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.
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.
It’s one of those days when an unhappy coincidence between the fiction I’m reading and the real world I’m living in has led to some troubling thoughts.
For the last couple of days I’ve been reading Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in a series of medieval murder mysteries. In this book, the heroine, a female doctor from Salerno who specializes in examining corpses (i.e., a coroner before that was a job description) is called upon to investigate the death of “Little Saint Peter” in Cambridge, England — the latest in a series of mysterious disappearances of young children. This being the 1140’s, the deaths have been blamed on the Jews of Cambridge, who are reputed to have crucified at least one Christian child, possibly more. While the novel is fictional, some of the details of Little Saint Peter’s death are based on the death of William of Norwich in 1144, one of the earliest examples of Jewish blood libel, of which there were many instances in medieval Europe. (The “blood libel” link above goes to the Wikipedia article which gives a good overview; as always with Wikipedia, there are several more specific links available in the reference list at the bottom of the page).
I was interested in the character and the story, and not thinking particularly deeply about the blood libel aspect of the novel (which I knew about from history anyway), until I woke up this morning, finished the book, and went online to find that Swedish people were making fun of Donald Trump on the internet.
Not that Europeans, or anyone for that matter, making fun of Trump is particularly newsworthy. But this latest round of fun was based on something Trump said at a rally in Florida yesterday. Amid the usual round of incoherent ramblings aimed at assuring his supporters the world is a terrifying place and only he can protect them from Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees, he threw in the comment:
“You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”
As it turns out, nobody (except Trump supporters at a rally) would believe “this,” because there’s no “this” to believe. No terrorist attack, no act of violence at all, carried out by refugees, terrorists, or anyone else, occurred in Sweden on Friday. There has not been a terrorism-related crime in Sweden since 2010, although it seems the US President (who allegedly gets much of his information from watching TV) may have watched a Fox News piece linking crime in Sweden to the increased refugee population. Maybe. But nothing was “happening” in Sweden the night before Trump made that statement.
It’s telling, of course, that only us enraged liberal snowflakes and the “left-wing media” who Trump recently labelled enemies of the people (and, of course, the Swedes) got up in arms about this. I haven’t seen any Trump supporters calling him out on this, anymore than they were upset when Sean Spicer thrice referenced Atlanta as a site of a terror attack by immigrants, or Kellyanne Conway blamed refugees and immigrants for the non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre” and then claimed that she misspoke. (Here’s a tip: if your job is being a spokesperson for the most powerful man in the world, maybe be a little careful about words like “massacre,” as “massacres” are things people tend to get upset about).
For months, since long before he won the election, Trump has been grooming his supporters to ignore the line between facts and lies — by attacking the mainstream media, changing the definition of the term “fake news,” and making obviously false statements about things that only matter to his swollen ego. A case in point occurred at Thursday’s bizarre press conference, when Trump claimed he had won the biggest electoral college victory since Ronald Reagan. When it was pointed out that wasn’t true, his response was, “I don’t know, I was given that information.” (In fact, Trump’s electoral college victory was the third-lowest since Reagan; only George W. Bush managed to do worse — twice).
Does anyone (other than Trump) care, now that he’s president, how big his electoral college win was? Of course not. The only purpose of blatantly false claims like that is to destablize the entire notion of “facts,” to remind Trump’s base that the only thing that matters is what the President says, and the only source he needs is “something I heard somewhere.” Don’t trust the mainstream media; they’re all fake news. Truth is whatever the leader says it is.
Why does this matter? Any of us can google how many electoral college votes every president has won and confirm for ourselves that the US president made a false statement and didn’t care about it. We can also check and confirm that there was no terrorist attack (or indeed nothing unusual at all) in Sweden on Friday night, no terrorist attack in Atlanta since 1996 (by a white right-winger) and no massacre, ever, in either Bowling Green, Kentucky, or for that matter Bowling Green, Ohio.
It matters because such false claims may be the modern equivalent of the medieval anti-semitic blood libel. It matters because twelfth-century English peasants could be led to believe that their Jewish neighbours were crucifying children, or mixing murdered children’s blood into Passover bread. In the same way modern, educated Westerners, surrounded by more sources of information than the world has ever imagined, can be led to believe that countless crimes are being committed by immigrants and refugees, even though almost no evidence of such crimes exists. And if someone comes forward with the evidence? It’s “fake news.” Or the mainstream media is not reporting all the attacks that are taking place. Or we misspoke, but the underlying idea is still true and shouldn’t be discounted just because we got some pesky little facts wrong.
It’s that time again! I’ve made a video talking about ten of the books I liked best this year. Watch the video for a short description of each book, a little info about a new project I have coming up, and a chance to win a book from my favourites list. Check out my book blog for a more detailed discussion of what I read this year.