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 Рas I was leaving the theatre I heard the couple behind me discussing how much better he was as a director Рbut 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 clich̩ 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.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

Movie Review: Crazy Heart (2010)

Directed by

Scott Cooper

I've never really understood the appeal of old country music. Guys like Waylon Jennings, whose name I know only from the Dukes of Hazzard theme song, twanging away on their gee-tar and sipping back grandpa's whiskey. For most of my life it has been the one type of music, along with death metal, that actually irritated me. The storytelling in it is bland, the music is three chords, and the lyrics are sappy and melodramatic. What the hell am I supposed to do with that?

I'd heard the buzz around Crazy Heart even before its star, and one of my favourite actors, Jeff Bridges, finally won his first Oscar for his role in it. Even then, I still wasn't sure if I wanted to see it. If I didn't get old country music, why would I want to see a (fictionalized) movie about an old country music star? I wasn't sure that I saw the relevance. (This is what happens when you don't have to review movies as part of your job.) A couple of friends encouraged me to check it out however, and so I sucked it up and prepared for yet another boring, two hour ride into the latest bio-musical pic.

Boy, was I wrong. From the opening scene, I became immersed somehow into this culture, into this old country lifestyle that I'd never understood. The best movies all do this, of course, but some cultures are more difficult to translate to the screen, and even more when the translation is contingent on a type of music that typically needs its surroundings as much as it needs its musicians. But the seamless storytelling and presence of Bridges, who is mostly unrecognizable throughout, provide all that's needed to make the film, and its subject, completely accessible.

Bridges plays Bad Blake, a former old country star, a la Jennings, who hasn't recorded a hit in a long time, and the movie draws us in as we follow Bad into the contradiction that is the world of country music. There's the claustrophobic night life, coloured bright and smoky in seedy bars and hotels and backend bowling alleys. Here the people come, looking to him for reminders of past glories, of dreams past and dreams lost, dreams that fade in time but somehow resonate in the clear baritone of an old man's voice and an old man's song. When the songs fade, and the night along with it, we're thrust into the harsh daylight, a transition made difficult by the wide open spaces and burning light of the desert sun, a sun that seems to crackle onscreen with every aching step of Bad's weathered cowboy boots and every crunch of gravel beneath the tires of his old, worn out truck. By turns his stubbornness and sadness, his anger and hope, percolate and boil over, all of it in tune with the contradictions of the land and the music, between the soft kisses of moonlight and withering noon glare of the Texan sun. Like a carefully balanced song, we feel the inevitable change sweeping through a life that must somehow come to a decision, one that will dictate whether his music will follow his weary heart or if somehow he will find the courage to strum new chords in the future.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is here, and while her intelligence and "old-youngness" make her the perfect choice for this role, her character needed perhaps an extra scene or two. We can surmise a few things from what she says, but in a film as deliberate as Crazy Heart, it should be in the script. Colin Farrell has a small but important role here as well, with an understated but engrossing performance that reminds you what a great actor he can be when he's not making blockbusters. He needs to do more roles like this one.

Ultimately, the movie rests on Bridges, and he delivers one of the best performances of his career. He's more open here than we're used to, more vulnerable than we've seen him since his terrific performance nearly twenty years ago in The Fabulous Baker Boys. It must be said however, that this is not another Ray; it is not merely a showpiece for a great actor. Crazy Heart, at its core, is a story about life, about what happens when we stop believing in the future and when our yesterdays surpass our tomorrows.

I think that's why I never liked old country music. It always seemed so focused on the past. But maybe I missed the point. Maybe the idea is that thinking about the past is not only a good thing, but necessary, if we want to find our future. Too hopeful? Too simple? Perhaps, but then, there's power in the simple answers, so long as we're willing to listen. After watching Crazy Heart, I might finally be ready.

****1/2 stars (Out of Five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Why Faith Matters... or Does It?

Walking Away from God...

The details seem a bit fuzzy these days, but I can tell you what started my walk away from Christianity. Or I suppose I should say, what finished it.

