Sunday, May 26, 2019

Geez! Celebrating Aiden Enns and the End of an Era in Winnipeg

Winnipeggers gathered to say thanks to Aiden Enns on May 25—thanks for a job well done in creating Geez, a magazine described as protesting the "unholy alliance between church, state, market and military" that also celebrated the "spiritual dimensions of biking, energy efficiency and canning pickles."

This year Enns gave up the magazine to a new group of editors based in Detroit, as I wrote about in the Winnipeg Free Press in January.

In fact, it was my privilege to write about Geez three times, including being (I think) the first mainstream journalist to write about the magazine soon after its creation in 2005 (in the Winnipeg Free Press and Mennonite World Review).

Five years along, I had a chance to check in and see where things were at with the magazine. Helpfully, the editors of Geez posted a copy of my article in the Free Press on their website.

Together, the three articles offer a snapshot of the beginning, middle and end of Geez (in Winnipeg.)

Like Aiden, I’m sorry Geez never reached the level where it could be financially sustainable. Creating a publication is hard! He’s to be commended for taking it this far, and all the best to the new owners in Detroit as they look to take it into the future.

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Mystery of Titanic Proportions

I wrote this column in 2011, when I still worked downtown.

Every weekday morning, when I go to work, I am confronted by the mystery of life.

My life, to be precise.

It happens when I get off the bus downtown and pass by the Titanic posters at the MTS Centre Exhibition Hall.

For many, the photos of the great ship are just that: photos. For me, it prompts a deeper question: Why am I alive?

It's not an academic exercise; if not for a missed reservation for passage on the doomed ship, I might not be alive today.

The story goes like this. In 1911, my grandfather, also named John Longhurst, emigrated from England to Canada. Like many other emigrants starting a new life in a new country, he left behind his fiancĂ©e, Alice Bond—my grandmother.

The plan was for him to become established in Canada, then return to England so they could marry.

Early in 1912, he came back and they were married. Apparently, John was a bit of a romantic; he wanted to do something special for his new bride. And what could be more special than booking a honeymoon passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic?

But he was too late; the ship was full. Instead, he made a reservation on the SS Megantic, arriving in Quebec City six weeks later.

Passenger list from the Megantic, June 4, 1912; John
& Alice Longhurst are 6th & 7th from the bottom.

Had he been in time to book passage on the Titanic, it is likely that one, or both, would have died.

Because of a missed reservation, I am alive.

When it comes to averted tragedy, most people don't have a story as dramatic as the Titanic. But everyone can recall near misses of one sort or another, times when the course of our lives could have been completely altered,  or ended.

When that happens, many people offer thanks to God, Allah, Jehovah, their lucky stars or whatever universal power they believe in.

But sometimes another thought creeps in: Did a higher power really help us avoid that tragedy? Was it all planned to happen that way, right from the beginning? Or was it just luck or blind chance?

In my case, did God know the Titanic was going to sink, and so prevented my grandfather from getting a ticket on the doomed ship? Did he have a plan that involved not only John and Alice, but also my father, myself and my kids—all the way down the line?

And if that's the case, why did he keep John and Alice off the doomed liner, but allow so many others to sail away to their deaths?

Those are big questions on weekday mornings, especially before the first cup of coffee. And I'm not sure I have good answers.

One person who has given this a lot of thought is Bruce Epperly, a process theologian and author of the book Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.

In a nutshell, process theologians like Epperly believe God does not, and cannot, fully determine the experience of any person on the planet.

In this view, God does not determine the most important details of our lives. Instead, the future is as open for God as it is for us; neither knows exactly what will happen next.

For Epperly, this doesn't diminish God. Instead, it makes God "more alive, creative, and active than a God who has chosen the future in its entirety. A God to whom new things happen can respond to our prayers in ways that make a difference, operating within the causal relationships of the natural world."

This is an "open-source, open-system vision of the universe in which God and the world exist in a dynamic, growing and evolving partnership," he adds.

If Epperly is right, this means God didn't ordain for the Titanic to hit an iceberg and sink that terrible night in April 1912.

He didn't plan for John and Alice not to be able to get passage on the liner, nor for all those people to die.

God may not even have known the ship would sink at all.

