustrating, but it's something you come to understand when you live here, if not fully accept. Not everyone accepts it however, and they whiz past me in the lane reserved for buses and taxis to my right. No one driving illegally in that lane seems to notice the others, like myself, waiting patiently in the other two lanes. No one seems upset by the notion that by 'jumping the queue', everyone else has to wait longer, including the people taking public transport, because there's no proper merge when the lane ends. I wonder if they even realize that they're in the wrong lane. Maybe they think we're all stupid for using the slower lanes.

A minivan slows beside me, and I glance over. A middle aged woman is frowning and chatting on her cell phone. Soon enough, she passes me. Next is a thirty something man in a suit driving a black and silver Hummer that looks ready for deployment. He sips his coffee. Doesn't notice the driver of the red Yaris (me) frowning at him from the middle lane. One by one they zip past, and all intent on arriving somewhere, regardless of the rules they have to break or the people they have to step over. I take a deep breath and let it go. There's no point in getting angry. Not only will it not solve anything, but if I really wanted to I could spend my entire life fuming over repeated incidents like that. People cutting in lines. People parking in handicap spots so they don't have to walk the extra twenty feet. Or in the case of my apartment building, people smoking in the elevator. The list in endless. The real question is why. Why do people act selfishly? Don't they realize that by doing so, they'll never find the world that God intended for them? Oh, I know some people will argue that its simply about parents and their influence, and how we were raised. It's a strong argument, and I think that it has some merit. But can you really make the case that an able bodied, fifty year old man who parks his Mercedes in a handicap spot is doing it because he was raised poorly? Surely there has to be more to it than that…


    The 1993 movie, Rudy, is based on a true story about a young man (Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger) who pursues his dream (playing football for Notre Dame) against the wishes of his family. For them, the thought of someone pursuing a dream only brings pain. In a telling scene about a third of the way through the movie, Rudy's father recounts to him the story of his own father, who suddenly decided to become a dairy farmer, lost everything, and abandoned his family. "Chasing a stupid dream brings nothing but heartache for you and everyone around you." He says. Rudy's father is not trying to be mean; he is merely trying to help his son see "the real world." No one in his family had ever even gone to college, let alone a rich school like Notre Dame. In this case, Rudy's father lives in a very different world than his son. He makes the mistake of thinking that his world is the only world, and that to keep his son safe, he must bring his young "dreamer" there.

    Families do this all the time. Sometimes its love and sometimes it is vindictive, but it is nearly always damaging. We make the mistake of thinking that the world we see and experience is somehow objective, that it exists as something separate and apart from us. And so we try to ensure that everyone, but especially those close to us, share our experience. Unfortunately, it's like wearing someone else's clothes, and no matter how hard we try, they never quite fit the same. Worse, that world will never belong to us, and when we finally realize that it doesn't, we will spend our lives trying to please other people, trying on different experiences from people who insist that they have found the "only way." Within families, this often plays out with children assuming expected roles that make parents and grandparents, but also siblings and cousins, feel comfortable.

    In the movie, Rudy refuses to accept his father's world. And when he finally gets his letter of acceptance from Notre Dame after two years of scrounging and hard work at the nearby Junior College, he immediately takes it to his dad. His father is shocked, and proudly announces over the loudspeakers to the guys at the mill that "My son is going to Notre Dame!"

    Following Rudy's example, a number of his younger family members (extended family) end up graduating from college as well. His world was a very different place from that of his father, and what had previously been considered impossible by his family, was suddenly not only possible, but probable.


    There's a great deal of interest in fantasy these days. Whether its vampires or (boy) wizards or hobbits, people seem drawn to relatively simple tales set in other worlds. Cultural experts might point to a number of reasons, anything from escapism to the increasing complexity of a technological world and the simplicity inherent in these fantasy worlds. I'd suggest another reason, specifically, the lure of a world outside our own, a world that perhaps fits better than the one in which we currently choose to exist. A world where life has not already been decided for us, a world where we can go back and make new choices, a world in which our dreams can become reality.

    It sounds so simple, doesn't it? So naïve. And haven't writers like Malcolm Gladwell and other sociologists debunked the notion of 'picking ourselves up by our bootstraps'? Yes. And no. Yes, it is impossible to pick ourselves up by 'our bootstraps'. No, it isn't impossible to change our world. The problem is that we associate the world God has for us with the ones we see on TV in the lives of celebrities and the people, like J.K. Rowling, who not only fulfilled their dreams, but became wealthy and famous as a result. But the goal of life is not riches, as the unhappiness of the rich has been documented in countless studies. And if you asked Rowling about her success, I'm sure she would say that the greatest thing about Harry Potter was not the money or the fame, but knowing what she accomplished, what she had given to people, while pursuing her passion.

Finding the world God has for us hinges on our pursuit of two things: the first is that we must pursue what is right, and the second is that we must discover our passion(s) in life and pursue those. Every act of selfishness, like smoking in the elevator or cutting someone off, makes our world is bit more gray. Pointing our lives in the direction of others however, and teaching ourselves to be conscious of other people and their wants and needs, moves us closer to that place of contentment. Numerous studies have been done the past twenty years to back up these claims. In his book, Born to be Good, Dacher Keltner calls it our Jen ratio. Jen is the central idea in the teachings of Confucius, and refers to a complex mixture of kindness, humanity and respect that transpires between people. Of course, Jesus too, reflected and taught these ideals. (And for Christians, embodied them in enduring death for our sins.) However, the pursuit of a higher Jen ratio is not enough to find that place, that world we long for… we must also pursue our passions. You may not believe, as I do, that we were all put here with a purpose in mind, but if you reflected on your life, I'm sure you can recall moments where time suddenly didn't exist, when everything felt right around you. Perhaps it was hosting a family dinner. Or working with a group of kids after school. Or building a new shed. Those moments are your beacons to Your World. Those moments are the final clue to where you need to be, and how you should arrive.


Change can be daunting. I've met a number of people through the years who would rather stay in a world that is not their own, a world created by their families or friends or the culture around them. Part of that is impatience. We want to be Harry Potter, accomplished wizard, instead of Harry Potter, boy wizard struggling to get along with his classmates in a new environment. But mostly that's because we think of change as a BIG thing. Huge sweeping alterations to our lives. Change however, much like Our World, the one we long for, is found entirely in the details. It is found in our decision to stop spending so much time at work so we can spend time with our family. It is found in our decision to take the burned piece of toast without telling our spouse, so he or she will get the one cooked right. It's about taking some time to really think about what we want to do with our lives, figuring out what we love, and pursuing it to the best of our ability. Change is process, and comes slowly. Change is not in when we arrive, but how we get there. And it happens within the details of our lives. Every time we switch into the illegal lane because everyone else is doing it, every time we park in a spot that is reserved for the handicapped, and every time we shrug our shoulders and accept the lie that we will never achieve our dreams or that hope is dead, we reject the world that God has for us, the one shining beyond the next horizon.


    It's cold tonight. The wind blows hard against my face and hands as I look out in the twilight. Christmas lights twinkle from some of the balconies in the apartment building across the street. I tuck my hands into my parka and exhale, unable to keep from smiling. I hope the snow stays for Christmas. It always seems right somehow. Cars move slowly on the winding road down below. I'm glad to be in for the night. I haven't bought my Christmas gifts yet this year, largely because I can't afford it. Times have been a little tougher this fall for my wife and I, but I'm hoping that the next two weeks will go smoothly enough to make up for it. If I worked more of course, it wouldn't be an issue. But doing so would limit my time to write, and my world, the one I am slowly discovering, and the one I believe God has for me, would change. I don't know what God has in store for the future, and whether the time spent writing will one day result in publication, let alone wealth or even compensation. What I do know however, is that I love my world. It is not the world of my parents or friends or even my wife. But I can sense God's hand on it, and His smile in what I do. For a long time I thought that such a world would be impossible to find, but it's there, and I'm here to tell you that it's there for you as well. Just remember, God is in the details, and while change may seem a lifetime away, it begins as soon as you take your first step. From there, just follow the road, and God will lead you the rest of the way.

    Much Love





Nurses union

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Obfuscation: What I Meant Was…

I had to laugh a little as I read my post here from the other day, and felt at least some explanation was probably in order. It read like something I would have written five years ago, abstract to the point of frustration. Good writing, at least in my books, speaks plain and grounds itself in concrete examples. Winter is Coming was, in some ways, an experiment in tone. (It was supposed to FEEL like a snowfall, if that makes sense) Even then, I felt I owed you all, if not an explanation, a quick summary of what I was trying to express.

As I've mentioned here before, I've spent the past four months world-building for my fantasy novel. It's creative work, but it isn't story telling. Not exactly. (Although one could argue that building histories and cultures for countries is still story telling, it has a much wider lens than working on the main narrative of a single novel.) Good fantasy explores not only the cultural and historical makeup of a new world, but looks at the human condition through use of another world. A good fantasist does this in the construction of their world and through their characters. In other words, magic isn't just magic, and the hero's quest is more than the story of a boy or a girl who learns they have special powers. Not all fantasies achieve this (and there's no way of knowing whether I'll be able to, either) but the good ones do. Fantasy is similar to TV shows like Mad Men that use the forty year culture gap to explore ideas that matter to us now. Ultimately, it's about perspective. Reading fiction, specifically good fantasy, is not only entertaining (if the story sucks, nothing else matters), it should also make us think. Think about who we are and who we're becoming. Think about ideas of eternity and religion and culture. That fantasy and science fiction are growing in popularity should be no surprise to those who pay attention to the culture and how it is changing.
Most of us talk about the speed and shallowness of our culture, recognize it on some level, but tend to simply put our heads down and get on with our lives. We have families and jobs and it's all we can do to keep up. We Facebook and Twitter our thoughts in two or three sentences, skim the headlines, surf the television, all at a speed that would make our grandparents blanche. As a result, neurologists tell us that our brains are changing. Our attention spans aren't what they used to be, and the thought of spending time really digging more deeply into a hot topic or a novel seems like a great deal of work. What not let Stewart or Beck or O'Reilly to give it to me in chunks I can absorb, and do it in a way that's entertaining? We do it in the church as well, waiting for mega-pastors and bloggers to explain difficult theological nuances in witty and pejorative terms. Technology widens our scope of learning, but narrows our perspective. And from my chair, that is far more dangerous.