I was nineteen years old, and from the moment I walked through the doors of Faith Tabernacle, the mid-sized Pentecostal church just minutes away from my childhood home, I sensed something bigger than myself at work. People moving towards a place with which I wasn't wholly familiar, a place that looked and felt like hope. It was celebratory and expectant, and I got caught up in the euphoria of it all, lapping it up like a thirsty traveller who'd been on the road for a long time. I determined that I would never go thirsty again, and so I consumed it all. Books. Videos. Services. Music. Anything about this new movement—this new life – that I could get my hands on. The world made promises about peace and happiness and contentment, we were told, but it never delivered.

God always delivered.

Trust him.

Trust us.

Join us.

And I did.

For a while, there was nothing to not like about being this kind of Christian. It was a community of happiness, like a love commune from the sixties but without the drugs or sex or instability. It reminded me of my trip to Cuba a couple of years earlier, my first time experiencing the brilliant white sands of Varadero beach. Looking out from the shore, the water's clear translucence a colour and clarity that could never be coaxed from human undertaking, and like a siren it called with such a whispered grace of its gentle swells that I found myself unable to move at first, until finally I waded in, my feet digging into the silky sand bottom. I'd never been to such a beautiful beach, and the promise of those waters was something to be savoured, as sure a promise of perfection that I would ever experience. Such was the experience of my first few years in church. It too, held great beauty and promise.

Once I had waded out far enough however, the church was no longer beautiful or innocent. It was dark and deep and foreboding, and what looked like little fish from the shore were actually much bigger and far more terrifying, and they circled about the others, waiting to bite and sting. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was, probably because I believed the illusion. I didn't understand so-called Christian leaders using their influence to enrich themselves. The pettiness in people who had been Christians for twenty or thirty years. People using prayer as a tool for gossip. The disregard for women and minorities. The sense of us against them, that we were all so different from those outside the church. My steps became more cautious. Protecting my reputation became important. No sudden movements that would allow the predators a chance to attack. Before, the water had looked inviting. Now, it was the beach that I longed for again, longed for the time when I'd merely wished for a place of hope and believed that such a place existed. I couldn't help but wonder that if Jesus, if he had ever existed, no longer lived here. It took a few years, but eventually I waded back to shore. Back to the beach, where the water looked as unrelentingly graceful as ever, the gentle waves rolling onto the shore. Only this time I knew better, and no matter how the sand burned my feet now, no matter how the smells or sounds of the waters called to me, I wasn't going back in. I'd learned my lesson well enough the first time.


Faith is not easy. I say that because there seem to be a great mass of people who feel that it is. Perhaps it's just the ones with the biggest mouths and highest amount of insecurity, but their voice is still loud and repeated by Christians as if it's a mantra. When I first waded into the waters as a pastor, I would have agreed with them. Jesus is the Son of God. Just believe and things will work out. Okay, let's get to work. It was in the work however – the doing of church, the praying, the morality, the schedule, the interpretations – that it stopped being easy. There was a dichotomy between the concept of faith and the application which I did not understand. At first, I merely blundered down the path believing God would sort it out. That's what faith was, wasn't it? And then I saw how destructive the results could be. How simply "believing" could ruin people's lives with its unintentional consequences, especially when the more selfish individuals used the naivete of some to do what they wanted. After that, the only thing left was to turn to the structures. The rituals. To be conscious and completely rational about every application. To leave nothing to chance or wind. It helped, but it also cut me off from the idea and sense of God's presence. To be a Christian, it seemed, forced one into a decision. Either the spontaneity of a relationship with God, or the careful applications of well thought out morality and religion. Both held consequences, and neither was perfect, but it was all we had.

Through the years, I lived both in sequence. First the spontaneity, and then the careful, religious application.

And then I stopped.

Neither felt right or complete, and I couldn't hear God's voice any more. And for me, it had always been the Voice, the whispers in my heart that despite all, the world was loved, people mattered, and that God had not forgotten us.

When the Voice disappeared, I lost my way, no longer called myself a Christian. Suddenly the world was a very different place. I wasn't sure that I liked it much, but I was out of options, and I'd long since given up the idea of lying to myself. That I eventually returned surprised no one, I think, but it shocked the hell out of me. A few years have passed, and I still find it hard to believe sometimes that I am not only okay with the idea of church, but that I still hold great hopes for her.


