Orthodoxy is untidy and rough around the edges

“The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners.”

(Read the rest.)

Origin of the “Bunnyhug”

Another obscure page from history (the last one being the Swedish Reckoning), which I shared with my Manitoban friends back in 2010. The origin of the “bunnyhug” (the Saskatchewan Hoodie):

Bunny populations were high back in the day, particularly in Saskatchewan, and they were adversely affecting crops. In a move similar to paying children for the tails of gophers they have killed, the government urged people to kill bunnies.
Bunny pelts,contrary to those of the praire dog, are soft and snuggly (and larger). This prompted Sasktachewan farmers, whose ingenuity and perceptiveness saw the potential in the hides, to fashion them into garments. An item of clothing quite similar to the modern bunnyhug/hoodie made out of bunny hides became quite popular in both rural areas and urban centers. The term “bunnyhug” is therefore quite natural (if grotesque) nomenclature.

Naturally, this large-scale bunny killing would eventually reduce the population to more manageable and less damaging levels, and the bunnycide came to an official end. However, the popularity of the bunnyhug did not wane, so the style of the real bunny-hide bunnyhug was adopted for more conventional fabrics, which is what we have today as the bunnyhug/hoodie.

Perhaps knowing the history of the bunnyhug in Saskatchewan (which, not unusually, is quite independent of hoodie histories across the world) will help stem the tide of anti-Saskatchewanism bigotry.

Post-election thoughts: I’m disappointed.

My disappointment is not really in who was elected. We live in a democracy and the people have spoken. Now we can live with it for the next four years or so, just as we have done for all previous elections. We still live in an amazing country and most of us, when we boil it down, have little to complain about. I’m confident that it will stay that way. Sure, we may not like some of the changes that come our way, but do we need to fear? No. And yet that’s exactly what I see and hear.

I’ve been shocked with some of the stuff I’ve seen and heard in the course of this election campaign, both before and after the election. If there’s anything that brings fear to my heart (even though we shouldn’t fear!), it’s what I saw on social media during this election (yes, this is mostly about Facebook).

Two things in particular concern me. They have to do with the possibility civil dialogue and theological grounding.

1. Civil dialogue. I’m worried that we are losing (or have lost) our ability to have civil dialogue. Dialogue requires not just listening but also the effort to understand the other point of view, even if you don’t agree with it. It seems to me we did very little of either listening or empathizing during this election, at least if Facebook is any indication (it might be that it isn’t, but I doubt it).

When we engage in civil dialogue, we will discover that the “other” is rather a lot like we are, with similar foundational goals and fears and perceptions and weaknesses as we have, even if on the “issues” we disagree. And when we discover this, we discover that we are dealing with fellow human beings. With neighbours.

Instead, what I saw was a lot of plugged ears while screaming out personal points of view mixed with prejudice, mockery, and hatred.

2. Theological grounding. What didn’t come across my Facebook feed was anything that remotely suggested that what we believe as followers of Jesus Christ has any bearing on what we think are important election policies. (And I don’t think that the only faith-based issues are abortion—which none of the major parties are interested in addressing—or marriage.

Based on my feed the election was all about the economy, taxes,  and what is best for me personally, irrespective of my neighbours’ needs. (And also half-truths and lies about the politicians we didn’t like).

But where did Jesus’ teachings come into play? Where did God’s heart and character (love, grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness) come into play, not only in policy but in the conversation?

Christians are called to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, MIND, and strength. I feel like politics has a knack for turning all of those things off, not least the God-loving mind.

A Walk in the Woods: a (terribly written) review

On a whim, Dixie and I decided to go and see A Walk in the Woods in the theatre yesterday. It’s based on Bill Bryson’s book about his hike through (much of) the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States. I am huge fan of the book, which was what got me hooked on Bryson, who is one of my favourite authors (new book coming out in October, YAAAAY!). I knew from the trailer that significant elements of the book were changed for the purposes of the movie, so my hopes weren’t high.

Below are some brief thoughts on the film. But before I do that, I feel that I should mention that Dixie, who has not read the book, as I have (several times), enjoyed the film.

– The book is a travelogue, a sort of section by section account of Bryson’s journey through a large portion of the Appalachian Trail. The film is more of a memoir/”spiritual journey” story, which isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the book, but then I’m not sure any adaption of the book could have been true to its spirit. But in order to make it what it is, the characters were made more advanced in age than Bryson was when he hikes the trail. Bryson was, I think, in his early forties when he did the hike, the character in the film of (at least) retirement age; Bryson was approaching the peak of his fame and powers as an author when he wrote A Walk in the Woods; in the film his character is at the end of his career.

