From “I” to “We”

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, set in the Dust Bowl/Great Depression years in the US:

One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate change and fear revolution. Keep those two squatting men apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate—”We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket—take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from “I” to “we.”

If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

(from the Steinbeck Centennial Edition of The Grapes of Wrath, 2002, pp. 151-2)

Infant baptism and the faith of parents.

I had a conversation today about baptism. The Evangelical Covenant Church as a denomination recognizes both infant baptism and adult baptism as legitimate baptisms. We leave it up to the parents to decide if they wish to dedicate or baptize their infant. While the ECC officially recognizes baptism as a sacrament, we have a wide embrace and welcome into fellowship those who have differing beliefs about baptism: that is, some may choose to not baptize infants because they don’t think that’s the right thing to do, and they, in turn, allow others to baptize their infants, and we happily worship and serve together. (There are some ongoing pastoral and theological tensions with the ECC position on baptism and they can be frustrating at times, though I have not yet had to wrestle with them beyond a theoretical level.)

The person I had a conversation with understood infant baptism and dedication to be the same thing, because they are both a choice of the child’s parents. This is a common understanding in evangelical circles: that unless one chooses to be baptized, how can the baptism have any significance? From this angle, baptism is an expression or confession of an individual’s faith. Baptism viewed as a sacrament, on the other hand—that is, as an visible sign of an invisible grace, or a movement of God’s grace in a person’s life (the official ECC position)—sees baptism as much as, if not more, an act of God as of the individual.

This can be a difficult hurdle to jump over for someone from a low-church, anti-infant baptism background. That’s the background I came from and it took some in-depth study of scripture for me to accept the ECC position on the subject. I realized that whether you emphasize believer’s baptism or infant baptism, you argue from scriptural silence. That is, scripture doesn’t say anything directly for or against infant baptism. There are hints and suggestions (for example, in Acts when households come to faith and are baptized), but we don’t explicitly read about infant baptisms. But then the church in Acts was very young and growing; everyone was a first generation Christian, but infants are (technically) baptized only when their parents are followers of Jesus. That is, baptized infants would be become second-generation Christians, which isn’t possible if there isn’t a first generation.

It occurred to me today, however, that there is something else to consider in this discussion. The difficulty for many evangelicals with infant baptism is that an infant cannot yet have faith of their own. It is the faith of the parents that motivates the baptism. This is a foreign concept in a Christian culture which values an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus above all else; faith and baptism can only be the choice of the one being baptized.

But there is scriptural precedence for the faith of someone else benefitting another. There is, for instance, the sense in which the faith(fulness) of Jesus is our salvation as much as, if not more than, our own faith. But I’m thinking particularly of the paralyzed man whose friends cut a hole in the roof of the house Jesus was in, lowering him down to Jesus. According to the gospel accounts, the man was healed not because of his own faith, but because of the faith of his friends (Luke 5:17-26; Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:3-12)! (I won’t go to 1 Corinthians 7:14, which is a little hairier a passage.) Initially this little detail—the man’s friends’ faith healing him—is surprising. But when you consider that we pray for others all the time and that those prayers, regardless of the others’ faith, are often answered affirmatively, it doesn’t seem so strange. And if these things aren’t strange, is it possible that the faith of a parent is connected the baptism of an infant?

We are a highly individualistic society and tend not to think in these sorts of communal terms, to the point that such a thing doesn’t even make sense to us. I imagine it made a lot more sense in the first century.

Trying to explain denominations to an 11-year-old is hard.

Tonight, after our all-ages small group, in which Lutherans and Catholics were mentioned, my 11-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, what are Catholics and Lutherans and Covenant?” (By “Covenant” she means the Evangelical Covenant Church, which is our denomination.)

There really isn’t a simple way to answer that question, but I did my best. This was my off-the-cuff (but somewhat polished after the fact) answer:

Well, to start with, right now you have Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. In the beginning, after Jesus ascended, there was just The Church. Then, about a thousand years later, there was a disagreement in The Church about something they believed. So The Church split, East and West. In the East was the Orthodox Church, in the West was the Catholic Church.