The Horizontal world I spoke of, and forgive the fantasy construction here, is the world of rationalism and logic. It's your everyday world, the one where we listen to the radio and chat with friends and absorb the evening news. It's the world in which we go to church and listen to the sermon and sing our songs just in time to watch the NFL or take the kids to the park. It is the world we see and hear and touch. But it isn't the only world out there.

What's ridiculous to me, and I include myself here, is the amount of time wasted in arguing why our beliefs are better than our neighbours. Go to most religious websites and you can find discussions about particular doctrines that are neither grounded nor gentle. Mostly, it's a bunch of strangers insisting that they're right, dammit. To what end? Is that our life then? Is that our religion of choice? Any religion that is based on its ability to distinguish itself from other religions is missing the whole damn point. Look, to pompously argue about the correct form of theology within a philosophy that accepts the supernatural is self-serving garbage. It may make us feel better, but in the end it's as useful as two water dishes for your dog. For heaven's sake, at least tell us that you were just too lazy to refill the one dish. Don't offer us these self-righteous excuses about why everyone should own two dishes.

That'll be the goal here as we go forward, and I promise in the future to speak plainly and not obfuscate. We may disagree, but hopefully you won't be re-reading sentences wondering what I was trying to say.

Religion can a great tool for justifying our behaviour. Slavery? Done. Racism? Yup. Mistreatment of women and gays? Absolutely. Environmental degradation and hatred and self righteous pandering? Sure. It's all in there. But let me say this clearly: the person who reflects compassion and empathy, the one who works hard to give to others and sacrifices to make the world a better place, the one who tries to love people and tries to be gracious, that person knows God better than any so-called person of faith who can articulate the seven rules of sanctification and mouth the correct sequence of statements regarding the proper belief structure. We religiously minded people do that for the same reason we want two dishes for our dog: because we can and because we're lazy. So this week, if you get a chance, take some time away from the bustle of the world to think about things. Think about who you are and what you want to become. Think about eternity and religion and our culture. Spend some quiet time in prayer and meditation. We shouldn't spend all of our time in those worlds, it isn't healthy, as we are social beings after all. But if we don't go there at least occasionally, we're bound to miss some of the beauty and mystery of life, and perhaps miss the good things God has in mind for us, religious or not.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Winter is Coming

    The wind blows hard, ruffling a loose piece of plastic on the other side of the balcony. I zip up my jacket, breathing in the bitterness of the night. I can still hear the faint roar of cars from the highway, but it seems muted by the cold. Everything is else is quiet. No loud music or shouts from below. No screeching tires or sirens wailing in the distance. Nothing but stillness and cold. The mug of coffee warms my fingers, and I sip it slowly, savouring the sweet tinge of hazelnut and cinnamon. It's been a month of inactivity and sameness, a month of grays and browns, all of which can mean only one thing: winter is coming.

     For a writer, gray is not a bad colour. It certainly beats blue or yellow or green, and it definitely beats black and white. Most writers live in gray, and prefer to work in it. That said, sometimes it's better not to have the colour of your thoughts mirrored in the world around you. During those times, it's hard to tell where one world ends and the other world begins. Not the "real world", because no such place exists, but the world we dwell in horizontally with others, the one where we exchange greeting cards and small talk and common cultural expressions. The one where we can or must find a reason for everything, and the one that many people claim to be "true" or more "true" than the others. As worlds go, it's definitely important, primarily because of the relationships we establish that give us our identity there. Unfortunately, too often it is the only world in which we spend time, the only one that we designate as important.

The question here, you understand, is not about Religion. Our temptation towards the Horizontal world is true of those who are both religious and those who aren't. This past month for example, I've engaged in discussions with many Christians who only spend time in the Horizontal world, and aside from perhaps a few moments of prayer, ignore the rest. The two groups are the same in that we both build our identity in the place our culture treasures above all else. Both sides may argue what separates them from the other at length, but in the worlds where silence reigns and the hum of culture drifts into the distance, the differences fall away. That the two groups disagree and argue the merits for their various constructs in the Horizontal world means nothing apart from our mutual fixation on building our portfolios of distinction. And when we do that, when we argue and march and yell and sigh at each other, as I've done here and on Twitter too many times to count, it means that we're in danger of losing our identity in the other worlds at the expense of this one. It is a warning, and one that most of us insist on ignoring, myself included. We don't want to acknowledge the other worlds. We don't want to hear from them or see them or even tacitly admit that they exist. Because when we do, we have an idea what will happen. Something deep inside tells us that the time we spent in the horizontal realm, the realm of the senses and relationships and activity, will have been largely wasted. Understandably, that is a pain we are hesitant to face. Throughout history however, there have always been those who have sought ways to address this idea of living in different worlds.

    In the 4th and 5th Century, there was a group of people who decided that the horizontal world was too shallow, that they needed to get away from the immoral culture to find God. Some of this was steeped in Greek Platonism, the idea that anything mortal was evil. That only the spiritual was pure. And so they did things, like moving into the desert, or in the case of one man, chose to live on top of a giant stone column. When I first started reading about these Aesthetics, I laughed and shook my head. Loons, I thought. All of them. These days I'm not so sure. What would happen if we could see all of the worlds in all of their complexity? What if we could see the complete narrative behind our own actions, or the realm of the spirit, or the realm of those who died? What if we could witness our actions from the perspective of somebody else fully and truly? Perhaps these people were merely running away from their responsibilities, or perhaps they were simply crazy, but who are we to judge, when we do the same thing, albeit in a different world?

    The truth is that over the course of our life, we will live many lifetimes. Most of us will switch jobs and friends and partners and locations, and for those of us who do not, our horizontal world will still change as we experience new things and grow older. And in a culture that prizes change and speed above all else, it necessitates that we spend as much time as we can there, if only to keep tabs on the construction of our identity. As a result, the vitriol and vehemence we find in politics and talk shows and blogs such as this one can sometimes get out of control. It's hard to step back when that step will only take you to the same spot you were a moment ago.

    And yet, even in a culture where Rationalism and Logic rule uncontested gods to the religious and non-religious alike, where Distinction and Uniqueness service us with knowing smiles, there are moments when the other worlds crash through the barriers of time and senses. They are dreams we cannot explain but yet haunt us. They are times of inexplicable kindness and felt love, when the look on our loved one's face or the happy gurgling of a baby make us swallow with an undefined sense of wonder. They are times when we are death's only witness, and as such, are filled with the undeniable sense that there are many things we will never understand. These moments are both comforting and discomfiting. Comforting in the sense that we can revel in the possibilities that exist, discomfiting because we don't fully understand what those possibilities entail. And so, we avoid these worlds, we avoid the pain, and we march back to the altars of Logic and Rationalism, content to build our identity in their shadow. In the haste and hustle of our world of choice, we do not realize what we're doing, and by the time we figure it out, by the time we work up the courage to spend time in the other worlds, it's too late. Twilight has faded, and winter has arrived.

    My fingers are white from the cold despite the fading warmth of my coffee. I put the mug down and rub my hands together before slipping them into my pockets. I have more than a few regrets in my life, but times like these, times of prayer and silence and exploration, have never made the list. They are all too rare, even for someone who spends most of his work days behind the quiet tapping of the keyboard. For as much as I like to dwell on possibilities and God and faith, I still prefer the horizontal world. I still prefer the world I see and hear most easily, the one where I can tell you what I know and why I know it, the one where I can disagree with you and still know that everything is as it should be. It's the other worlds I fear. The ones where Logic and Rationalism do not rule, the ones where Existence itself is questioned, where Purpose reveals its true self, and where Story is much more than a book. Those are the worlds I try to avoid. And yet, I know I do it at my own peril. Especially now. My dreams have been strange lately, my times with Bethany filled with a euphoric melancholy that I do not understand, and my writing has become steeped in black and white, the colours of Anger and Distinction. And so tonight at least, I'll brave the cold. It's time to visit the other worlds for a while. Winter is coming.




Tuesday, November 09, 2010


My apologies for not posting lately. This is the longest stretch in a while, and for those of you checking back here, I appreciate your patience. I have in mind at least three articles for this site, along with a couple of movie reviews, but for the moment I am 'dug in' to the work on the novel. I imagine other fantasy novelists could tell you the same story, as I've just reached the 32,000 word mark for the GUIDE to my novel's world. Yup. 100 pages. And that's just the guide. I hope to be finished the guide by next Friday, at which point I can start the re-write of the 600 pages I've already written. Much of that will have to be changed, but I will be able to follow the same storyline, at least. Having said that, I've picked up a few tidbits from the news lately...

Election Notes

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know where I stand on this issue, but for those of you who don't, let me just say that the Tuseday midterms in the US were pretty disappointing. At this point, I'm not sure what people want from Obama. He ran his campaign on health care. He promised a stimulus package, one that all economists agreed was necessary. And now he's spending too much?