– The biggest disappointment for me was that the film felt empty. That is, nearly every page in A Walk in the Woods has fascinating anecdotes and tidbits of information, sarcastic quips, and hilarious incidents (and often a combination of all of those things at once). The film was light in all those areas. The difficulty for any adaptation of an author whose primary appeal is his way with words is that what works in print often doesn’t work in film. Humour written for the page is not the same as humour written for the screen. (It’s the same with P.G. Wodehouse. As good as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were as Jeeves and Wooster, the TV adaptations couldn’t touch Wodehouse’s written page. And in my mind Bryson, particularly in his earlier work, is a sort of modern-day nonfiction Wodehouse.)

– The film was too light (which is probably related to its emptiness). I wasn’t drawn in. It showed potential at the very beginning, and even greater potential with the arrival of Kristen Schaal’s naively overconfident character. True to the book, they ditch her after a day or so, but if memory serves me right, in the book she shows up again. She doesn’t reappear in the film and she was gone far too quickly. Even if she didn’t reappear in the book, they would have done well by having her reappear in the film (since they were mucking about with the story anyway).

– The character of Stephen Katz was true to the book.

I realize that this has turned into a “the-film-wasn’t-like-the-book-so-it-sucked” sort of review, and for that I apologize. A film should be judged on its own merits, not on how well it represents the book on which it’s based (though if that really is true, I wish they’d stop putting “based upon…” in film advertising). Unfortunately, I can’t separate the two, so perhaps you should just go with Dixie’s judgement on this one. I do think the film was “light”: a story that doesn’t really go anywhere or land.

England-related thoughts and musings [edited/updated]

One of my favourite things about England is all the footpaths. They’re everywhere: in the countryside, in the middle of cities (there are 120,000 miles of them, according to Bill Bryson). I love walking and the idea of stepping out of my door and within a few blocks being able to find footpaths that would take me through field and forest is wonderful. I realize I live in the countryside here, but walking is limited mostly to the gravel roads, unless I want to drive to a park in a city somewhere. Gravel roads aren’t nearly as nice as footpaths and trails. I envy the British their footpaths. There were a couple of occasions I desperately—well, that’s perhaps too strong a word—wanted to wander down a wooded path, but instead had to be driven somewhere else.

* * *

British television is far superior to North American television (speaking in general and subjective terms, of course). I’m thinking of the BBC programs that I have binge-watched on Netflix: Sherlock, Foyle’s War, Inspector George Gently, Wallander, Doc Martin, and The Bletchley Circle. All of them seem much more interested in character and plot and mood than flash and style. Granted, we haven’t had regular television in six or more years, but every time we visit my in-laws or stay in a hotel I realize how right Bruce Springsteen is: “57 chanels (and nothin’ on)”. Perhaps the same is true in England and it’s just that I’ve managed to have all the crap filtered out first. And I guess we have MythbustersMantracker, Jeopardy, Sienfeld (reruns) and—my current favourite, though it’s not actually on television as such—Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In England we watched a couple of fun game-shows with my aunt and uncle: Pointless and Two Tribes, both of which were fun and informative, neither of which would likely make it in North America (not least, I suspect, because prizes won’t exceed a couple of thousand dollars). And since coming home, I’ve discovered QI (“Quite Interesting”), a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry. The idea of the program is to talk about interesting and obscure things, points awarded for interesting things said (even if completely off topic), points deducted for boring or obvious answers. It’s basically a show about everything and nothing at the same time, filled with English accents and idiom. I love it!

* * *


So much of it! So inexpensive! So tasty!

I purchased 2 pounds of my favourite tea (Yorkshire Gold), a box of 240 P.G. Tips tea bags, and another box of 80 Yorkshire Tea bags (because it came in a fun caddy). All of it for a fraction of the cost of buying the same stuff in Canada! No matter that I already had 3 pounds of my favourite tea sitting in our cold room at home!

* * *

I was surprised by all the litter, particularly in London, but in other areas as well. I saw people throw garbage over their shoulders at the train station and down subway stairwells in London, and many more just leaving their trash wherever they were sitting. It’s not entirely the people’s fault, though: London seems to be almost completely devoid of garbage cans (or, rather, “rubbish bins”). I think this surprised me because in my mind’s eye all of western Europe is almost spotlessly clean, though I couldn’t tell you where this idea comes from.

