Here’s a video I made in my neighbourhood to introduce readers to some of the places that inspired my upcoming novel. You may enjoy this, especially if you have nostalgic memories of corner stores.
I don’t mean to turn my blog into a memory-fest, but a lot of stuff happened in the summer and fall of 1997. I was, as you’ll recall, pregnant with my firstborn. The school I taught at closed down (I just blogged about that). Princess Diana died (I didn’t blog about that). Mother Teresa died (didn’t blog about that either). And then, on September 19, a far less attention-grabbing celebrity death: singer/songwriter Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident. He was 42 years old.
I never got to see him in concert. I’ve never gotten over his death.
I know some folks with disagree with me, but I believe that people who say that “contemporary Christian music” is shallow, banal, and musically/lyrically/theologically vapid, either have not listened to Rich Mullins, or possibly have not listened to Rich Mullins enough. There is probably no-one except Jesus — not even C.S. Lewis or Anne Lamott — whose work has had a bigger influence on my faith than the songs of Rich Mullins. Sometimes his music was all that kept me hanging onto any kind of faith at all.
When Rich made money from his music, he turned it over to his church. They paid him whatever the average salary was for a worker in the US that year, and gave the rest to charity. On his Wikipedia page you can find this fact coupled with one my favourite Rich Mullins quotes:
Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my Savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken-hearted.
He would have been 62 this year. It’s impossible to imagine the songs he would have written, the directions his faith and his art would have taken him. I think he probably would have drifted farther away than he already was from the centre of American Evangelical Christianity and probably be shocked and horrified by the political/cultural directions that branch of Christianity has taken in these last 20 years … but who’s to say? It’s only guesswork. We never know what could have been, only what was. What was, and are, are the songs.
Here are five of my favourite Rich Mullins songs (some are videos and some just audio), with my comments.
I think I probably first heard Rich Mullins sing either “First Family” or “Boy Like Me, Man Like You” because those were his early Christian radio hits. But when I bought my first Rich Mullins album (The World as Best as I Remember It, Volume One), the first lines of “Jacob and Two Women” jumped out at me as being completely unlike anything I’d heard in Christian music and most of what I’d heard in church. When you hear a guy sing “Jacob he loved Rachel, and Rachel she loved him, and Leah was just there for dramatic effect/ Well it’s right there in the Bible so it must not be a sin, but it sure does seem like an awful dirty trick” … well, you know you’re in the presence of a songwriter who is not playing around with a bunch of Christian cliches and putting on a holy face. This was real stuff.
Outside of his hardcore fans, Rich is known for writing the praise-and-worship anthems “Awesome God” and “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” While I like those songs, I don’t like them as well as his more singer-songwritery stuff. If I want to hear Rich Mullins do a praise and worship song, something to make me lift my hands and go all Pentecostal, it’ll be “Sometimes by Step.” It’s a song about one of my favourite spiritual themes — how God leads us only one step at a time — we can’t ever see the whole way, and the only way to know where the path is going is just to step out and follow it.
The late summer/early fall of 1997 was a strange and life-changing time for me, for a lot of reasons. I was pregnant with my first child, Chris, who was due to make an appearance in January of 1998. I was also changing jobs, as the job I’d been in for the last five years was coming to an end due to a catclysmic upheaval in the Newfoundland school system. In September 1997 I started teaching English at Beaconsfield Senior High, a position I would hold for only five months before going on the world’s longest maternity leave (in some senses, it still hasn’t ended).
Before that, I’d been teaching English at the St. John’s Seventh-day Adventist Academy — the same school I attended from Kindergarten through high school graduation in 1982; the school both my parents attended. Even some family members of my grandparents’ generation attended the school. To say I and my family had a lot of history with the St. John’s SDA Academy would be an understatement. The baby I was carrying in summer 1997 would not carry on the tradition; our school would no longer exist by the time he started Kindergarten in 2003.
My fellow Seventh-day Adventists will know something about the history and the emotional weight (both good and bad, depending on your experiences) of Adventist education. But you can’t really know what our experience here in Newfoundland was like, because it wasn’t much like anything anywhere else in the world. Adventists have always been big believers in church-run, Christian education for their kids, and in almost every place (at least in North America) this has meant starting small private schools supported by tuition and by the generosity and hard work of the local church, where Adventist kids could get an education without having to rub shoulders with “The World” too much.