About five hundred years after that, some people in the Catholic Church thought that there was too much corruption in it, that they were too concerned with power, so they wanted to clean it up from the inside. They came to be known as the Reformers. They wanted to clean it up on the inside, but the Catholic Church didn’t like that, so they left the Catholic church [or were kicked out] and they became what we know as Protestants, because they protested the bad things they saw in the Catholic Church.

[Now here is where it gets really complicated.]

So as Protestants you had Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans. You had Martin Luther, which is where “Lutherans” comes from, and the Reformed church, which was connected to John Calvin. Now there were some who didn’t think these reformers went far enough, and they were known as the “radical reformers”, out of which you get Mennonites and Baptists.

(“What does the Covenant have to do with this?”)

Well, we are connected to the Lutherans. In the 1800s there came what was known as “evangelicals.” They were people who were concerned with having a personal relationship with Jesus and reading their Bibles and telling people about Jesus. They were concerned that the other churches were too “formal” [I didn't have a better word for "rote" or "state-oriented" or what have you].

So the Covenant comes out of the Lutheran and evangelical groups [I mentioned Pietists but didn't explain them]. These days it doesn’t matter so much what denomination you are a part of. What matters is that you believe in Jesus and want to follow him. You can do that whether you are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.

This is all fairly simplistic, but I think it’s a pretty good distillation of the story. She seemed to understand, but I don’t know how much. All this protesting has made church history rather complicated!

Other than my ecumenical note at the end, which I’m sure some of you will have trouble with, what would you add or change (keeping in mind this is for an 11-year-old)?

It seems so small, so long ago.

Late last night we planned to drive our kids to school this morning on our way to the city. So this morning I watched from the living room as their school bus pulled up to the driveway, sat in wait for a minute or so, and then pulled away. It reminded me of that morning in Manitoba (it seems so long ago) that our kids nearly missed the bus, when I ran out in my bathrobe (and little else) waving and yelling at the bus at the end of our road. I don’t remember all the details of that episode, although I’ve probably written about it here. I just remember it being late and Luke—probably 4 or 5 at the time—being upset because we couldn’t find his proper mittens. I was begging him, pleading with him to just take the (wrong) mittens I had given him because we needed to catch the bus, then running out in my bathrobe, waving frantically at the bus and starting the van to drive him there.

This morning I felt a wonderful calmness as I saw that bus sitting there for a moment and then pulling away. The kids wouldn’t need to run this morning or start their day in a panic induced by panicked parents.

It put me in mind of quiet mornings in Manitoba when I didn’t have a class. I tried to imagine myself having breakfast and a cup of tea in our little kitchen. The trailer was 14 feet wide. Subtract another 4 feet or so for wall thickness and counter space. We had no more than a 10 x 12 chunk of floor space in our kitchen to use for cooking and for eating at a standard-sized table for six (four on the sides, two on the ends). In this tiny space we cooked, ate, played games, and welcomed many guests. Our living room was no bigger and our bedrooms were much smaller. Our headboard and bedside tables couldn’t fit side-by-side; we had to wedge the headboard behind the tables.

It was such a small space, but we made it work. Perhaps it helped that we knew we were there for only a short while. We live in a much bigger space now—a house that’s probably bigger than we even need. But we are no more or less happy in the larger space than in the smaller space.

That trailer was so small. Five of us, for three years. There’s a lesson in there.

(It seems so long ago!)

Reciting the creed as counter-cultural act.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Creed, says that reciting the creed—he means the Nicene Creed, but I think it works for the Apostles’ Creed or others as well—is a counter-cultural act. What is being done when the creed is recited:

In a world that celebrates individuality, they are actually doing something together. In an age that avoids commitment, they pledge themselves to a set of convictions and thereby to each other. In a culture that rewards novelty and creativity, they use words written by others long ago. In a society where accepted wisdom changes by the minute, they claim that some truths are so critical that they must be repeated over and over again. In a throwaway, consumerist world, they accept, preserve, and continue tradition. Reciting the creed at worship is thus a counter-cultural act. (40)

That’s not to say that churches need to be counter-cultural for the sake of being counter-cultural. However, the gospel is itself counter-cultural and yet the church is often pro-cultural—and often subconsciously so—so to be consciously counter-cultural in our worship serves as a good reminder about where our allegiances lie.