* * *

About three-quarters of the way through our trip I thought I might have gotten over my Anglophilia, but that was short-lived. It’s back full-force: tea and accents and British television and streets and houses. All of it.

My favourite thing right now is the British tendency to turn statements of fact into questions by adding an “…isn’t it?” or a “…weren’t they?” or the like to a sentence. It somehow makes conversation much more interesting and inclusive. Delightful! I wish I was British! Alas, it isn’t nearly as delightful with a Canadian accent, is it?

I’ve been watching a lot of QI in the last couple of weeks. Maybe the panelists aren’t representative of British English as a whole, but it seems like it’s not just turning statements into questions. There seems to be a tendency to add extra words at the end of a sentence which North Americans tend not to do. For example, “What’s the correct answer, then?”, where—I think—would be more likely to ask the same question by emphasizing the word “correct”: “What’s the correct answer?” Another example: “I like it very much, indeed,” where a Canadian would likely say it without the “indeed.” I don’t know what it is about this that I like so much.

* * *

In Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson complains that every British town centre looks identical, because they all have a Boots, a Marks & Spencer, and a WHSmith. It’s interesting how familiarity really does breed contempt. The stores Bryson mentions are the equivalent of Canada’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, Safeway, and…well, I don’t think we have the equivalent of WHSmith (a stationer/newsagent) anymore, thanks to Staples. And yet I liked seeing these stores. They were unfamiliar and therefore, in a way, unique, a novelty.

But, given that it’s the equivalent of our Superstore, I can’t imagine what some of our fellow passengers on the train to London thought if they overheard me telling Dixie, tapping on the window with no small amount of excitement, “Hey, look! A Tesco’s!” (I can’t imagine what I’d think if a visitor from overseas exclaimed, “Hey look! A Walmart!”)

Silence is not just not talking

One of the pleasures of browsing books and desultory reading is coming across little gems that you hadn’t anticipated. For one reason or another, Dixie had pulled Nurturing Silence in a Noisy Heart, a a little book by Wayne E. Oates published in the late 1970s, off the shelf. I had bought it on a whim years ago at library book sale.

The book was laying on our bed last night, so I picked it up and started reading and was hooked pretty quickly. Here’s a bit on silence as not simply the absence of noise (quoting Thomas Merton in the first paragraph):

Silence is a part of the rule of obedience which [Trappist monks] follow. This does not mean, however, that the “monk must never go out, never receive a letter, never have a visitor, never talk to anyone, never hear any news. He must distinguish what is useless and harmful from what is useful and salutary, and in all things glorify God…”

He uses the word “distinguish.” What does that mean about silence? Wrapped up in “distinguish” is the basic principle of nurturing silence in a noisy heart. It means to “chose between” or to “choose from among” the many sounds—noises, tones, words—what is useful in creating within us a clean heart and right spirit. We put to the test all that we are about so say or not say; we are constantly choosing to listen, and choosing what we will need to listen to. We develop, under the tutelage of the Spirit of God, the power to discern and make choices in the feeding, nurturing, and growing of our personal realm of silence. Jesus suggests a kind of prayer that is not know for its “much speaking.” He taught simplicity of utterance. Your “yes” is to be “yes” and your “no” is to be “no.” Silence, then, is not just not talking. Silence is a discipline of choosing what to say and to what to listen. Nurturing silence, then, is the growth of the power of discernment as to what will be the focus of your attention, care, and commitment. (9)

Well, that’s pretty profound, I thought to myself as I closed the book, grabbed my smartphone, and started watching Letterman clips on YouTube. Perhaps not profound enough, I guess.

These are words I need to heed. I have a lot of alone time, relatively speaking, but I don’t have a lot of silence, because I tend to fill my alone time with the noise of the internet. My excuse is that true silence is boring, but the reality is probably that silence is scary. In silence we begin to think about things we otherwise wouldn’t. We begin to realize things about ourselves that we’d rather ignore. God is given room to speak, when it would be much more comfortable to push his voice away with YouTube, Buzzfeed, Facebook, movies, work, etc.

Of course, none of these things aren bad in and of themselves, and sometimes it’s okay to just “escape,” but the danger is that we (I) simply start filling every space with this stuff, so that every waking moment is filled with noise of one kind or another. Smartphones with large data plans don’t help.