Most people forget that as late as 2000, both presidential candidates talked about getting rid of the debt. Gore even campaigned on it. (Bush mentioned it, but wafled on it and then dropped it. Little did people know how he was about to become the biggest spender in presidential history.) Imagine now, only ten years later, and the US debt is so high that people are scared the economy will collapse. And yet, it was a Republican presidency that pushed the deficit and debt skywards. A big part of that was the war on Iraq, which only happened as a result of lies from the same administration doing the spending. The past two years, the Senate has suffered filibusters (from the Republicans) more than any time in its history. And yet somehow people think that they deserve to be back in power?

It seems as if the talk shows are driving the narrative here. I'd encourage people to pick up some of the books that have come out recently, like Obama's Wars by Bob Woodward, and take a closer look at things.

None of this matters however, if the Democrats do not learn how to communicate what they have done and why it is good for the country. They have too many smart people in their party not to figure it out, but until they do, the Republicans deserve to be there, because governing is as much about communicating as it is making decisions.

Recommended Reading

This is mentioned in my Reading section, but in case you missed it, I highly recommend both Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind and Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. Tremendous reads, both of them.

Again, I hope to have a new article up by the end of the week, everyone. Thanks again for your patience.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sex, Gay Marriage and a Culture of Vitriol

The cashier frowned as he took the cash from the man standing in front of me. It wasn't an obvious frown, merely the downward wrinkle of lips and gathering of skin between the eyebrows, as if he was thinking about something important. Unless you had seen it before, or you were looking for it, it was difficult to spot. I was standing next in line, waiting for my turn to pay for gas, so it wasn't hard to miss. The gas stop was painted a bright red and white, as if to counter the gloom of another rainy night. The smattering of conversation from a couple of girls buying snacks drifted up towards the front. The man in front of me however, didn't seem to notice the slight as he accepted his change with a smile. He was wearing a dark sports coat and gray slacks with a white button down shirt. Well dressed, but nothing out of the ordinary. But his movements just felt wrong. Too fluid. Too much wrist. As if he was dancing while standing still. He was about my height, but lean and smooth shaven. He said good night, and the cashier whistled silently through his teeth, watching him for an extra second as the man glided out into the rain.

I bit my lip and frowned at the cashier, a burly man in his early forties, but he didn't notice and brightened considerably when he saw me.

"Another rainy night, eh?" He said, taking my money.

"Another rainy night." I repeated, my voice flat.

I wanted to say something more, but what could I say? Hey, Mr. Uneducated Jerkoff, I saw how looked at that guy because you thought he was gay? Instead, I was left to fume at the obvious bigotry, and headed out into the rain without saying another word.

Rain teased down the windshield, blurring the lights into a miasma of yellows and greens and reds. It was still warm enough to leave my window open, and I drove slowly through the streets, listening to the patter on my roof and the squish of tires, enveloped by the silence that always seemed to follow the rain. I had a hard time getting the incident at the gas bar out of my head. The cashier was probably a conservative, I thought. Probably a Christian, too, since there weren't a whole lot of white Muslims here. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became. How could someone be so prejudiced? Hadn't he read the papers lately, heard anything at all about the rash of gay suicides by teenagers down in the States? Who was he to judge someone like that?

By the time I pulled into the underground parking lot, I was so angry that I nearly drove into one of the columns before finally bringing my car to a screeching halt. I had to write about this… do something. For a writer, turning thoughts into words on a page is largely how we deal with things, but it doesn't necessarily mean we deal with them correctly. This however, was something else. I was tired of the prejudice, misogyny and bigotry so evident in our society. Why couldn't people see it? I didn't know the cashier, but I'd seen his type before. White, of course, and male. Probably loved Glenn Beck and wondered why the world didn't look like 1950. Probably watched Mad Men and wished things could go back to the way they were. (Missing the entire point of the show) That women and minorities had few rights sixty years ago probably affected him not at all. By the time I was sitting in my spot on the balcony, I was ready to chew nails. For the next four days I pounded out two thousand words on a fictional white male who tries his hand at both the Tea Party and Homosexuality before realizing that he might have made a misjudgement. I let Bethany read it, and she gave it back with a few suggestions. (She's a great editor) There was something about it however, that I didn't like. I knew a few liberal magazines that might be interested, but I had this feeling that I was missing something. Something important.

You have to understand that I am not a classically trained writer. I did not major in English or do an MFA. Most of my formal education, though not all, is theological. Whatever you see here (and hopefully you find it stimulating) is the result of fifteen years or so of reading How-To books and sitting at the Desk, pounding things out. As a rule, I write by feel, not unlike a musician who plays by ear. (There are more effective ways to write, and I do wish sometimes that I had more formal training, but it has always been such, and I've learned to live with the results.) I put my ear to the winds blowing in both my heart and mind, to the phrases that stick and those that stick out, to the order of thought and clarity of presentation, and try to listen. More importantly, I listen for the tone of the writing itself. Tone is important, because once you're comfortable in your own voice, the first step for any writer, the tone is more than just another tool. It is the music behind the lyrics. More than that it a reflection of self, it is a vivid mirror that reveals a great deal about where you are along the road to discovery.

And so, as I looked at my article a few days later, I realized what was wrong. I was ashamed of what I'd written, and spent some time in prayer to do some soul searching with God. Why? Well, we must go back a ways to understand…


"If we let gays marry, what's next? Polygamy? It's a slippery slope once we go down that road." I said.

I was sitting at the Starbucks after another long week at the school. Jim sat across from me, playing with the lid of his cup.

"I don't know, Steve. Seems kind of… wrong. I don't like dudes, but what if I did? Seems kind of crappy that they can't get married and be unhappy like the rest of us." He said, smiling.

"Bah. It's a lifestyle. A choice. Marriage is a sacred institution."

I felt good saying that. After two years of separation my wife and I had put everything back together. Things weren't great, but marriage was sacred. A covenant. A vow to God. And if it wasn't great, so what? You just had to work harder. I certainly wasn't going to let people who chose to have sex with the same gender up and change our society with their liberal views. Hell, if we made gay marriage legal what would be next? Brothels? Men with six wives? Animal lovers? Why couldn't people see just how dangerous it was?

Jim didn't say anything, just played with his cup.

"How are things at home?"

"All right." I said. "Well not great but we got a lot of issues. We'll figure it out. We have to."


The pub was packed. We were near the front though, so it was quiet enough to talk. I sipped my beer, and Duane plopped down beside me. He was a relatively new friend, a friend of a friend, and we'd been hanging out throughout the summer. The divorce had gone through the past winter, and I found myself out more often than ever. I guess it was to be expected. Being alone was not a lot of fun, and while the pain of the divorce had slowly receded, my life had changed drastically. For now, I was happy to be out and have a few drinks and forget about the past two years.

"I have a question for you, Steve." Duane said.


"You're religious, right?"

I nodded cautiously. Less so than in the past, I thought, and yet in some ways, it meant more to me now. Most of my friends weren't Christians, but it wasn't an issue. If anything, we'd had a lot of great conversations about faith and spirituality and what it all meant. Or what it might mean. In some ways, it was a role, and one I didn't mind. I liked talking about God. I certainly had never been shy about it.

"Do you think God would love a gay man if he got married?"

I nearly choked on my beer, but managed to smooth my features in time. Barely. Duane was well dressed, as always, with an open collared shirt and black jeans. His hair was long and wavy, and though his smile suggested this was just another one of our 'religious' discussions, I knew there was weight to the question. The thing is, we all knew Duane was gay. He hadn't admitted it to his friends, but it was fairly obvious. He'd never had a girlfriend and showed no interest in girls whatsoever.

"Well, the Bible is pretty clear about sex outside of marriage. And so-"

"I know, but what if they were married?"

"Um, I don't know, Duane. I mean, marriage is between a man and a woman. It's always been that way. And the Bible…" I stopped and looked at him. Watched his fingers curl around the glass of his beer. Noticed the flex across his jawline. "It doesn't mean God doesn't love you. I'm not sure it's right, but God always loves you."

My answer sounded lame even to myself. It wasn't right, I thought. For a moment, I allowed myself to walk in Duane's shoes. What would it have been like to spend all those years growing up and NOT being interested in girls? Especially when your classmates and friends were talking and joking about them. Girl watch and social status are the two highest priorities for a straight adolescent boy. As awkward as that was, what would it have been like to be attracted only to boys, the same ones who were asking you about girls? And then there were parents and family expectations. Long dinners and reunions answering questions about when 'you were going to bring someone home'. And then, of course, was the inevitable bullying that occurred if the other males caught a whiff of your sexuality.

I wanted to say something more, but what? When I finally looked up however, Duane had drifted over to another group of friends. When I went home that night, I thought long and hard about his question. I was determined to give him a better answer the next time.

It never came.


People always tell us that sex sells, to the point where it has become a truism of our society. Perhaps fifty years from now we'll discover that it doesn't sell nearly as well as we think it does, and something else will take its place. There is however, something that sells even more readily than sex, especially within an increasingly diverse, postmodern population. Advertisers use it. Writers and talk show hosts use it. Churches use it too. Even more than sex, surety is the greatest force of all. With all the choices now available to us, either through the market place or the information highway, nothing sells like surety. This is the paradox of choice; that given too many options we are mostly apt to freeze. We want someone to tell us what to do, what's best how we should think. We want our choices narrowed so that we don't have to think about everything. In some ways, it not only makes sense, but it's a legitimate response. (Whether it's lifestyle or business or our choice of movies, there is simply too much out there to know everything.) And the ones who take advantage of that vulnerability can reap the greatest rewards.

How else can we explain the counter movement of fundamentalism cutting a wide swath through our cultural landscape? I'm not talking simply about religious fundamentalism, but the entrenched black and white thinking that dominates politics as well. We so desperately want to be assured that we are either right or wrong, that we have created a polarized culture that has become increasingly judgmental and filled with vitriol. Just go to any article on the internet. Listen to the radio and you'll hear it.