Our situation here in Newfoundland was different. At the time the early Adventists decided to start their own school in 1905, the Newfoundland government operated no public schools; almost all schools were run by churches. There were Roman Catholic schools and Anglican schools and Methodist schools and eventually schools run by smaller Christian groups — Salvation Army schools and Pentecostal schools and Seventh-day Adventist schools. Over the twentieth century, this evolved into a system where the government fully funded all these schools — paying for teachers’ salaries and other expenses of running a school system, and establishing a provincial curriculum and government exams for high school graduates — but left most of the day to day running of the schools to the churches. Churches could hire teachers, set their own religious ed curriculum, have whatever religiously-oriented extra-curricular activities they wanted such as chapels and worships, all without charging tuition. All schools were free and open to everyone.
I need to make two things clear at the start of this blog post.
First, I am a pacifist. I believe absolutely and without reservation that for me as a Christian, it is against God’s will to ever use violence against another person. More broadly, I believe conflicts in general are better resolved, and oppression better resisted, through nonviolent direct action than through violence.
Second: it costs me nothing to be a pacifist, and therefore my opinion about pacifism isn’t worth much. (You know that’s not going to stop me from writing a blog post).
It costs me nothing to be a pacifist because I am not oppressed and I have never been a victim of violence. I’ve even been lucky enough (and it is sheer luck) to avoid the kind of casual sexual assault (unwanted touching/groping, etc) that many if not most women experience at some point in their lives. It’s easy for me to be a theoretical pacifist when I have never been in a situation where violence would be a likely or necessary response. I’m an extremely privileged person in this conversation and I get no points for theoretically renouncing a weapon I’ll probably never need to use.
Not only am I not a victim of violence, I probably wouldn’t be any good at using it if I had to. I don’t know how to shoot a gun. I’m not athletic and have never taken a self-defense class. My college boyfriend tried one time to teach me how to kick someone effectively and punch someone in the face without breaking my hand, but as I never practiced those skills I have no confidence I could do either of those things effectively.
When a person with a black belt, or a person who’s a deadly aim with a gun, or a person who’s six-foot-five and three hundred pounds of sheer muscle, renounces the use of violence to solve problems, their renunciation means something. Mine means nothing. Giving up violence, for me, would be like giving up liver for Lent — it’s just not my thing.
When a person who is the victim of systemic oppression — who, because of their skin colour, their social class, their gender identity, the place where they live, is in constant danger of physical harm — when than person renounces violence, it means something. It means nothing when I renounce it.
All that being said, I am still a pacifist. You may disagree with me. A lot of people do. A lot of my fellow Christians read the same Bible I do and come away convinced that Jesus would be fine with them defending their home with a gun, serving in the military, or punching a Nazi in the face (don’t worry, we’ll get back to the Nazis). What can I say? I read Walter Wink at an impressionable age (the age was 35, but still, I was impressionable). I have immense admiration for the tactics and commitment of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others who have led highly disciplined and courageous groups of people into nonviolent direct conflict with oppressive powers. Anyone who marches into a line of armed police or military willing to take a beating without lifting a hand to fight back, is a hero in my book.
All of which was pretty theoretical, living the safe and comfortable life of privilege I live, until the last week or so. In the wake of the white nationalist march Charlottesville, Virginia, the question of whether or not to resist evil with violence is suddenly much more relevant. While I, personally, may never be called upon to punch a Nazi, should I cheer for the person who does? Should I cheer at the sight of a flamethrower burning a Confederate flag (bearing in mind that the person holding the flag could be harmed by the flamethrower)? Should protests against fascists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and their ilk (which, we’ve been promised, we’ll see more and more of, and don’t think we haven’t got them in Canada) be met solely with nonviolent resistance, like those lines of clergy in their vestments and many other peaceful resisters marching down the streets of Charlottesville. Or should there be room for the antifascist protesters who come armed and ready to fight back?
It’s rare, in this polarized world of ours, that voices on the left and on the right sound off on the same side of an issue. Rare enough that when it happens, it’s probably worth paying attention.
I noticed just such a phenomenon on Facebook last week, when one of my more politically right-leaning friends shared a blog post by Professional Angry Christian Person Matt Walsh, while at the same time one of my more leftward-tilted friends shared an article from that generally progressive-ish magazine, The Atlantic. Both articles were ranting about the same thing: the use of smartphones by children and youth is not simply affecting, not merely changing, but literally destroying a generation. Today’s tweens and teens are weak, passive, immobile, unable to cope with the outside world – because they spend all their time on their phones.