We need silence to quiet our hearts, to restore us, “reset” us from the noise, the outside voices, the cacophony of our world, so that we can hear God again, so that we can know who we are again.


Why I don’t read science fiction.

Early on in his column about the books he reads every month (in Ten Years in the Tub), Nick Hornby decided that he would read something he would ordinarily never read. He chose something in the science fiction genre. He would quickly realize his mistake. One of the books he chose to read was one by Iain M. Banks called Excession. Hornby had this to say about the experience:

…nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any waybad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book…

…The urge to weep tears of frustration was already upon me even before I read the short prologue…By the time I got to the first chapter, which is entitled “Outside Context Problem” and begins “(CGU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119),” I was crying so hard I could no longer see the page in front of my face, at which point I abandoned the entire ill-conceived experiment altogether. (148)

This was hilarious, because this has been my own experience with science fiction as well. I liked The Chrysalids in high school. I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed  in university for a utopian literature class (though it was an example of the opposite) and enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Ender’s Game. I managed to read little more than a chapter or two of Dune, which, from what I can tell, is to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Buy my sci-fi reading ended there and the reason is exactly like what Hornby says of the science fiction he tried to read: I don’t understand it.

I’ve had a copy of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Left Hand of Darkness for a decade or more. I enjoyed The Dispossessed enough to think about reading more LeGuin. (Plus I think Bruce Cockburn may have mentioned it as an influence on some song or other of his.) But every time I open it up to give it a go, I am stopped by this, the beginning of chapter 1:

From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-9342-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93, Ekumenical Year 1490-97.

How am I supposed to read beyond that? Is there an explanatory prequel I’m unaware of which I should read first? Is this any way to start a novel? Tolkien is filled with names and history we know nothing about, but at least he does us the courtesy of starting The Lord of the Rings with a prologue about some creatures we can at least identify with.

And what’s with the numbers? As Hornby’s experience shows, this seems to be normal sci-fi stuff. Are we to believe that these numbers are not just random sequences meant to look futurey and sciencey—that they actually mean something? Because I don’t buy it.

I assume that all will be explained as I read the novel, but I’m not sure I’m interested.

Reading for the sake of writing.

My in-laws are here for the weekend. My mother-in-law surprised me with a book: Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great BooksNick Hornby’s collection of 10 years worth of columns from Believer about the books he has read. (My mother-in-law is clearly paying attention, as I only came across this book at a bookstore in Banff a couple of weeks ago and added it to my Amazon wishlist.)

I’m only 65 pages in, with 400 to go, so I may yet lose interest (at any time, really), but so far the book has been delightful. Hornby is insightful and witty in the Bill Bryson and P.G. Wodehouse kind of way, which is the best kind of witty.

This book once again proves that what makes a book great and delightful is not necessarily what it says but how it says it. Or perhaps it’s more a matter of language and peripheral matters redeeming what would otherwise be an ordinary and possibly boring book. You might think that I like this book because it’s a book about books and reading. This does help, and it is what initially caught my attention, but I’m reading it now because I love Hornby’s voice.

It might just be that he’s one of those writers who is such a pleasure to read that it doesn’t matter what the subject; you just want to keep reading. It’s what keeps me buying and immediately reading books by Bill Bryson even when they’re about the evolution of the house or a one particular early 20th century summer. It’s what brings me back to Roy MacGreggor, reading his book on Tom Thomson’s death, even though my interest in art is purely about visual and emotional pleasure, or the biography he wrote about his decidedly not-famous father. (Or maybe it’s what Hornby says in one of his early columns: “Sometimes, in the hands of the right person, biographies of relatively minor figures…are especially compelling: they seem to have their times and cultural environments written through them like a stick of rock in a way that sui generis major figures sometimes don’t.” Yes, I had to look up “sui generis,” too. It means “unique.”) It’s what brings me back to P.G. Wodehouse, even though every one of his novel’s I’ve read has essentially the same plot. It’s what will keep me reading this Hornby book, even though I won’t care about 95% of the books he mentioned.

They are all writers who make me want to write again. I don’t know what this says about their work, because I’m essentially saying, “I don’t care what you’re writing about, but I like how you write about it.” When I read other authors—glancing at the shelf: Tolkien, Kent Haruf, Alistair McLeod—it’s the bigger picture that draws me in: the scenes they paint and feelings they create with their words, the “what” they create. Obviously, they way they create those things—that is, their language—makes all the difference, but their language is hidden or embedded in the work. I don’t know which is better. But Bryson, Wodehouse, to a lesser extent MacGreggor, and now apparently Hornby please me in a way the others don’t.