Hate mongering is on the rise. Instead of being more understanding about sexuality, despite what we've learned, hate crimes and bullying, and consequently, gay suicide, are on the rise. Despite all we've learned about gender and equality, there is a boorishness in young males who can find any number of books to wallow in their destructive stereotypes regarding women. And yet, the source of this vitriol has skipped no one, not even the ones who count themselves to be enlightened and tolerant. People who question religion and tend to think of themselves as better than others because their worldview is more understanding.

Yes, people like me.

Self-righteousness and arrogance are two sides of the same coin. And wherever they are present they inevitably infect whoever else is there. Self-righteousness tells me that I am right most of the time. It gives me special status and allows me to look down at others, because I have somehow advanced myself more than the other humans with whom I share this planet. Self-righteousness is a creeping disease because it knows no boundaries, and cannot be stopped by any single belief or system of beliefs. You may think that you are more loving and tolerant and wise because of your religion, or because you reject religion, or because of your politics, but that is merely the voice of self-righteousness speaking through you.

It is one thing to believe that you are right. It is another to know it. One requires faith and humility. The other asks you for nothing. Self-righteousness does not need you to feed it, it merely needs you to ignore it. To brush aside questions about your own mortality and beliefs and accept your own convictions. I have sometimes wondered how it is that people can be so wealthy, and yet so nasty, so dismissive of others. But if we never question our own ideas, or at least entertain them with humility, why would we be considerate of those we consider less than ourselves.

Ultimately, self-righteousness is about status, and our hunger and desire for it. So long as we believe that all humans are NOT created equal, it will continue to grow and fester, and as it does, continue to spread its vitriol throughout our culture.

…The balcony was still a bit damp, but the wind had pushed away the clouds, and the stars glimmered in the night sky. Beads of rain water clung to the railing like a row of unlit lights. In the distance, the blue lit CN tower nestled in along the other lights of the city. I didn't like admitting what I'd written or the way that I'd written it. It was akin to saying that I'd been a jerk. That I hadn't published it or sent it out didn't matter. That I supported gay marriage, or worried over the increase in bullying and taunting in light of the gay suicides this past year, were important and weren't going to change. However, thinking that I was better than people who did not agree with me was unacceptable. Had I not thought the same things myself? Had I not been wrong in the past about my convictions? Where was my humility?

The white light of my laptop seemed unnatural somehow, as I watched the beads along the railing shimmer in the wind. Some days it was hard to be human. More than that, it was difficult to continually admit that I was fallible and often wrong about how I considered the world. It was so easy to get drawn towards self-righteousness, so easy to sneer at others through either my words or my actions. I could pray that I would get better, that I would remember we were all just trying to figure out this thing called life. In the meantime, I asked God to forgive me as I clicked off my computer. Tomorrow was another day. Another day to remember what I'd discovered and respond accordingly. Perfection wasn't attainable, but with God's help, a bit more grace and a little more understanding could go a long way.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Brief Update

Hey Everyone,

My apologies for being a little slow posting here lately. I've been working on a few different things outside of what I normally write. So here's a brief update. (beneath the Update I've included some light reading. Five Observations (from the news and world in general) .

Writing Update

1) Continued work on the novel. Despite having written 145,000 words of Bracing the Darkness, I am once again world building in even greater detail. The Guide to the Cursh Empire is now 30,000 words long on its own, and I need at least another two weeks before I set foot in the actual novel again. There's just no getting around the detail work to produce a good epic fantasy. That includes the creation of every province and country, complete with a brief history, the religious history, local politics, clothing and physical characteristics, gender issues, sex and sexuality norms, family structure, cosmology, language, economics, geography, arts and education, recreation, war, cooking, architecture/trades, and societal structure.
It sounds like a lot of work, and it is, but the big fantasy novels have incorporated this kind of detail, as they should. What's fascinating is the sheer volume of reading necessary to even begin to grasp just some of the intricacies of how people group themselves. I'll be honest I can't wait to get back to the story itself.

2) A short story called This Old House. I originally wrote this about four years ago, dusted it off, and suddenly liked it again. That didn't prevent me from editing it quite a bit, but I'm hoping to send it out to some literary magazines in the next two weeks. It's not quite done, but I'm almost there, I think.

3) New From the Archive feature for this site: In light of the stories coming out this week, I'll probably redux my old blog on Gays and the Church. Some of you might be uncomfortable with it, and I am sure that some will be angry, but we'll see.

4) A newspaper article, Why I Wish I Was Gay. And yes, it's satire. And no, it's not what you think. Some of the stories concerning the suicides this past month have been VERY disturbing.

5) A post on Following your Fears, for this site. Some exciting ideas I've been working through the past month. You'll like this one.

6) A new Book Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. For now, let me just say that it was tremendous.

7) A new Movie Review: Still taking recommendations. Let me know what you want reviewed. I review almost everything I watch, so I'll take the recommendations, but they will be passed through Bethany (my wife) as we usually watch them together.

Those are the current projects, along with a minimum of two hours research everyday, and at least an hour or two of other reading. (Anyone care to know about the Visigoths?) Don't get me wrong, I LOVE what I do, but I have no idea how writers work forty hours and still produce good material. That amazes me.

Five Observations

1. I hate stereotypes. I mean, as a rule, I hate them. Too often they categorize people unfairly into large groupings that often don't make sense. And yet, some things are simply not stereotypes.

I live in Toronto, the biggest city in Canada. It is a metropolis, unlike, say, Dallas, Texas, where the buildings are spaced so widely that their "downtown" is about a block and a half. Toronto is more like Chicago, with massive buildings and a densely packed population. If you drive an LUV, one of those huge Luxury Utility Vehicles originally designed for the military, then you are clearly compensating for something. I understand that families like the smaller SUV's, especially with kids, and I have no problem with that. But if you live in a metropolis, and feel the need to drive a massive vehicle (like a Suburban or a Hummer) designed as a troop carrier, than you have severe 'status' issues. And driving one of said vehicles does not give you the right, EVER, to park in the wider handicap spots. Your personal, mental handicap doesn't count. (And you can't just park along the curb outside the mall either. Show some respect, dammit.)

2. Toronto is about to have its municipal election. We have a budget of about eleven billion dollars (I think) and we're on the verge of electing the dark, twisted version of Chris Farley, Rob Ford. Before you cast your vote, please go to YouTube and watch this man in action. That the police were called to his house for a domestic dispute, though no charges were laid, says a lot. And anyone who says "well, there were no charges", I want you to think about it. Did your spouse ever call the police because they were worried/afraid of you physically? And no, I don't like George Smitherman much either. He seems like a prick. He's a competent administrator though, and has experience in the provincial cabinet. Please don't elect this guy!

3. I am struck, as always, by the fanaticism, the loud screeching, that seems to occupy every debate when it comes to religion. I don't want to be one of those people who predicate everything by "it's getting so much worse than it was in my day", because it's still my day, I think. But there is something to the internet that leads people to spew vitriol and hatred. When I head to some Christian sites and read the comments, I am amazed that these people consider themselves people of faith. Whatever you believe about Jesus, I'm pretty sure he wouldn't be thrilled at the stuff on there. It almost feels as if we are continuing to dissociate ourselves even more, in regards to our online self and our physical self. That is troublesome.

4. One more thought about religion, and this includes me. No single person or group knows everything. Now, that may not sound like an audacious statement, but in many of today's religious models, apparently telling someone that you're not sure that you agree with them is outrageous. Why else do I end up in these debates with Christians who feel safe to assure me that "Their position is God's position"? Really? Isn't that, I don't know, pretty freakin' arrogant? Good grief, you mean to tell me that your position isn't simply something you think is true, or that it's something you've come to believe in, but that you know what God thinks on the issue without a doubt? When I suggest that it might be arrogant to think that way, I usually receive a condescending response along the lines of "Oh, you're a postmodernist, so I guess everything is true." No, not everything is true. What I do know is that a) I'm not God b) that faith does not exist without doubt. If you have no doubts, you have no faith, by definition, and c) that the Kingdom of God is not predicated on the perfection of any one doctrine. Of course, I could be wrong.

On a more positive note...

5. It's amazing to see what happens when you look (and smile) at the people you run into during the day. I know that we're usually in a hurry, but take some time this week to open the door for the person behind you or smile and ask the cashier how he or she is doing. It's easy to go through the entire day without looking at anyone but your family or colleagues, but take a few extra minutes to notice the other people, and watch what a difference it makes. I bumped into a particularly grumpy cashier this week, but I figured she'd been dealing with some rude customers throughout the day. So instead of taking it personally (as I've done in the past) I smiled and made a couple of jokes after asking her how she was doing. By the end, she had a smile on her face. It doesn't take much, you know, to remind us that we're human. And sometimes that's all we need to put a little extra bounce in our step.

Blessings, everyone. Enjoy the fall colours this week. Hopefully I'll have regular post up soon.


Monday, October 11, 2010

Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed by Jon Favreau

Have you ever wondered why sequels, especially blockbuster superhero sequels, are rarely on the same level as their predecessor? How does a stirring and enjoyable event movie get turned into a forgettable mess of discombobulated scenes and seemingly unconnected storylines. Well, sequels, as a rule, are inevitably weaker than the original that spawned them for one reason, with the exception being The Godfather and Superman: The Movie. For the purpose of this review however, let's stick to a film made more recently, and the best superhero sequel (outside the Dark Knight*) since Superman II was released in 1980.

