Saturday, September 24, 2016

Musically Speaking, Why is it OK to Mock Mormons?

The musical The Book of Mormon is coming back to Winnipeg this week for a repeat performance. Its return once again raises the questions: Why is it OK to make fun of the Mormons in this way? And how do Mormons feel about it? I asked that in February, 2015 in my column in the Winnipeg Free Press.

“Why, in a society that revolves around political correctness, is it socially acceptable to blatantly ridicule Mormonism?”

That was the question posed by Kate Wilson in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2014 about the musical The Book of Mormon.

Wilson, who is not a Mormon, went on to say that “such religious ridicule would never be deemed acceptable directed at other religions. Imagine what would happen if a musical titled The Torah or The Quran hit Broadway, similarly demeaning the beliefs and lifestyles of their respective religions. Protests and claims of anti-Semitism and racism would inevitably break out.”

Wilson’s question is an apt one for Winnipeggers now that The Book of Mormon is once again coming to town.

The award-winning play has been playing to packed houses across North America since it opened in New York in 2011. It follows two young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda to try to convert people to their faith.

Reviewers have called it “the best musical of this century.” and “the funniest musical of all time.”

But while it has garnered rave reviews, others, like Wilson, have raised questions about its appropriateness, its language—it comes with an explicit language warning—and its accuracy when describing the Mormon faith.

According to the Deseret News, a Utah newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church), the musical contains multiple inaccurate representations of Mormon beliefs and practices.

Some of the errors, it says, are inconsequential, such as the specifics of how missionaries receive their proselytizing assignments and mission rules.

But other errors are less benign, such as misrepresenting the history of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith, and church teachings about the afterlife.

So what? It’s just a play, a bit of entertainment. Plus, it’s all in fun.

That’s not what people were saying following the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Back then, there was a general consensus about the need to show tolerance and respect for the beliefs and practices of other religions—Islam, in particular—even in the face of a horrific crime.

But The Book of Mormon? That doesn’t seem to be a problem for many. But it is for Wilson.

“Such religious ridicule would never be deemed acceptable directed at other religions,” she wrote. “It’s clear that a double standard has been created in our culture when it comes to religious satire.”
What about people who belong to other religious groups; what should we make of this? Or maybe it doesn’t matter since we aren’t Mormons.

That’s not how Mollie Ziegler of sees it.

According to Ziegler, all people of faith should be concerned since the musical "mocks general religious belief, using Mormon characters.”

David Brooks of the New York Times agrees, noting that "the central theme of The Book of Mormon is that many religious stories are silly."

The play’s main message, he added, is that "religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally."

And what about Mormons themselves—how do they feel about the play?

I posed that question to Josh Gruninger, President of the Manitoba & Northwestern Ontario Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Gruninger doesn’t plan to see the play himself, and he isn’t aware that many of the province’s 4,000 church members will go. But “we won’t discourage people from going to see it,” he says, adding that the church is not planning to protest the musical when it comes to the city.

All he hopes is that people who go to see it might take the time “to learn more about our church. I hope they will try to find out more about the real Book of Mormon.”

As for Winnipeggers in general, we’re still stinging from the charge that this is Canada’s most racist city. 

With the Mayor imploring citizens to treat everyone with respect, maybe we can start by not buying tickets to a musical that mocks the Mormons.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Saint (Mother) Teresa, Godric and Plaster Saints

I’m not a big fan of novels, but I really liked Godric by Frederick Buechner.

Published in 1981, the book is about Saint Godric, who lived in the 11th century in England.

Little is known about the holy hermit, who was a sailor and merchant before devoting himself to a life of prayer.

What we do know was written by Reginald of Durham, who spent time with Godric prior to the saint’s death.

In Buechner’s re-imagining of their time together, Reginald is set on writing a reverent tome about Godric’s life—the kind that will inspire the faithful.

But Godric will have none of it. He repeatedly tries to impress on Reginald why he doesn’t deserve a saintly write-up.

“I started out as rough a peasant's brat and full of cockadoodledoo as any,” he tells Reginald.

“I worked uncleaness with the best of them or worse. I tumbled all the maids would suffer me and some that scratched and tore like weasels in a net. I planted horns [had sex with other men’s wives] on many a goodman's brow and jollied his lads with tales about it afterward.”

As for being a merchant, he admits to cheating his customers, thieving, pirating and other things that “are better left unsaid.”