Some people are uncomfortable with certain aspects of the creeds—say, the virgin birth—that they may be reluctant to recite it, thinking that doing so would lack integrity. Justo Gonzalez, writing about the Apostles’ Creed in The Apostles’ Creed for Today, has this to say in response:

…think of the creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. (7)

To recite the creed with that in mind is also a counter-cultural act.

[Added: I'm reading up a bit on the ecumenical creeds of the church for a small group discussing the basics or essentials of faith. We don't recite the creed (or at least we haven't in my time) at our church and our denomination is "non-creedal" while still affirming the major ecumenical creeds, but these writers make a convincing case!]

Desolation of Smaug and other thoughts

Yesterday, on her birthday, I took Madeline, one of her friends, and her siblings out to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Here’s my short review: apart from the book, it’s an exciting, well-made film. Smaug is fantastic. Martin Freeman is, once again, wonderful as Bilbo (I think he is, all around, the best cast actor in all the Tolkien films). And, once again, there were too many lengthy, chaotic battle scenes for my taste, but I suppose some people like that sort of thing. I was annoyed with where Jackson ended this film—there are ways the audience could have received a little more, at least partial, closure—but it made sense from a marketing standpoint. All in all, I give this film a positive review.

Here are some lengthier reflections:

I think it was the film reviewer for The Globe and Mail that said “all goodwill Jackson earned with the Lord of the Rings trilogy is lost,” or something to that effect. I think he’s probably right. In terms of what those you might call Tolkien purists, the omissions, changes, and additions to Tolkien’s books in the LotR films were for the most part forgivable and forgiven. The first film in The Hobbit trilogy took some more egregious liberties with Tolkien’s story than the LotR films. This second in the series takes the liberties to the next level, to the point that in its details the film becoming a different story than the book, even if the overall plot is the same. I remember when I first heard that The Hobbit was going to be a two-part film. I thought that was already a bit much, given that the entirety of The Hobbit novel is shorter than The Fellowship of the Rings. Then he changed it to a trilogy! I now know why and how: more orcs, more fighting, inferred elements of the book added, more orcs, more fighting, more stubborn dwarves, more orcs, a new love interest (what would the spawn of an elf and a dwarf look like?), more fighting…

I’m of the opinion that as a rule the book is better than the film, but I also realize that by nature books and films will by necessity tell the same story differently. A literary/film theory about why this is so is beyond my skill. It just seems evident that this is the case: a film essentially has to be different than the book. There’s a good reason Tolkien would never hand over the film rights to his books (and it’s not clear to me how or why his estate, after his son Christopher made his disgust with the LotR films clear, gave up the rights to The Hobbit as well). As I was watching the movie, it occurred to me that a true-to-the-book film version probably wouldn’t have connected with a broad audience. For instance, it’s a children’s story whose plot moves along very quickly. And detailed battle scenes are, as in all of Tolkien’s work, lacking. In addition, in making the LotR films first, Jackson was almost forced into making the connection between them and The Hobbit clearer; in the interest of the film franchise, he could not make a children’s film version of The Hobbit after making LotR.

That’s not to say that I’m happy about the changes to the story. But I try to look at the movies as something other than an adaptation. The problem isn’t with the films so much, or even director Peter Jackson. The problem is with me and everyone other diehard Tolkien fan who has read these books numerous times and for whom the events and characters played out in a certain way in my imagination (augmented by Tolkien artists I knew prior to the films, as well as the 1977 Hobbit animated adaptation). Does Gandalf look like Ian McKellen does in the films? Yes. Does he speak and behave the way Ian McKellen does in character? Not really. Same goes for most of the other characters. (This is why I think Martin Freeman is great, because he gets it all pretty close to my imagination.) The reality is that, with the exception of some of the egregious changes to Tolkien’s stories, there is little Jackson could have done that would have completely pleased fans. The LotR films got fairly close, though I like them less after repeated viewings. With The Hobbit it’s almost as if Jackson came to terms with this and just forged ahead with what he thought would be a great film loosely based on the book.

Is The Hobbit a faithful interpretation of the book? Not really. Is it a good film? Yes.

10 Years of Blogging

Today is my 10-year blogging anniversary. That should be a pretty significant milestone, but it doesn’t feel like it. The last 5 years have seen a sharp decline in how much effort I’ve put into this space. I haven’t maintained it well for half of the 10 years The Eagle & Child has existed. In the last two years I posted as much as I did in one month in 2005 (no wonder my wife had issues with my blogging back then).