When Spiderman hit the theatres in May of 2002, it was undisputed smash, eventually grossing over $800 million worldwide. After 25 years of being stuck in development, Sam Raimi's "origin" story was finally birthed on the big screen. Raimi immediately set out to direct the sequel, and after combing through scripts from various writers, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, decided on a criminal, Doctor Octopus, a visually intriguing antagonist with a compelling backstory, and a protagonist, in this case Peter Parker, wrestling with the same demons of responsibility that Superman II had so successfully explored 25 years earlier. In doing so, Raimi was able to avoid the predominant pitfall of superhero sequels, and Spiderman II was both a commercial and critical success. Spiderman III, of course, forgot its own franchise lesson, and was not able to sustain the momentum. It was a commercial success, but not nearly as successful as its predecessors and was largely a forgettable film.

When Marvel Studios released Iron Man as its first, self-financed film in 2008, it was an unqualified (and surprise) smash with both critics and audiences everywhere. Jon Favreau directed the movie as "a spy film", and the result was another well told "origin" story, with Robert Downey Jr. cast perfectly as the inventor and gunmaker playboy Tony Stark, who builds a suit and turns himself into a superhero. Downey's Stark was crass and bold, unlike so many of the superheroes we see onscreen, and his chopped, biting dialogue a distinct turn from the bland, clichéd mouthings we were so used to hearing from the ones in tights. The story was concise and well told, the villain identifiable, and the transformation arc of the title character unforced and viable. Still, sequels were never as good as the original, and so I wasn't sure what to expect from Iron Man 2.

Unfortunately, the film falls into the most common of superhero progressions, and fails to humanize its protagonist. The result is predictable. Weak, disjointed storylines. No common theme. Inhuman and unrelatable villains. A lot of bang, but not a lot of buck. And the character arcs, specifically for the minor characters, are either unbelievable or unexplained. Yes, this was a disappointing movie. That said, it's watchable enough, certainly the presence of Downey Jr. alone is enough to guarantee that. It isn't the worst superhero movie ever made (thank you Superman IV), but it's a massive letdown from the original.

At some point, the studios are going to learn that great special effects and fight scenes simply aren't enough. Stories need characters people can relate to, and superhero movies need special attention on that front because the protagonist is, well, a superhero. *The only superhero who seems to escape this is Batman, who is the most relatable of all superheroes (when he's portrayed correctly) since he has no inborn superpowers and an inherent darkness to his character that makes him easy to humanize, especially in the gifted hands of someone like Christopher Nolan. And yet, in the hands of Tim Burton, Batman Returns (starring Danny Devito as the Penguin) was still terrible.

In terms of sequels, Iron Man 2 is an average movie because it falls into the trap of so many blockbuster films. With the technological advances and rendering of believable special effects the past decade, the "superhero" part of the movie is relatively easy now, if the budget is big enough. What's missing is the human part, the character and storytelling basics that make a film either unforgettable or easily forgotten.

Chalk Iron Man 2 into the category of easily forgotten.

** (out of five)

Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Eighth Letter to the Church: What Are We Missing?

Not everyone likes the rain. Dreary. Wet. Rainy. All words that in our culture are synonymous with sadness and depression. Perhaps it's because we're not an agrarian society. We've lived for so long in cities and towns of steel and concrete that we forget just how important the rain is for living things. For us, it is merely an annoyance, something that makes us wear extra clothing or causes us to be wet and cold. Despite that, even as a kid I liked the rain. I liked watching the water as it drizzled down our driveway and collected into puddles. I liked watching the beads of water coalesce, join together to form a larger bead, straining at the tension until finally breaking into a slow stream. Even watching people hustle from the cars and buildings under raised jackets, splashing in puddles before ducking under an awning somehow made me breathe easier, as if we humans were connected for a time. Whatever else was happening, when it was raining outside, we all shared a point of common commiseration and a nod to something larger than ourselves. I'd hear people talk longingly about places like San Diego, where the weather never changed and the sun was always warm and high. Who'd want that? As much as I liked good weather for playing sports, what would you do without rain outs? Or the joy of playing on a muddied soccer field? Or getting helmet full of mud on the gridiron? Why in the world would anyone want it to be sunny all the time?

This past weekend I attended the Eighth Letter conference here in Toronto. It was a last minute invite from my best friend, and included a number of speakers and well known authours from the Christian world. The theme of the conference was simple: as the book of Revelation contained seven letters to the churches (of its day), it was asked of those invited to write an eighth letter to the church in North America. What would you say to the church today, that large and diverse body claiming the Rabbi Yeshua as its Saviour? For all I appreciated the representative nature of the conference, which ranged from stupidly brilliant to brilliantly stupid, I spent most of the conference partitioned into the half-world, the place a lot of us creatives go when we're trying to see beyond the veils of book sales and polite conversation and pandering missives to the unmarked themes presenting themselves as obliquely as the straining grasses and plants do when the waters come from the heavens. A leaning, if you will, both instinctive and unheralded, by those both attending the conference and those trying to influence them.

Some things bothered me more than others, particularly our continuing determination to represent the Rabbi as a two dimensional God, as One who is simply either for or against things, as if the Creator of the Universe is some ridiculous moron that can only see things in two dimensions, that can only distinguish between the rain or sun, or good or bad.

It rains because it must, but what if the rain speaks more loudly than the sun?


Perhaps it's a human failing that we try to find the ultimate solution to bringing people together, the "one thing" that will unite us despite our pettiness and seeming insatiable need for more personal acclaim and status. Perhaps we Christians aim too high, forever searching for that one doctrine, that one belief or system of beliefs that will engage us all in the same manner and allow us to come together in worship and joy and gladness. It is a noble goal, I think, but one at which we are destined to fail, so long as we continue to think that our lists (of goals, beliefs, doctrines and creeds) are better than the lists of everyone else. Or at least, so long as we think that it is our lists that will unite us.

One of the speakers on Friday night chose Hell as his uniting doctrine, even as he stressed the importance of getting the gospel right. As silly and abhorrent as the idea was, I remember thinking he was probably closer to the truth of what unites people than those who emphasized love and sharing. Fear works better in bringing people under a common cape than the nuanced notion of loving your neighbour. It protects us from having to walk in other people's shoes, keeps us free from questions about what we actually believe, and allows us to condemn both people and ideas without a drop of emotional blood. Fear gives us the freedom to pursue our goals for our sake and the perfect rationalization when we turn our backs on those who need us. It is both powerful and efficient. 

And it's wrong. 

Wrong in its assumptions of humanity and wrong in its attempt to influence our behaviour. Jesus compared the Kingdom to a pearl, but when we attempt to rule through fear, we unwittingly turn the same Kingdom into a maze of violence.

Given the alternatives however, what choice do we have? How can we influence the behaviour of fellow Christians and those who don't share our beliefs to do the right thing without fear? What if we were to remove the doctrine of Hell from our arsenal of evangelical weaponry? 'God loves you, so you should love your neighbour' may sound nice, but doesn't that seem weak in comparison?

And yet, a number of speakers, to their credit, tried to tell us that in their letters. Told us how much better it was to love than not to love, how important it was not to forget the poor or those left behind. For as much as I nodded in agreement and applauded their ideas, a part of me had zoned out. It wasn't that I disagreed with them, just that their letters felt like only a slight improvement on the other letters that told us we were lazy and needed more zeal, or that we needed to remember Jesus, or the one that rolled out like a dissertation on the sinner's prayer and the efficacy of hell. It felt like we were all somehow missing something. Or maybe it was me.

That is, until Janell Anema told us her story. The twenty seven year old waitress had no books in the lobby, no international audience, no CD's or videos on Youtube. At no point did she give her list to the congregation, or insist why her list was better than ours, or why certain beliefs held special status. Instead, she told us the story of a young girl growing up and her experience with God.

Graceful, humourous, and poignant, we listened as the story unfolded into her adolescence and through her twenties. Instead of creeds and doctrines, of thou will's and thou will not's, she gave us other things. She gave us her mistakes, her doubts and fears, drawing us forward by walking us backwards through a story that reminded us of our own troubles, our own mistakes and difficulties. And yet, not once did she point a finger, except to point upwards, and occasionally, to tap her heart. As she told us her story, there was a palpable shift in the audience, an audience that had been listening but doodling in the warmth and convenience of the sun. 

As one, both conservative and liberal, we put our coats over our heads and splashed through the same puddles and ducked under the same doorways, laughing together despite the inconvenience of it all. And when she finished, we rose to our feet, the only time we would do so all weekend, realizing that she'd given us a gift, something that we so often forgot when it came to our faith. It wasn't the warnings or promises of thunderstorms or blue skies that brought us together. It wasn't our persistence or intensity that mattered, or even the strength of our ideas. What mattered was that her journey was my journey, a reminder that we all shared the same story of sadness and love and yes, hope, in our attempt to follow this Saviour. And for a while at least, she did something special inside that massive basilica where we'd chosen to gather. Something different. Something wondrous. She made it rain.


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Pastor is Just a Politician

The lecture hall was packed. One of the students was down at the front playing the piano as the rest of us, about a hundred and thirty or so, stood by our desks singing the old hymn, Here Am I. At the end of the third verse, our Professor started exhorting us.

"Who will go where Jesus calls? Will you go?" He said pointing one of the students in the middle row. "What about you?" The piano continued softly in the background. It was a charismatic Bible College, and such decisions were never made without music. One by one, my classmates started shouting. "I'll go. Send me, Lord!" It was no surprise to hear my voice mingle in with the rest. Despite the theatrics, it was a powerful moment. I was a first year Bible College at the time, but I'd been 'God's boy' since I was a little kid. I was ready to go and make a difference in the world. I had been 'called', and I was ready to 'go forth.'