As a bonus (isn’t the term “added bonus” redundant?), Hornby promises to help me feel okay about abandoning books, even if they’re classics. At least that’s what the introduction, written by someone else, tells me. Let’s hope he does, because The Brothers Karamazov and The Grapes of Wrath are gathering dust, bookmarks firmly in place.

C. S. Lewis anticipates Buzzfeed and Facebook, but not in a good way.

I’m reading J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey at the moment. I bought (or received) this book 10 years ago or more, I’m sure. Just getting to it now. Such is my way. The current chapter is on concepts of evil in The Lord of the Rings. As part of Shippey’s argument, he quotes C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters (which I read almost 20 years ago). The quote gave me a bit of a knock upside the head.

Context: Screwtape is a senior demon who writes letters to a junior demon (Wormwood?) about the different ways they can lead Christians astray (in fact, the book is comprised only of his letters). Shippey gives a bit more context before quoting the book directly:

One of the striking and convincing assertions made by [Lewis’] imagined devil, Screwtape, is that nowadays the strongest temptations are not to the old human vices of lust and gluttony and wrath, but to new ones of tedium and solitude… Screwtape remarks that Christians describe God as the One ‘without whom Nothing is strong’, and they speak truer than they know, he goes on, for [he now quotes Screwtape Letters]:

Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them…or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambitions to give them relish. (p. 127, emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that The Screwtape Letters was published in 1942. When I read the portion from the book my mind went immediately to much of what we look at on the internet. I’m thinking of pages like Buzzfeed or Clickhole or the Fail Blog or any number of mindless gathering of entertainment “news” or endless lists. In many ways, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and the like also fit the bill: “a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why.” Precisely how I find myself some days. “Tedium and solitude.” Precisely how I think of the millions of us sitting in offices and cubicles and at hoe computers around the world for hours every day.

It’s remarkable that Lewis’ comments are so true in our day and age. Possibly more true than they were in 1942. But one thing has changed and is no longer true: lust, gluttony, and wrath have been wrapped up into the tedium and solitude. Lust can be gratified in so many and easy ways online, whether is it pornography or shopping. Gluttony in our binge-watching on Netflix and hours on social media. Wrath in trolling and shaming and endless online arguments and hatred.

It made me think, both about how I use my own time. And that I should read The Screwtape Letters again.

Solomon’s story is the story of all humanity.

One of the fun aspects of teaching is learning or noticing new things yourself, particularly when it happens unexpectedly in the middle of teaching. This year I started teaching the discipleship/confirmation material in my junior high Sunday school class (we call it “discipleship/confirmation” because for most of the kids in the class it’s not confirmation in the traditional sense, as they were not baptized as infants). We are working our way through the Old Testament and today we talked about wisdom, using Solomon’s story as the context, and I had one of those “ahah!” moments.

We began with Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in which God advises (or gives wisdom to) the future kings of Israel. (So it wasn’t unexpected when Israel asked for a king in 1 Samuel. Noted.) God basically said told Israel that their future king shouldn’t acquire too many horses (and don’t get them from Egypt), wives, or much wealth. Solomon, at one point the wisest of the wise, leaves the path of wisdom and breaks all three of those things exactly: he had many horses, some of them from Egypt; he had many wives; and he amassed so much wealth that silver was as common as stone in Israel.

As we were discussing this, and as I pointed out that Solomon did exactly what God said the king shouldn’t do, it suddenly dawned on me: money, sex, and power! Solomon fell prey to the classic three human vices: horses and chariots (power); wives (sex); and wealth (money). Seems the human struggle has been the same through all time. Perhaps this is obvious to you, but I didn’t make that connection until the middle of class.

Back in Deuteronomy, God also said that the future king of Israel should read the law every day of his life so that he would remain faithful to God. Obviously Solomon wasn’t doing this—if he had, he may not have fallen prey to the temptations of money, sex, and power and not turned away to other gods (which in his case seemed to be mostly because of sex, as it was his foreign wives drew him away).

Even the wisest among can leave the path of wisdom, if we aren’t rooted in the wisdom of God.

Solomon’s story isn’t unique. On some level it’s the story of all of us, of all humanity.