I don’t want to give up on blogging just yet. But I’m not sure what direction to take it in. I looked back at random months in my archive and I had some fun with it back in the day. These days I start writing something thoughtful and serious and it doesn’t take long for me to lose interest or feel like it’s not worth posting here. I have 128 draft posts of various lengths, 26 of which are from the last year.

I need to find the fun again.

I write a reflection for our church bulletin almost every week. Maybe I should post those here. But that’s not the kind of fun I was thinking of.

At any rate, over the years this blog has made me some new friends and in some respects helped get me where I am today in the church in The Field. It has been an interesting ride, old friend.

Anyway… here’s to 10 years of blogging! And here’s to increased fun and creativity here!

An old Inuit song for Advent

Just finished Farley Mowat’s classic book, Never Cry Wolf. It’s apparently autobiographical, though this is controversial. Whatever the case may be—fact or fiction—it was a fascinating and enjoyable read. In anticipation of finishing the book, I put the 1984 Disney film-of-the-book on my birthday wish list and Dixie was kind enough to gift it to me. I watched it last night.

The plot of both the the book and the film follows a biologist who the government sent to the Canadian north to study the relationship of arctic wolves to the declining caribou population. In the more specific details the film is quite different from the book, but it’s beautifully done and stands on its own.

The film ends with an epilogue, an “Old Inuit Song”, which I thought quite beautiful:

I think over again my small adventures,

My fears,
These small ones that seemed so big,

For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach.

And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,

To live and to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

A fitting song, it seems, for Advent.

Not that it needs the connection, but the song put me in mind of Zechariah’s song in Luke 1, which says,

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace. (vv. 78-79)

The pastor-theologian

“When I was at seminary back in the early 1970s, my tutor told me firmly one day that I would have to choose between being an academic and being a pastor. I decided, sitting there in his office, that I was not going to make that choice… That has resulted in a lifetime of shifting from one foot to the other, as it were, in a world for which for whatever reason — and this is odd in the history of the church…theologians of the past have mostly been pastors — think of Augustine or Luther or whoever — they were pastors, they were preachers, they were teachers, they worked with people, they prayed with people, they didn’t sit in a study and do a cerebral thing away from that, and I fail to see why we should collude with this split world of post-Enlightenment ‘either the brain or the heart’…”

N.T. Wright, here.

The psychology of technology.

We cancelled church this morning due to heavy snowfall and poor driving conditions. The word has gone out, but I’m in my office at the church just in case some poor soul who didn’t hear the news comes to the church. The coffee’s on.

This morning I was thinking about how technology and development has made us more cautious. I think of when Dixie and I were dating and then married and living in Regina. When we would visit her parents in Prince Albert, we preferred to take the single-lane secondary highways because they were more scenic and fun than the two-lane highway between Regina and Saskatoon. Somewhere along the line Dixie got a cell phone, mostly for when she was on the road. Then either the contract expired or the phone died and we no longer had that phone as a safety net. Now when we drove up to Prince Albert in winter there was always some concern about whether we should take that route since we didn’t have a phone. This wasn’t an issue before we had the phone, but after we’d had the phone it was a significant concern. I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of that shift.

This morning there are probably elderly men saying that when they were young they would get to church even if they had to walk or drive uphill, backwards, through 5 feet of snow and zero visibility in -40 degree weather. We now have better vehicles with more powerful engines, more sophisticated traction control, and better tires than in those days of legend, yet we’re more likely to cancel events due to weather. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe it’s not that we’re more cautious but that we’re more conscious, more aware of dangers that can be avoided. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that communication is so easy these days: telephones, emails, blogs, texts, Facebook… back then fast, effective communication was not such a guarantee. Even if they wanted to cancel the service, they’d have limited means to communicate that to the church community.

We can look back and say, “There was a time when we wouldn’t dream of cancelling church, no matter what the reason.” But then how do we really know? Perhaps they were dreaming of cancelling church on a cold and snowy morning in 1932 or 1873 but couldn’t, but maybe, had they eyes to see into the future, they’d have said, “Boy, I wish we’d have that kind of communication ability now!”