Those things may be in the past, but he’s no better a man today, he tells his biographer.

“Know you this . . . Godric's no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too.

“A slothful greedy bear. Not worthy to be called a servant of the Lord when he treats such servants as he has himself like dung . . . .

“All this and worse than this go say of Godric in your book.”

Of course, Reginald does no such thing. All that remains is a wondrous tale of the saintly Godric.

Thoughts about Godric came to mind recently when Mother Teresa—now Saint Teresa—was canonized by the Pope.

From some reports, you’d think she was the worst possible candidate for sainthood. A French publication accused her of glorifying human suffering instead of relieving it, being a penny-pincher with her money, and having questionable friends in high places.

Christopher Hitchens, in his scathing review, called her a “fanaticist, a fundamentalist and a fraud.”

Canadian columnist Michael Coren repeated these charges, adding that she “provided sub-standard medical care, took money from dictators and criminals and often cozied up to them, pushed her faith on the vulnerable and sick.”

What I think these critics miss is that Saint Teresa, like Godric, was human. And humans aren’t perfect.

Saint Teresa seemed to know this. "If I ever become a Saint—I will surely be one of 'darkness,'" she wrote in a private letter published after her death.

“There is so much contradiction in my soul,” she added, “so deep that it is painful.”

She went on to write about feeling not wanted by God, being repulsed by God, having no faith, no love, no zeal.

“Heaven means nothing—to me it looks like an empty place,” she wrote. “The thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God. Pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything.”

Godric, as imagined by Buechner, couldn’t have said it better.

In addition to Godric, Buechner mused about saints in his book Wishful Thinking. 

“Many people think of saints as plaster saints, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil deed their whole lives long,” he wrote.

“As far as I know, real saints never even come close to characterizing themselves that way.”

The feet of saints, he went on to say, “are as much of clay as everybody else's, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than of what God has for some reason chosen to do through them.”

I think that sums up Saint Teresa pretty well, whatever her flaws.

From the Sept. 17 Winnipeg Free Press.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon Length: Preachers and Listeners Weigh In

“Hey, Preachers—work on shortening your sermons. I’ve learned that if you can’t say it in an hour-and-a-half, you can’t say it at all.”

That satirical comment, posted on Facebook recently by a preacher friend, started an interesting discussion between preachers and congregants about the ideal length of a sermon.

As it turned out, congregants and preachers who posted replies differed on the optimum length for a sermon.

People in the pew thought they should be shorter, no more than ten to 15 minutes, while preachers argued for 25 minutes or more.

Said one pew-sitter: “I always agreed with the sentiment that the mind cannot understand what the backside cannot withstand.”

“About 15 minutes, after that most preachers are just listening to their own voices,” said another.

“Thirty minutes and the mind wanders,” added a third.

Preachers had a different take.

One noted that preaching 20-25 minutes is normal for him, but there are weeks when he goes 30. Another said he regularly preaches for 25. And praise was given to a third preacher, who can go for 55 minutes.

The exchange reminded me of a statement issued by the Vatican in 2010 encouraging Roman Catholic priests to keep their homilies to eight minutes.

Why only that long? According to Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, that’s as long as people can pay attention these days.

His advice was welcomed by Father Andrew Headon, vice-rector of the Venerable English College in Rome, which trains men for the priesthood.

"There is a saying among clergy," he said in an article in The Guardian. "If you haven't struck oil in seven minutes, stop boring."

All of this made me wonder what some of my preacher friends feel about sermon length.

“Every congregation is a micro-culture,” says Michael Wilson of Charleswood United Church, suggesting it is difficult to come up with an ideal sermon length for every church.

Most preachers, he said, have an hour of total service time to work with. “If there are a variety of other things in the service that day, then the sermon ought to be shorter in order to stay within the congregation’s expectation of length of service.”

Wilson, whose sermons run anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes, adds that preachers “need to be self-aware concerning their capacity to retain attention while carrying out their responsibility to teach, move, and delight.”

Rather than impose a time limit, he says, “it would be best for preachers to hear what their congregations want from them.”

For Jamie Howison of St. Benedict’s Table here in Winnipeg, in the Anglican tradition “the sermon is part of ‘the Proclamation of the Word,” which also includes the reading of scripture, the recitation of the creed, prayers of the people, confession and absolution, and the sharing of the Peace.