With a send off like that, and there were a great deal more of them, it's impossible NOT to be disappointed when you finally do enter the valley of disdain, the one Fundamentalists refer to as 'the world.' Being a youth pastor was a great deal of fun, a lot of hard work, but it wasn't what I expected. Mostly because it just felt like a job. A stressful job, true enough, especially when it came to dealing with the older children. (I'm referring to the adults. And yes, when you pastor long enough, it is often difficult to distinguish the kids from those who meet the age requirements for youth group.) Maybe if we'd all been hooked up to our Ipods back then we could have played the necessary, heartwarming soundtracks to encourage positive behavior. Or dimmed the lights in the daily workplace for a better ambience. Maybe then, going 'into the world' would have felt more… genuine. As it was, the expectations of being a pastor bordered on silly. The regular attenders expected the pastor to be holy, a shining example, the one person who was living the way they were supposed to, believing and saying all things correctly, always in love, always gentle and strong and wise, but never aggressive or reactive. The pastor was more than a person, he or she was an office, a holy office with near mystical abilities.

Back then, it was hard to express to people outside the fundamentalist movement what a superstar the pastor was in that world. In many of the churches that I was affiliated with over the years, it wasn't (and still isn't) a stretch to compare the pastor to a monarch, in both the expectations and the way those who held the office were regarded. Yet when the big names in the charismatic world started to 'fall' from grace, like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker, and the subsequent ripples that flooded the charismatic movement, there was little or no introspection within the movement. Externals were blamed, with an emphasis on the demonic and high sin ratio of either the pastor or the congregation. No one questioned the extreme nature of the established hierarchy. It would be akin to taking someone raised in the slums and giving them millions of dollars, then surrounding them with people hanging on their every word and women throwing themselves at their feet, and being puzzled why that person dove into a hedonistic lifestyle. (Like a number of our professional athletes)

What's shocking is that thirty years have passed, and we haven't grown any smarter. We still talk about pastors being "called" or "led" to their vocation. We give them (and their career choice) a mystical origin, a road in their life that we do not share, and by doing so, inherently grant them greater authourity to speak into our lives. It is the force of that experience, that holy experience, that continues to delineate the perspective between the regular Joe-schmo congregant and the pastor. And so, while our pastors enjoy the perks of the monarchy (It DID feel good giving advice to sixty year old men when I was twenty-one, and being respected as someone who knew better, believe me) it also severely limits them. It places ridiculous constraints on what they (the good ones) hope to achieve by making them out to be holy. Even more disturbing is that most people don't have any idea where the "holy" expectation originates.


In 303 ACE, Diocletian, the Roman Emperor, declared all churches and sacred scriptures of the Christians were to be destroyed. In 304 another edict was issued ordering the burning of incense to the idol gods of the Roman empire. In North Africa, however, the governor did not throw himself behind the persecution. He asked the Christian leaders to hand over their Scriptures as a symbol of their recantation, and if they did, it would serve as a symbol of their recantation and they could go about their business. Some did, others refused. When the persecution ended a few years later, a group of bishops were enraged to learn that Felix, bishop of Aptunga, who had just consecrated the new bishop, Caecillian, had given copies of the Bible to the Roman persecutors. A group of about 70 bishops formed a synod and declared the consecration of the bishop to be invalid. After the death of Caecilian, Aelius Donatus the Great became bishop of Carthage and continued this new teaching that the effectiveness of the sacraments were dependent on the moral character of the minister. In other words, if a minister who was involved in a serious enough sin were to baptize a person, that baptism would be considered invalid. Donatism would divide the church for nearly two centuries, before finally being defeated by Augustine, for a time at least, and while it would never cause the division it once did, it would provide the theological backing of a number of Christian atrocities in the future.

The Donatists were the first Puritan Christians, the first to insist that the church was supposed to be a gathering of holy and righteous people, and that the unrighteous and unworthy should be purged from its midst. From this movement would spring the inquisition and heresy trials and English Puritanism centuries later. Today the movement exists mostly within the charismatic and fundamentalist forms of Christianity. It has never been accepted as part of Christian orthodoxy, has no origination within Judaism or earlier branches of Christianity, and yet today holds an increasing sway over how we consider church hierarchy and those who serve as our clergy. In some ways, what we expect of our clergy, with their reconstructed and mythical origins, is a form of bastardized Donatism. Not everyone need be holy, but the priests and pastors and ministers should, for don't they represent God Himself?

Well, not exactly…


I remember fondly the times at the altar and in the classrooms at Bible College, those times with my friends and professors urging us towards the pastoral life, a calling, to use their words, to go and make a difference in the world. Looking back, my only regret is that they would have used less hyperbole and been a bit more honest about the position itself. A pastor, especially a lead pastor or senior pastor, is essentially a politician. They lead an organization filled with a diverse group of people with an infinite number of backgrounds. Their primary goal is to unify the people into a working community based on the belief structure of the institution. And like our elected politicians, a pastor is limited in what they can say or can't say against the institution, for example, their personal ideas about certain doctrines. As a pastor, I learned very quickly the amount of dishonesty necessary to survive the job. Like our politicians, who can talk for half an hour without saying anything, full disclosure was discouraged. What surprised me the most however, was the disconnect between the expectations and knowledge of the average congregant and those they'd chosen to lead their church. It used to astound me (and still does) how little people knew about what it was like to be a pastor, to realize the difference between the promotional material and the reality.

I don't regret my time in the ministry. I have too many memories of people receiving the help and encouragement they needed, especially young people with no place to go, no family to take them in and show them love. If there is a 'calling' in pastoral ministry, it is the one that gives you the personality and tenacity to pursue positive ends while dealing with the discouragement and divisiveness inherent within human nature. In other words, the crap that comes with people. That said, it isn't for everybody. I have, at times, considered doing ministry work again in some capacity, most likely with young people. The ideas expressed on this website however, would be a barrier to that involvement. Much like a politician, some church members would undoubtedly be offended by some of the things I believe and the honest (and transparent) manner in which they have been expressed. For example, how can I struggle with the idea of institutions and be expected to represent one? Of course, there are other opinions on this site, ones that have led to some notoriety in certain Christian circles. Unfortunately, I think I'd make a crappy politician. I'm not sure that I could keep my mouth shut long enough to get things done.


This past summer I attended a basketball game in Ottawa. It was an annual political event, hosted by one of the city's Members of Provincial Parliament. (Yasir Naqvi) Held at St.Luke's, a club with an outdoor basketball court and a diverse membership of young adults, between the Police Services and the best players from St.Luke's, I learned that a number of the former players from St. Luke's were now playing for the Police Services team. The event had provided them with contact and contacts to find a solid career, and many of them had changed their lives as a result. For all that politicians put up with bureaucratic boondoggles and fund raising and public scorn, I've met a number through the years who would tell you that such an event was worth all the garbage they put up with on a daily basis.

You may not think much of politicians, and you may not like the comparison between them and the pastor at your local assembly, but having been involved closely with both, I can only tell you what I know and let you decide. Regardless of how you feel, my hope is that we, as a church, would at least consider our views of our local clergy. Think about why we hold them up so highly, and what that means for us and our faith. Do we really believe that some people are different simply because of their vocational tendency, or do we hold that view because we don't want to get our own hands dirty? It's fine to have leadership, some form of functional hierarchy is necessary for any organization to work, but when we ascribe to certain individuals mystical authourity, there is a tendency to step away from the messes outside our own door, to ask permission and debate ideas instead of looking to help. My prayer is that we will look less to those who lead and more towards those who need our help, and in so doing, provide the kind of love that we are all called to provide, regardless of our vocation.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Movie Review: Knight and Day (2010)

Directed by James Mangold

After a preponderance of thought, the only way I could write a review of this movie was to imagine it through the eyes of a child in fourth grade.

Hi everyone,

I had to write a movie review for my English class, so I chose this movie I watched with my parents last night. It's called Knight and Day. The star of the movie is an actor named Tom Cruise. It isn't his real name. He changed it a long time ago because it sounded more like Hollywood. My parents tell me that when he started acting he wasn't very good, but he chose good movies, and over time, he became a better actor. I liked Jerry Maguire a lot. He had real chemistry with the kid in the movie, and Rene Zellwegger. She was also very good. So was the black man (Cuba Gooding Jr.). I still don't know why he left acting to star in Walt Disney movies. I asked my parents but they don't know either. He was so good in Jerry Maguire.

In Knight and Day, Tom Cruise is a mysterious stranger who smiles a lot, and then suddenly shows up to help Cameron Diaz. You don't know why he's there or much about him, but he's kind of funny. It reminded me of the Youtube video where he's jumping on Oprah's couch. Lol. Soooo funny. He does all of these cool stunts, although they aren't really believable. (Not even a movie star can stand on top of a moving car like that and laugh and shoot guns, he would fall down.) There's a lot of action when he joins up with Cameron Diaz. She's really pretty, but I've never seen someone with such a big mouth. I asked my mom who had the world's biggest mouth, but she told me to be quiet and enjoy the movie. I do like how Cameron Diaz laughs. It's as big as her mouth. Anyway, lots of things happen, but you kind of know everything is going to be okay, because Tom Cruise always has a big smile on his face, even when people are shooting at him. Sometimes violence bothers me, but this movie had less real violence than a video game. (I mean one that isn't rated Mature, my parents don't let me play those games. My parents are pretty old fashioned.)

I think this movie could have been better, but it feels like it's all over the place. Like when Mr. Zubica, my math teacher, talks about England and Chinese food when we're doing our Fast Math quizzes. No one in the class knows what he's talking about, but no one says anything because he's pretty nice for a teacher. He even lets us go to the bathroom when we're writing a test, which is pretty great, because sometimes I have to really pee and can't hold it. Anyway, I did like that everyone was happy in the movie. No matter what was happening, all the actors were always smiling and laughing. I hate sad movies, so that was really good. So I enjoyed it, and I think you will too.

The End.