This wasn’t, it turned out, some rare confluence of independently-arrived-at opinions. Matt Walsh was responding directly to the Atlantic article, filtering author and psychologist Jean M. Twenge’s research and concerns through his own particular prisms. When we do find that rare agreement between people and parties who usually disagree – when Matt Walsh reads an article in The Atlantic and responds with agreement instead of venom – it’s either because the thing is so incontrovertibly true that it transcends our divisions, or because it agrees with some preconceived biases we hold (such as, Technology Is Evil or Everything Was Better in the Good Old Days).
On the surface of it, the agreement here seems to fall into the “incontrovertibly true” category. Kids today get smartphones at what seems to me ridiculously young ages (seriously, why would you put a $700 piece of electronics into the hands of the seven-year-old who just pulled off Barbie’s head??). They spend a lot of time on them, and this has changed both the kids and the culture. Our kids are having experiences online that those of us who grew up when there was no “online” cannot fully understand, and we don’t know what the consequences might be. We can see that change is happening quickly, and it scares us, regardless of whether we’re pre-programmed to think that change is usually a good thing or that change is the Devil’s calling card.
Probing a little more deeply into the original article, I began to question some of the panic it engendered. It starts, as such pieces always do, with an anecdote: Twenge talked to a 13-year-old girl and found that this young teenager is in the habit of going to the mall with her family, rather than hanging out there unsupervised with her friends; she’s more likely to spend time with her friends online than in real life. Twenge continues to pile anecdotal evidence alongside research, creating the impression that smartphone use has spawned a generation of children who spend all their time locked in their rooms staring at screens, unable to interact with the world outside in any meaningful way.
In one of my favourite lines ever from the sitcom Modern Family, Jay Pritchett, a salt-of-the-earth type of guy in his 60s, asks his attractive younger wife Gloria (played by Sofia Vergara) if she knows where his “good underwear” is. Her reply is a funny sitcom one-liner, but it’s also become sort of my guiding principle moving into what I presume is the last third of my life. (This line is funnier if you can hear it in Sofia/Gloria’s Latina accent, but I couldn’t find a clip of it).
“The question is, why isn’t all your underwear good, Jay? You make a nice living.”
This is the question that has cut to the heart of my approach to “midlife and beyond.” Why is not all my underwear good?
If you were hoping this post was going to be mainly about my underwear … well, that’s weird. Sorry to disappoint. I am taking the question literally, throwing out old underwear as soon as they get holes or the elastic starts to go and immediately buying new ones in my favourite colours and styles, which I wouldn’t have done a few years ago. But I’m not going to post pictures or anything. (Jockey for Her French Cut, though, if you really want to know).
No, I’m thinking about the broader implications. Why are not all my T-shirts comfortable T-shirts? Why are not all the books on my shelf books that I love? And so on.
Although so far, I’ve really only gotten around to dealing with the books and the T-shirts (and the underwear). But given how much I love both books and T-shirts and how many of each I have, that’s a good place to start.
One day late in April 2007, one of my students uttered four fateful words. “Are you on Facebook?”
I snorted my disdain. “No, because I’m an adult.”
I was pretty internet-savvy: I had had a personal website since 1995; I’d started this blog in 2006; I spent a good bit of my spare time back then on internet discussion boards (the late lamented ParentsPlace and Television Without Pity, and the still-going-strong Ship of Fools).
But Facebook? I’d heard of it, of course — heard that it was going to be the new MySpace and that all the college-aged kids and some of the high schoolers were hanging out there. It just didn’t seem like something I’d be interested in.
Just a couple of days after my snarky comeback to my student, I had coffee with a few other adults — my friends the Strident Women, also still going strong 10 years later — and found that a couple of them were on Facebook. And we agreed that if we all joined, and created a private discussion group, we could use Facebook to carry on the kind of snarky conversations we usually had over once-a-month Sunday coffee.
So I did it. I joined Facebook, and the rest, as they say, is history. So much history that yesterday, Facebook attempted to wish me a happy 10-year “Faceversary.”
No. Just no. I am not going to say that word.
But it’s probably worth a few moments’ reflection to think about the impact of a website that has played such a big part in my life, and the lives of others, over the past 10 years.