An overly long sermon, he says “detracts from the flow of the movement toward the sharing of communion, so my sermons are generally in the 12 to 15 minute range.”

As for the suggestion that sermons be no longer than eight minutes, Howison fears that “risks erring in the other direction, namely to devalue the place of the sermon and to underestimate the congregation’s ability to hear and absorb sermons of substance.”

Jeff Loach, pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Nobleton, Ont., also feels eight minutes is too short.

“My preaching goes as long as it needs to, which varies from 15 to 35 minutes,” he says. “The length of the message needs to reflect what the Holy Spirit wants to say through the preacher about the text at hand.”

Marvin Dyck is pastor of Winnipeg’s Crossroads Community Church. He notes that some of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the city feature sermons that run from 30 to 50 minutes.

He doesn’t go that long—30 minutes is his maximum. But he agrees that preachers today have to “plan for short attention spans.”

So what’s the ideal length for a sermon? I don’t have an answer, although I lean towards shorter being better. All I know is that whatever the length, preaching isn’t an easy task in these days of shorter attention spans.

I’m glad I don’t have to do it.

From the Sept. 10 Winnipeg Free Press.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Paper Nazis: Anti-Semitism (and Mennonites) in Manitoba before World War II

My interview with Byron and Melita Rempel-Burkholder about their work to get Mennonite Church Canada to pass a resolution about Palestine-Israel this summer prompted some negative reaction from people in the Manitoba Jewish community, including some who pointed out that, before WW 2, some Mennonites supported the Nazi party. It reminded me of my friend Andrew Wall's documentary exploring this chapter in Mennonite, and Manitoba, history.

For Winnipeg film maker Andrew Wall, it all started with a simple question: Were Jews discriminated against at Victoria Beach in the 1940s?

I had heard the rumour, but I wasn't sure it was true," says Wall, whose family has owned a cottage at Victoria Beach for more than 60 years.

His desire to find an answer led him on an unexpected and shocking journey into a part of Winnipeg's history that many know nothing about—and that others might prefer to forget.

The result is Paper Nazis, a documentary from Farpointfilms that explores the rise and fall of two anti-Semitic extremist groups in Winnipeg in the 1930s: the Nazi movement and the Canadian Nationalist Party.

"The anti-Semitism of that time struck me as unbelievable," says Wall, 35, of his research into attitudes towards Jews in Manitoba during that period. "I couldn't believe it happened in Canada."

Through interviews with people such as journalist Frances Russell, historian Allan Levine, former MLA Saul Cherniak, academic Helmut-Harry Loewen and others, Wall details how the two organizations promoted hatred of Jews in southern Manitoba through marches, rallies, picnics and the press.

The documentary begins with William Whittaker, a First World War veteran who used his newspaper, The Canadian Nationalist, to praise Hitler, condemn communism, urge boycotts against Jewish businesses and to call on Canadians to unite against "Jewish international, economic and financial domination."

The Canadian Nationalist Party died out before the war, but not before clashing with local Communists in 1934 in downtown Winnipeg in what was called, at the time, the "Market Square riot" and the "battle of Market Square."

Wall also documents how the German consulate in Winnipeg mobilized local support for the new Nazi state in the 1930s.

Key to their effort was the Deutsche Zeitung, a locally printed newspaper that published Nazi propaganda in the guise of impartial news.

The newspaper, which was marketed to Manitoba's German-language population, including Manitoba Mennonites, also had English sections that subscribers were encouraged to share with their English-speaking neighbours.

The documentary shines a bright light on the crusading efforts of John W. Dafoe, the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Dafoe was an early and unrelenting critic of Whittaker and other pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations in the province; he was later joined by the Tribune, which condemned the "vicious... anti-Jewish literature... issued by Nazis."

If Wall was surprised to learn about this unknown aspect of Winnipeg history.

"I never heard about this in school," he says, adding he was shocked to learn that his own great-grandfather, a revered figure in Manitoba's Mennonite community, was a minority shareholder in the Deutsche Zeitung.

"I was absolutely stunned," he says of the discovery, adding that other family members, including his parents, were unaware of the connection. "It was very unexpected and confusing."

Today, he has a better understanding of why his great-grandfather, and some other Manitoba Mennonites, were supportive of Nazi Germany before the Second World War.
"Many had lost everything during the Communist terror in Russia," he says, noting they might have been attracted by the Nazi party's anti-Communist stance.