Epperly's view is not conventional. But it's catching on as more Christians wrestle with the issue of suffering and pain in the world.

Is everything preordained, from beginning to end? Or are we, in Epperly's words, engaged in a dynamic relationship with God where we both react to events, both good and bad?

I certainly don't have answers to those questions. All I know is when I get off the bus each morning and see those photos of the doomed ship, I face a mystery of Titanic proportions.

From the July 23, 2011 Winnipeg Free Press.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

May 2-3 Symposium in Winnipeg to Explore Past, Present and Future of Canadian Christian Journalism

Broadcaster Lorna Dueck to deliver opening address at free public forum, May 2

What was the state of Christian journalism at the turn of the millennium? What is it like today? What will happen to it in the future?

Those are questions that will be explored the Legacies and Learnings: A ChristianWeek Symposium, May 2-3 at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

During the Symposium, speakers and panelists will discuss the role played by ChristianWeek, a newspaper that existed in print from 1987-2014, in reporting about the church in Canada during that time; the state of Christian journalism today; and the landscape facing Christian journalists and communicators in the future.

Speakers are:

Lorna Dueck, well-known Christian broadcaster and commentator, CEO of Yes TV and host of Context with Lorna Dueck, speaking on the topic: Legacies and Learnings: Considering the Past, Present, and Future of Faith-based Media in Canada.

Gerry Bowler, a former professor of history at the University of Manitoba, speaking on the topic The Curious Case of ChristianWeek: A Brief History of a Medium that Mattered

And Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo, addressing the issue of the future of faith in Canada through the topic None of the Above: Having No Religion in Canada.

Members of Canadian Church Press and the Anglican Editors Association will be holding their conventions in conjunction with the Symposium. 

"During its time in print, ChristianWeek made an important contribution to the church in Canada, reporting the good and the bad, always seeking to provide an honest look at how God was working in this country," says former editor Doug Koop and one of the Symposium's organizers.

"ChristianWeek still exists today online, and is still a window on faith in Canada. The question facing all of us is, what's the best way for it, and for other church publications and communicators, to be that window in the future? That's what we want to explore together."

The Symposium starts May 2, 7 PM with an open public forum with keynote speaker Lorna Dueck, and continues all day, May 3, at CMU, 500 Shaftesbury Blvd., Winnipeg. 

The Symposium is made possible by support from Canadian Mennonite University, ChristianWeek and individual supporters across Canada.

Cost of the Symposium is $75 by April 15 ($85 after), including lunch on May 3 and breaks. Click here for registration information.  

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Religious Humour Goes Overboard with Comic Strip


On March 16 my regular Winnipeg Free Press column featured Man Martin, 59, the artist behind the religiously-themed Man Overboard comic. Since I couldn’t share everything he told me in those few words, here’s the transcript of my interview—replete with panels from the comic. Enjoy!

Tell me about yourself.

I am a novelist and high school English teacher living in Atlanta, Georgia.

What's your religious background?

I’m Episcopalian.

Are you a churchgoer?

Yes.  I like to call myself a “practicing Christian,” which implies that I still haven’t gotten it right, but I’m not done trying.

How important is faith to you?

It’s becoming more important as I age; nevertheless, I’ll confess my faith is about as weak as a reed. I struggle with it, and anticipate I'll keep on struggling, which is why it so often forms a theme in my cartoons.

What's your background as a cartoonist?

I realized my childhood ambition to be a syndicated cartoonist in the 1980s when Universal Press picked up my comic strip “Sibling Revelry.”  It appeared in a grand total of 36 papers until its demise.

Following that, I turned to writing fiction. It was decades before I began cartooning again.

When did you start Man Overboard?

About three years ago.  Originally, it was titled, “Inkwell Forest,” and was to be a conventional fairy-tale themed comic strip.  

When it finally sank in that the newspaper comic strip was heading the way of the dodo and the northern white rhino, I cut loose and began drawing about whatever interested me instead of worrying about trying to be commercial.

Why did you start the comic?

For years I’d been having intermittent dreams about drawing a comic strip, and would wake up thinking, “Maybe it’s time to do another strip.”  Then I’d say, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” Finally, I acted on my dreams and it’s been a delightful experience.