Oh, I forgot to mention. Half of the fun for me was watching my parents during the movie. They kept looking at each other and making faces and rolling their eyes. They would say things like "What the…" or "Huh?" or once "Tom Cruise chose this #&&#&% over Salt?" That was my favourite part, because my mom never swears, and she never even said anything about her own swearing, even though she knows I'm not supposed to hear it. OMG, it was sooo funny. So like, if you have some old people to watch it with, DO IT! They will really make you laugh.

½* (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Is It Love… or the Idea of Love

I'll never forget it. It was a night much like this one, loosened white swirls against a blackened night, stars glittering like veiled sequins across God's canvas. I'd stayed home that evening. Gone for a late walk after midnight. The dreams had come fiercely, and while I'd known their fierceness in the past, the past month had been something new. Something desperate. Something needed. The street had been quiet, as always, as I stumbled towards the small house that I, along with my ten housemates, now called home. And yet, I couldn't go inside. With every glance at the stars I found sadness, a great, unvarnished look into a heart that lay quietly dying. It shouldn't have been surprising. Not for someone who prided himself on his self-awareness and tendency towards introspection. But we all have blind spots, especially in matters of the heart. That was the night I realized that while I had known love, what I'd known better was the idea of love. I saw how it had sustained bad relationships. Saw how I had fooled myself into believing that they were the same. Realized that whatever I knew about love, most of it was second hand, lines from movies and well written discourses on the greatest of human mysteries.

That night I asked God for a second chance.


We don't realize it, but beyond the oil and consuming, the concept of love drives Western culture more than anything else. All of our art forms are faithful in their dedication towards her. And yet, love is mostly a new thing. We write her into our historical novels and plays and movies, we read psalms and poetry that endeavor to unmask her power and enhance it, and still, we forget the truth behind these mythical notions. When it comes to romance, love is yet in her infancy. Most of what we read is misread, and most of the great love stories have been misrepresented. Love, as it exists in our minds and our culture, is less than a hundred years old.

Oh, I know, you'll hear the commentators scoff at such at notion. Love is eternal, they'll say. Love has always existed. And it has… but not in the romantic form with which we so deeply consider it now. Love, that which we see and feel in the moonlight and quiet music, exists only between equals. Do I really love someone who I consider less than myself? Do I really love someone who is not my equal? Perhaps, as a master loves a slave or an owner loves a pet. But what poet captures the imagination of the world writing an ode to their horse or dog? We may not like it, but the idea of love is the blinding light of a society that claims equality but does not grant it. It is the fruit on the dish of ice cream that talks of healthy eating. Worse, the idea of love is sold as the real thing. It binds men and women in unequal relationships, and creates new stories, new myths, to convince people that what they experience is in fact, the ideal. So hungry are people for the real thing that we will swallow the lie, the new myths (which are nothing more than the retelling of old stories), and believe that we have indeed, found love.

It is impossible to count how often we hear the word 'love', during our daily routine, suffice to say that we hear it enough to diminish her meaning and power. Everyone loves everyone, and all who find themselves in romantic entanglements admit to love, though most people are not happy. That sounds harsh, but how else do we explain the separation of people who have said they love each other? How else to explain the domestic violence so rampant throughout our culture? And the church is not exempt. Both the rates of divorce and domestic violence are higher in the church than for those outside the church. (Though not by much) Somewhere, somehow, we have convinced ourselves that the most important part of our life is that it is shared with someone else. More than simply status, she is the very manner in which we define ourselves and the success of our lives. And so, we cannot tell if it is love, or the idea of love, with which we are so enamored.

The end result is not pleasant. We are given books and writings designed to help us create love and stimulate love, and yet no one mentions just how mysterious she is, or how uneasily she should be defined. She is young still, and most often those that claim to know her know only what others have told them. The best relationships are often unexplainable, and offer only hints as to their vitality. For as much as we'd like to duplicate its impact, love has not easily surrendered her secrets.


I have been in love before, but until these past two years, I have not truly known her power. How could I? I believed that men were superior to women. We still teach that, you know. Especially within religion, though not exclusively so. In fact, great swaths of our society teach the greatest obstacle to love as a pathway to her arms. Its sadly ironic, but mostly sad. In the theatre of our romantic discourse we discuss roles and obligations, lists and keys for both sexes, pitfalls and pragmatic tips for finding the most mysterious of human giftings. And still, she eludes us. So much so that we settle for the idea of love, and make excuses for both our failing to find her and the relationship we find ourselves in, which we know lacks her presence.

I once thought that if I ever knew what love was, if I ever had another chance at her, that I would be able to offer advice to the many people starving for a taste of her presence. I was wrong. The more I find her in my relationship with my wife, the less I comprehend. I do not know why she graces us with her presence, and I do not understand why she has chosen me. What I do know is that one night I stood beneath the stars and asked for a second chance. And God, the One who identifies himself as love, saw fit to answer my prayer.

For all of her wonder, love is the most humbling presence of all, and to have discovered her so late in life is a gift beyond words. My hope is that you will not falter when the world offers you the idea, and wait instead for her beguiling presence, a presence that will shift the very core of your being. She is young still, this love, but she is powerful beyond words. And if she touches you, your life will never be the same.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Movie Review: The Town (2010)

Directed by Ben Affleck

Everyone loves seeing someone get a second chance. Okay, so not everyone, but the great mass of humanity does, especially when we feel like people deserve it. Usually, all that entails is getting to know the person and feeling like they aren't a prick, that somewhere inside they're just like you and me and every other regular slob punching the daily human card. The power of a well told story is such that it allows us to see from the perspective of someone who, if we didn't know them, knew only their resume, we wouldn't be that interested. And if ever there was a test of that notion, it's Ben Affleck's new film The Town.

Affleck is the star of the movie, and the director and co-writer as well. In The Town he plays a not-so-hardened, but tough enough criminal, Doug MacRay, who's family legacy is theft and heart break. As a director, it's his second feature, following on the heels of his critically acclaimed Gone Baby Gone in 2007. As a person, well, for someone who had great success early, before becoming tabloid fodder following a number of questionable roles and dubious performances and sensational love interests, it isn't his second chance exactly, but it still feels that way. And if it is his remaking, he's doing a hell of a job with it. The Town proves, beyond doubt, that Gone Baby Gone was no fluke. It is an efficient, crisp thriller with a surprising amount of humour and no logic gaps to speak of, no moments where you wonder how a certain plot hole was so conveniently filled.

When you're remaking yourself, it helps to have Jeremy Renner along for the ride. The Best Actor nominee from The Hurt Locker provides gravitas as Affleck's lifelong friend and burgeoning sociopath who understands only two things: loyalty and violence. Renner is a name you'll be hearing more from, by the way. He may not have the looks of Pitt or the range of Depp (he just may, but he reminded me here of his character in S.W.A.T.), but he provides a great deal of the weight of the film. One wonders what The Town would have looked like without him. Jon Hamm is here as well, as FBI Special Agent Adam Trawley, but his performance provides none of the nuance he displays on a regular basis for Mad Men, the multiple Emmy award winning show in which he is the lead. (It's a disgrace he hasn't won an Emmy for his work there, but in The Town, he is merely adequate.) The only other performance worth mentioning is that of Blake Lively, who plays Renner's sister and Affleck's long-time love interest. Whatever has been said about her, she is flat-out terrific here. I suspect she'll be receiving more than a few calls from directors in the near future.

We can all wax philosophically about Affleck's career – as I was leaving the theatre I heard the couple behind me discussing how much better he was as a director – but the truth is that he's immensely likable and remarkably generous, both as an actor and director. And like his character in The Town, it's easy to overlook his mistakes and cheer for him anyway. Still, it wouldn't be enough if the movie was bad, or even average. It's so much better than that. Without question, there are some movie cliché moments, ones that make you sigh if not roll your eyes, and there were times in the theatre when a portion of the fifteen hundred people sitting around me laughed even after a sequence of surprising violence. But the applause (it was a TIFF showing) after the movie was long and generous, much like the man who made it.

Second chances are as much about the way the story is told as the one who the story is about, and to that end, Affleck succeeds in motivating the audience to cheer for his MacRay, a criminal capable of nasty things, but one who desires a second chance. Make no mistake, The Town is populist fare, with shootouts and action scenes and witty dialogue, but you get the feeling that as much as we're cheering for MacRay the criminal, we're cheering Affleck too. If the response from the audience were any indication, it looks like the man we once called Bennifer is on his way, and I, for one, am excited about it.

***1/2 stars (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

Movie Review: Passion Play (2010)

Directed by Mitchell Glazer

Most of us don't realize it, but our brains do not register concepts or ideas. They don't store information like a computer either, in ones and zeros. Rather, it does all that needs to be done, the sorting and predicting and shuffling through the endless torrent of stimuli, with pictures and emotions. From the most abstract concepts of math and physics to the most widely known, such as love, our brain works only with pictures and emotions. That makes a visual medium such as film an ideal place to explore simple concepts in new and profound ways. Perhaps new is the wrong word, as some film goers immediately sense that you are talking about some new film maker that artistes consider brilliant but that most of us can't follow because the story itself is abstract. Sometimes simple is better. Sometimes smaller is better. And sometimes it takes a single frame, a single illustration to remind us again why film is the single most powerful and prolific story telling tool we have. That is, when it's done well. And in Passion Play, it's done very well indeed.