If you were to ask me what it meant to be a Christian fifteen years ago, my answer would have been automatic. These days, I'm less sure. My faith, such as it is, mostly feels like an echo. As if I have wandered into a large canyon and the voices I hear are not from the heavens, but the reverberations of lives and truths over the centuries around a single Event. I am both heartened and dismayed when I read that the early church made a number of mistakes. I am heartened because they remind me of me, with their misunderstanding and unloving applications of what Jesus said, and I am dismayed because it all feels so impossible. If they couldn't get it right, how can we?

There are a large number of Christians, of course, who will tell you that the early church never made a mistake. That they followed "The Way" perfectly, and that we can too. There's no proof for it, merely the insistence that Scripture is infallible and inerrant and inconceivably and irretrievably absolute. If you dig enough, they'll tell you that it comes down to faith.

Hey, everything comes down to faith. It takes faith to believe in evolution. It takes faith to believe that tomorrow will be a good day. It takes faith to believe that no one will cross the little yellow line in the middle of the road, especially when you're driving a compact and everyone else is driving an SUV. For people like me, the literalist idea of faith is a bit like eating your grandmother's cooking. You remember how good it is until you try to eat it, and realize that it's indigestible pap.

What you won't hear in most sermons is that being a Christian is as much about mystery today as it was two thousand years ago. Or that following Jesus, a crucified Roman criminal, makes about as much sense now as it did then. And the reasons to NOT proclaim Yeshua as the Messiah are just as arresting now as they were then. How do we know Jesus rose from the dead? The story of the twelve disciples has been told in other traditions, what makes this one special? Was he really born of a virgin… or was it a young woman, as the translation indicates? Weren't a lot of his teachings taken from other Jewish rabbis?

The answers to all of those questions are simple enough, aren't they? And without faith, becoming a Christian is a pretty stupid idea. Unfortunately, the literalists/fundamentalists acknowledge this part of it, and believe that somehow being stupid and having faith are the same thing. That's why Christian writers insist on defending their faith as if it's a scientific argument. And why scientists (fundamentalists of a different 'ilk) insist on defending their studies as if their making a theological argument. What separates them is the mystery, and the human tendency to avoid it at all costs. To know is better than to not know. In the case of faith however, we don't know, and we never will. But instead of simply acknowledging our human limitations, we produce books and writings and music and videos to both remind and teach us that faith can be remembered… if only we could remember it more often. The question then, if faith is so important, is why do we keep forgetting?


When I was a young pastor, I always worried when I felt like God got away from me. I wondered how I could be a Christian if I wasn't reminded of his presence on a daily basis. I was taught that the "world" hated God, that it was a natural thing, and that I had to fight to keep my faith. It was part of the reason we were encouraged to go to church three or four times a week. In a "godless world", it was necessary to remember why we were here and what God had called us to do. When I read my diary from twenty years ago, I can sense the daily panic when all is suddenly not as it should be, when God seems distant and I suddenly feel merely human. A good deal of my pastoral counseling was aimed towards getting people, both young and old, to getting that "good feeling" back again. In many ways, my idea of faith mirrored our culture's pursuit of happiness. A frantic sort of passion channeled into energetic vows of eternal longing. The culture of godliness and the culture of the "world" might have been opposing forces, but thank God they traveled at the same breakneck speed.


I still listen for the Voice. Still long to hear the quiet whispers of something Other to interrupt my daily musings, or remind me that the world is more than my own needs and wants. That the world is more than another commercial or YouTube video waiting to go viral. It seems to be getting tougher to hear these days, and while I'd like to blame it on culture, the truth is that faith is hard, and most of the time it sucks. It asks much, and for long stretches seems to deliver so little in return. It asks me to take risks, asks that I don't shut down when strangers and strange people that I don't like ask me questions. It asks that I accept people I would never hang out with, and worse, asks that I accept my own failings and humanity. But as tough as those things are, the most difficult thing it asks is the acknowledgement of my own humanity, my sameness, on a regular basis. For all that it reassures me that I am loved, it reminds me that I am loved only as much as my loud neighbours next door and the criminals in prison and the gay couple across the street. That God's love is infinite matters little, because most days I want more; I want to be special. What I really want, more than anything, is to be greater.