Plus, he adds, the Nazi plan to eradicate Jews also wasn't known at that time.

During his research, Wall kept asking himself: "Why is it that my generation never heard about this?"

He hopes that the documentary will spark greater interest in Manitoba schools in this unknown part of the province's history, and that it will also remind people to be on the lookout for extremism today.

"We have to be on guard against ideas that try to blame problems on another group," he says.

And what about that rumour about Victoria Beach—was it true? Unfortunately, yes, as Wall found out.

In 1943, when a Jewish family tried to buy a cottage in that area, the local newspaper published an article titled: Unwanted people: A Reminder to Property Owners and Agents.

"You have an obligation to your neighbours at Victoria Beach... to see to it that those unwanted people who have overrun beaches on the other side of Lake Winnipeg are not permitted to buy or rent here," the article stated.

In the grain trade, it went on to say, "there are certain unwanted grades, and these people are unwanted grades at Victoria Beach."

Read more about anti-Semitism in Manitoba before World War Two by the Manitoba Historical Society.

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press in April, 2011.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Don't Let Same-Sex Marriage "Divide or Define Us," Bishop of Rupert's Land says

For Donald Phillips, Bishop of Rupert’s Land, July’s vote about same-sex marriage at the Anglican Church of Canada General Synod was “a roller coaster of emotions.”

At first, the motion to allow same-sex marriages failed, prompting consternation for those in favour. But then a glitch in the electronic voting system was discovered and the motion to change the marriage canon passed—which was frustrating for those who were opposed.

For Phillips, 62, the vote capped a challenging period of time as he wrestled with what to say about the issue to the 12,000 or so members of the Diocese in 76 parishes and three missions in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario.

Prior to the vote, “it was clear that there was considerable tension in the Diocese among the clergy and others over this issue,” he says.

Not only were people anxious about the outcome, they wanted to know his position on whether or not the Anglican church—which already allows priests in the Diocese to bless same-sex civil marriages—should also permit them to conduct same-sex weddings.

“People began to speculate and guess about my position,” he says. “For the health of the Diocese, I felt it was best if people knew, and then be able to get on with their ministries.”

In May Phillips released a statement saying that he was “convinced the time has come for the provision for same-sex marriages in Rupert’s Land to become reality” and that he was “committed to working toward making that happen both as soon as responsibly possible.”

After the statement was released, “not everyone was happy,” he says, “but the level of anxiety dropped.”

Then came the General Synod, where the motion required a majority in the church’s three orders—laity, clergy and bishops—to pass.

Phillips expected it to be defeated; a straw poll among bishops in February had indicated there wasn’t enough support in that order for the motion to pass.

But the bishops did vote in favour and, after rectifying the voting mistake, it passed in the other two orders, too. 

This doesn’t mean priests can now marry same-sex couples, however; that won’t be permitted until after a second vote at the next General Synod in 2019.

Going forward, Phillips believes most Anglicans in the Diocese will support the change to allow same-sex marriages. As for those who are opposed, “I am inviting anyone with questions or concerns to be in touch with me,” he says. “I am happy to have a conversation with anyone.”

Of particular concern is the response of Indigenous Anglicans, including those in the Diocese.

Before the vote, several Indigenous bishops released a statement saying the move towards same-sex marriage was an imposition of “western cultural questions and approaches on our societies.”

“This relationship needs mending,” he says, adding that he will be taking time to talk to Indigenous members in the Diocese.

Looking ahead, he says he wouldn’t “be surprised” if an amendment is brought to the next General Synod “that recognizes the concerns of Indigenous Anglicans.”

As for others in the Diocese who may have concerns about the motion, they “are still fairly engaged in the life of the church, they are faithful, important members,” he says. “Their stance on this issue should not diminish their service and ministry in the church.”

An opportunity for discussion about the motion will take place in October, when the vote will be one of the subjects of a meeting for clergy and laity.

“I hope it will be a time when we engage each other and move beyond this difference,” he says. “I hope that we can still do our ministry together in Jesus’ name, and not let this divide or define us.” 

Meantime, what will he do if a same-sex couple wants to be married by an Anglican church in Manitoba?

“I want to be respectful of the process,” he says. “Our position [as a church] has not yet changed. We will still offer blessings to same-sex couples, but not marriage until after the second vote.”

However, he adds, “if a priest comes to me with a pastoral need on this issue, I would be prepared to enter into a discussion.”