Mickey Rourke stars as Nate Poole, a washed up, former jazz star in Mitchell Glazer's new film Passion Play. Rourke revitalized his career with a tremendous performance in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler two years ago, which earned him an Academy Award nomination, and apparently some good scripts from which to choose. Once again, he has chosen well. Rourke is 58 now, so unless you're of a certain age, you won't recall how Rourke, always a physical specimen, was a rising screen star in the 1980's, perhaps culminating in his performance with Kim Basinger in the erotic drama 9 1/2 weeks. His life then became a cautionary Hollywood tale of hard living and bad choices, not the least of which was his decision to go back to professional boxing, and the subsequent plastic surgery needed restore some of the damage the boxing had done, which only made it worse. These days, the looks are gone, but the presence remains. If anything, as he showed in The Wrestler, and even further here, the once vaunted physicality has been whittled around the edges, like a smooth piece of driftwood, and so there is little about him that isn't natural. In Passion Play, the raging emotions and energy crackle to life in his character, Nate Poole, but not often. Nate has been beaten down, buried under a sea of politics and passions and excuses every drug user knows, managing to survive, but only just. From the world of excess and celebrity, he has found an existence crawling amidst the night dwellers and dealers, the brokers of cheap rent and rummaged lives. There is something still alive in Nate, you can hear it in his music, but it no longer finds its way to the surface. But then, why would it? What good is strength and hope when you realize that those things belong only to the people who have chosen pragmatism, for people who dwell in the normative and who have controlled their emotions and affections for a life more stable? For someone like Nate, the world makes little sense outside of the clear, soft jazz of his trumpet. It probably never will. Who do you trust when you no longer even trust yourself?

There's been a lot written about Megan Fox, who became a star after her performance in Transformers. Unfortunately, when you watch Michael Bay's camera linger on her smooth stomach in that movie and listen to the playboy director discuss his casting decision, you understand the reasons behind the talk. Add to it some other wooden performances and her first leading role, in Jennifer's Body, that only reminded most critics of the decision behind her role in Transformers, and you understand why there was so little to expect from her here, even alongside Rourke. In Passion Play however, Fox gives a performance that should end the discussion about whether or not she can act. Yes, there are moments when you feel her shifting to Soap Opera emoting, the standard for beautiful young Hollywood actresses, but whether it's Glazer's direction or the strong script or the role that calls for something new, those moments are rare. For most of the film, she's actually something of a revelation. She plays against her type, and while certainly the camera and story frame her beauty, it does so in a way you do not expect. As the film progresses, you forget that she is "The Megan Fox", the one criticized and posterized for everything from her previous roles to her plastic surgery to her private life. Instead, it feels as though she is discovering new things through her character, new things about who she is and who she chooses to be, and she shyly invites us all along for a glimpse into her journey.

More than anything else, Passion Play is a look into the lives of people who have been broken, but deep inside still hold out for the faint hope of something more. Of something greater than the numbers, the ones and zeros that too often characterize our daily existence. Throughout the film, Glazer never cheats, never reaches beyond the characters, until one soaring moment when the simple but abstract idea that drives the movie reveals itself in a frame where picture and emotion finally meet onscreen. And when they do, we are lifted along with the characters, through our own remembrances of journeys past and journeys lost, washed away, for a while at least, in the hope of something greater.

****1/2 stars (out of five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From the Archives: Church is for Women… Or is it?

Authour's Note: As I explained in this tab, occasionally I'll be wading through old articles I've posted. Part of that is to help me chronicle my own journey, and part of it is to shed light on just how much our views change through the years as we experience different things and learn from past mistakes. This article was posted originally on Saturday January 20, 2007, nearly three and a half years ago. Aside from the writing, which needed some editing but still didn't thrill me, the view here is one I now disagree with in a variety of ways. Following the article, I'll post my follow up, which I'll keep to five hundred words. (And if you've been on this blog before, you know that five hundred words is truly a summation for me.)This post, by the way, is dedicated to my friend Zack, who suggested this idea. Hope you enjoy the new feature, everyone. As always, comments are welcome.

Church is For Women

The door jingled as I walked inside Blessings, the small Christian bookstore I'd found when I'd first moved to Ottawa. I strolled through the store, amidst the tables of nic nacs and Jesus figurines while the music played softly in the background. Every time I entered a Christian bookstore I had a strange sense that I was walking into a women's section of the library. It hadn't bothered me in the past, as I was more at home in quiet bookstore than I was in a garage. Lately, however, I'd started to notice things. Mainly, I'd come to notice just how feminine the church had become.

I headed to the men's section. I browsed through the titles, and went to another aisle before realizing that the men's titles were all located on just the one shelf. Slim pickings. As usual. It wasn't the publisher's fault however, as every Christian writer knew that women purchased more than 85% of any books sold through Christian retail. No wonder they tailored their stores – with the soft music and rose colored walls – towards women. Still, it made me shake my head. When I finished my shopping and headed out a few minutes later, I wondered if my friends would have been comfortable in a store like that. Might as well be buying flowers.

Lately I'd been doing a fair bit of reading about the church, in particular the place of men within the church, and lately I'd begun to notice some discrepancies, discrepancies that had me and some others worried. Particularly the lack of men, especially 'manly men', in the church. I'd never really noticed it before, but there was a reason for that. The statistics for church attendance were alarming. George Barna had found a gender gap of over 13 million (more women attending church) in the U. S. As well, twenty to twenty-five per cent of married women in the church were going alone. Any one who had worked in a church understood this. I remembered my time as a pastor. I remembered the women who came alone, and I remembered how much we (the pastoral staff) leaned on the women to run the programs. Except for the deacons, it was hard to find men consistently in the building. Perhaps one of the greatest misperceptions of the modern church was the idea that it was patriarchal. More like a frosted cake, below the frosting of ministers and clergy, still predominantly men, most of the church's programs were run by and for women. This whole idea about men 'missing' in the church was something of a revelation to me, understandable I suppose for the fact that I related to the men and women who attended church quite well. I was artistic. I liked small conversations. I liked teaching. I also enjoyed singing and music and learning. Unfortunately, most men just weren't built that way. I decided that the next Sunday I would step back and take a closer look at the Sunday service, which so many authors seemed to suggest had only become increasingly feminine.

The first thing that struck me was how NICE-ly everything was arranged, how NICE the people were, and how it fit with the elevator style music softly leaking over the sound system. I hung up my jacket and strolled into the sanctuary, greeting people along the way. By the time the service started, I'd already had about ten small conversations filled with warm fluff and lots of smiles. After brief announcements, we started singing. We sang for a good thirty minutes before one of our pastors and some others delivered some more announcements, all of which were presented in soft, smiling voices. Our senior pastor finally rose to speak, and after a short prayer, delivered a forty-five minute teaching that was both interesting and long. I say 'long', because as I imagined myself as a non-artistic man in the congregation, I wondered how good it felt to be back in school for an hour and a half every Sunday morning. Not only school, but taking a feminist course on relationships and submission and passive interaction. And then there was the soft music, the emphasis on relationships and small talk, the almost desperate longing for people to be NICE. And through it all, if you listened closely enough, you could almost hear the unconscious murmur... Don't rock the boat. We're all safe here. What was dangerous and manly about that? Where was the adventure and pulsing life that men longed for?

Church, for whatever reason, had become an exercise for women and artists and passive types who relished security over risk, who longed for relationship over greatness, programs over projects. Something had happened between now and that daring New Testament church that was filled with 'manly men', risk takers and adventurous types who understood that becoming a Christian did not mean more tea and crumpets. I wasn't sure what we could do about it, but it was something I needed to think about, because the more we excluded men from our churches, the more feminine they would become...


A Feminine Church? Huh?

You notice it most often when you go out to a bar or pub and people are drinking, and therefore more uninhibited, but you see in restaurants, too. The harshness in conversations, the veiled threats, the simmering arguments, the passive aggressive comments, all made by people who have voluntarily chosen to be out together. Family, friends with friends, or worse, two people involved in some kind of romantic relationship. Coming out of the church "bubble", the one thing you notice almost immediately is how often people are NOT nice to each other. And while we can argue that too often we use "niceness" as a measurement for a person's character, it is the sign of social discipline to be in a place where niceness is prevalent, and it has nothing to do with gender. It's about safety.

When I wrote that piece nearly four years ago, I was immersed in church culture. Since then I've changed cities and moved twice, and haven't really found a church home yet. These days I'm well outside the bubble. I'm outside the safety of a place that's warm and welcoming and filled with genial small talk. I no longer see it as some kind of challenge to my supposed "manliness", whatever that means, but a welcome respite from most days where that social discipline does not exist.

The idea that a church needs to be more "manly", is frankly ridiculous. And while some of the erotic tendencies within the "worship music" industry are disturbing – as a straight male, singing about Jesus as my lover is, err, uncomfortable – the service itself no more reflects a feminine nature than a library (the woman section of the library, was I kidding?) or gym reflects its purpose. The purpose of meeting together each week as Christians is not to raise our own particular idea of gender awareness and compensate for our insecurities. It is a time of encouragement, meditation, and corporate prayer designed to help us push each other towards a life that better reflects that of Jesus. Or at least, our idea of Jesus.

The idea that "church" is feminine speaks primarily to men who feel that they have somehow lost the "adventure" within their own lives, which is a result of feeling emasculated by either their jobs or relationships. But addressing it through gender stereotypes is a disaster waiting to happen. In fact, I can't think of another, single thing more capable of destroying both individuals and relationships than this emphasis on what is male and what is female. A quick glance at other cultures and history books reveals that gender distinctions are as real a dividing line as the Prime Meridian. What they end up doing is creating more insecurity in those who do not "fit" the normative male or female patterns. (I love to dance. I love to read and write. Does that make me feminine?) According to my old way of thinking, women not only don't like adventure, they don't enjoy challenges or anything outside of shopping, flowers and children, either.

Understand that none of this has anything to do with what it means to be a Christian. Sure, it gives us a sense of being safe in our roles, but the problem being safe is what walked us down this road in the first place. Want more adventure in your life? Stop taking crap from others telling you what to do and who you should be, get on your knees, and figure it out. Involve yourself in programs with people who need help, people who will challenge you. And when you go out for dinner, just listen to the conversations around your table. More often than not, you'll wish you were in church.