And that's why I'm a Christian. Because more than any other religion or doctrine or creed, what it means to follow Jesus is to be less than those around me. It contradicts all that we strive for naturally as humans, and the wrestling with it, however much we try to help it by our enforced commoditizing (Jesus bracelets, nic nacs, videos, etc…), never ends.

Surety is fool's gold, especially when it comes to God. Religions try to sell it because the very nature of their humanity almost demands it. They think that you and I are too stupid to know the difference, or that you've never been to a bad sale before, where the actual price was much different than the one advertised. It is however, what faith demands. Faith demands that we never truly know. It tells us that we will never be God, no matter how many charts and books and videos we can produce to prove our theories. Faith stands the test of time because, like time, it is always present and doesn't change to suit our needs. If God was anything less, I would question His existence, the way I question the empty arguments seeking to prove that there is no Creator. But the essence of life is not in what we know, but what we don't understand, and it's something for which the cure is neither willful ignorance nor a Harvard doctorate. The cure, strangely enough, is merely to ask. To ponder. To question. It isn't easy and it is never simple, but the power of faith is one that echoes through the centuries, and if we listen closely, can be heard in our own lives, if only we are willing.


Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Movie Review: The Other Guys (2010)


Directed by Adam McKay

We're all still waiting for the great Will Ferrell comedy, the Liar Liar or Pink Panther or even Wedding Crashers that catapults him into the final stratosphere for comedic actors. After watching The Other Guys, it's clear we'll be waiting for a while longer. That isn't to say however, that The Other Guys isn't worth seeing. In fact, it lets you know right away that you're in one of the good Will Ferrell movies. For one thing, you're laughing almost immediately. The situation (Will Ferrell as a…) is only slightly absurd and he's paired with an actor who can play it straight and funny (Mark Wahlberg). The biggest difference between good Ferrell (Talladega Nights, Anchor Man) and bad Ferrell (Semi-Pro, Blades of Glory) however, is that he has a director capable of constraining him. In this case, it's Adam McKay. It's odd to say about a comedian who's so physical, but Ferrell is better when he's doing his thing with facial expressions and ridiculously obvious but inappropriate comments. What most people miss is that a large part of that comes from the goodwill he generates with his bumbling, innocent persona. (Have we ever seen an actor so political that is welcomed so easily on both sides of the aisle?)

In The Other Guys, Will Ferrell is an accountant/police officer who loves his desk job. His partner, Mark Wahlberg, is a former up and coming detective who's been forced to pair with Ferrell because of an unfortunate incident earlier in his career. Together, they get an opportunity to go after "a big one." It's a buddy cop movie with the twist that these buddy cops are clearly not heroic types.

In terms of straight guys, Wahlberg is good. As much as we've grown to appreciate his action abilities, he's just as good doing comedy. Unfortunately, his character here isn't defined as clearly as it needs to be. There are too many inconsistencies, and too often you find yourself saying "how can he do that?" I'm quibbling though, because when the two stars are arguing or "starting fresh", the chemistry is legitimate and funny. Eva Mendez has a role as the "perfect wife", as last played by Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary, and she handles it well enough. (She's asked to be hot, and she comes through with, err, flying colours)

Ferrell's movies, even his best, remind me a bit of Adam Sandler's work. There's funny stuff there, but the work feels incomplete. Especially in the second half of the films. And make no mistake, the second half of the movie is the difference between a great comedy and a good one. A great comedy makes you laugh all the way through and somehow manages to be poignant while twanging slightly on your heartstrings. A good comedy, which is hard enough, merely makes you smile and laugh. In that, The Other Guys is a good comedy. There's a number of laugh out loud moments, a great deal of smiling, and a buffet of quotables for the water cooler. We still haven't seen a great Will Ferrell comedy, but The Other Guys is another good one, and seeing as how rare that is these days, that will do for now.

**** (Out of Five)

Copyright Stephen Burns 2010