What or who are your influences for the comic?

Charles Schulz was my first love, but I think I’m very influenced by Jules Feiffer, R O Blechman, and Shel Silverstein.  

My mother always said I drew like James Thurber because most of the time my characters don’t have hair and ears seem more like an optional accessory. So I’d have to say Thurber too.

Do you do it for fun or to make money off it?

I just want to have fun and hopefully provide fun for others. I released a book, “Not Easy Being God,” last year, but so far that’s been my only attempt to monetize.  

The strip is available for free on Facebook, my blog (, and through email subscription. (Text OVERBOARD to 22828.)

It's more than a hobby and less than a career.  It's something I do.

What is the response?

People like it, and really makes me happy to see them share it on Facebook.  My fan base is growing, which is very rewarding.

You live if in the Bible Belt, then darn close to it. They take Christianity seriously down there. What's the reaction to the way you portray God, Jesus, the church and Christianity?

I live on the veritable buckle of the Bible Belt; oddly, though, no one has ever taken offense at my religious-themed cartoons.  

When they have taken offense, it’s been when I’ve attempted political humor.

Though sometimes I hurt others’ sensibilities, I never set out to, and it’s painful to get an email or message that such and such a cartoon rubbed someone the wrong way.  

Nevertheless, the only audience I’m beholden to is myself, and whatever strikes me as interesting, funny, or worth commenting on Tuesday morning is likely to show up in a cartoon on Wednesday.

Sometimes I may offend the reader, and for that, I apologize in advance, but if I have to avoid certain subjects for fear of crossing the line, then it just isn’t fun for me, and if it isn’t fun, what’s the point.

How did you come up with your image of God in the comic? (A play on the eye and pyramid in U.S. currency)

I chose it, because as images of God go, it is by far the weirdest and most preposterous. Showing God as a white guy with a beard isn’t nearly as goofy as showing Him as a one-eyed pyramid.  And when you’re a cartoonist, goofy trumps all.

Do people criticize you for how you draw God? Or Jesus?

Again, no one’s found fault, as far as I know, with the way I depict God, Mary, and Jesus. Indeed, some of my most loyal fans are clergy. I guess if you get the joke and see it’s all in fun, you stop and read.  If not, you skip over it.

Your comic assumes some knowledge of Christianity, biblical literacy, theology and history. Is that a challenge today when so few people know the Bible?

Maybe this is what accounts for peoples’ fondness for the cartoon. In an era when organized religion is on the decline, it’s reassuring for people of faith to see cartoons about subject matter uniquely familiar to them.

You are also critical of the church. Why? And what's the reaction?

For me, one of the great themes of Christianity is the astonishing way people just don’t get it.  Jesus can explain something in words of one syllable to his disciples, and they’re all standing around in slack-jawed stupefaction as they try to figure out what he meant.  

Right from the get-go, the early church began to break into schisms arguing about such earth-shaking trivia as whether bread can be flesh or if Mary was a virgin only when she conceived Jesus, or if she kept on being a virgin after that.  

This unfortunate tendency of losing sight of the main point is not reserved to theologians, disciples, and other crackpots; every Sunday, I am reminded there are two laws—only two—love God and love your neighbor, and every Sunday I’m back in church needing forgiveness all over again because I couldn’t do those two simple things.

You also take on consumerism, the environment, and ultimate meaning. Why?

Because those things are interesting to me and rife with absurdity.  The funniest material is mined from the most serious topics. As Flannery O’Connor said, “things are funny because they’re terrible, and terrible because they’re funny.”

Where do you get your ideas for religious ideas from? 

Same place everyone gets their religious ideas: personal experience, worship, scripture. The only difference is that in my case, religious ideas come out funny.

What, for you, is the role of humour and comics in communicating about faith?

I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea humor has a "role" in anything.  It seems to make humor subservient to some other purpose.  Humor needs no such excuse.  If it makes you laugh, grimace, or grunt, that's good enough for me.  Humor brings delight, what else would we ask from it?  It just so happens, our notions about God and spirituality are a wonderful source of humorous material.

Is there any topic you won't touch? (In the religious sphere.)

Telling a cartoonist there's a topic he can't touch is like wearing a sign that says, "Don't kick me."  As soon as I know something is out of bounds, I'm bound to go there.

How does the polarized political climate in the U.S. today affect your work? (

Sometimes I dip my toe into political humor, usually not very adeptly and sometimes to the actual pain of friends and loved ones. 

When I go to heaven, if there is such a place, and I meet God, if there is such a being, She's going to say she planted me during the most preposterous era of US politics, and She's going to demand to know what I, as a cartoonist, did with this wonderful opportunity. 

If my answer is "Nothing," I won't be able to meet her gaze. So from time to time, come hell or high water, I will do political humor.  Again, it's not my best work.  But the target is too big and juicy.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Canada to be New Home for Asia Bibi, Pakistani Christian Acquitted of Blasphemy

Asia Bibi—the Pakistani Christian who was acquitted of blasphemy—is coming to Canada.

The date of her arrival is unknown. But when she arrives she and her husband, Ashiq Masih, will be reunited with their two daughters already in the country.

It will bring to an end a case going back to 2009, when the young Catholic woman was accused by her Muslim neighbours of insulting the prophet Muhammad.

Laws against offences related to religion go back to the colonial period in Pakistan, but were expanded in the 1980s to include desecration of the Quran and blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad—with a recommended penalty of death.

According to critics, the laws often are used to settle personal scores against members of minority religious groups—as happened to Bibi.

She maintained her innocence, but was sentenced to death in 2010.

Bibi languished in prison for eight years until fall, last year, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

Following her acquittal, Bibi was set free. But death threats from radical religious hardliners forced her and her family into hiding.

In December, her daughters, ages 18 and 19, quietly slipped out of Pakistan and made their way to Canada.

In January Pakistan’s Supreme Court re-affirmed their decision to acquit her, clearing the way Bibi to leave.

According to family friend Nadeem Bhatti, a Canadian who is helping Bibi’s daughters adjust to a new life in this country, the girls are “excited” to see their mother again.

“They are trusting God she will be released soon,” says Bhatti, a Christian from Pakistan who fled that country 12 years ago to escape persecution.

The girls’ location is being kept secret out of concern for their safety, he says, noting that outside of a small group of supporters “nobody knows where they are.”

A Roman Catholic Church bishop emphasized that point in an interview with the Catholic Register, the oldest English Catholic publication in Canada.

According to the bishop, who wants to be anonymous so would-be assassins can’t find Bibi's family in his diocese, “it's real life and death stuff.”

Richard Walker, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, declined to make any comments on the case, but confirmed the Canadian government is working with other groups to bring Bibi to Canada.

For Bhatti, the challenges facing Bibi and her family are personal.

He is related to Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani Christian politician and member of Pakistan’s National Assembly who was assassinated in 2011 by an extremist because of his support for persecuted Christians in that country.

Bibi’s family is not the first he has helped leave that country; Bhatti has helped several other Christian families escape Pakistan for a new life in Canada.

When he thinks about Bibi, he is filled with admiration and is glad her ordeal is almost over. “She is a very brave woman,” he states.

He also hopes her case will be a wake-up call for North American Christians about the plight of other persecuted Christians in Pakistan.

Until Bibi, “nobody talked about the persecution in the media,” he says of challenges facing Christians who are just 1.5% of the population in the Muslim-majority country.

Canadians, he says, “take for granted the liberty of free speech and the freedom of worship.

These types of freedoms “are not protected and enshrined in other countries,” he adds.

Bhatti is grateful that Bibi and her family will find refuge in this country.

At the same time, he is very concerned about the plight of thousands of other Pakistani Christians languishing in Thailand.

 “They are begging for help to get out,” Bhatti says of Christians who fled to that country in hopes of being resettled in the west.  

But proving religious persecution is hard when it is episodic and personal, not state-sponsored; they are having trouble getting their cases heard.

Now, Bhatti says, they are in limbo, unable to work in Thailand and afraid to go home, their only hope laying in intervention by western countries.

Bhatti hopes the Canadian government will help, that it will have the same “soft heart” for them that it had for Syrian refugees—and that it has for Asia Bibi and her family.

From the Feb. 16, 2019 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo from the Associated Press, via the Free Press..