Making Room

There is no shortage of junk to be chucked out of our basement.

There is no shortage of junk to be chucked out of our basement.

I’ve been doing a lot of clearing out lately. It’s been … awesome. I have a general tendency to be a bit of a sentimental pack-rat (thinking, but I might need that someday, when considering whether or not to toss out the ratty, ill-fitting shirt I haven’t thought about since I was probably in college. Perhaps, though, it’s been the realization how how much room a tiny toddler and her accoutrement can possess that has inspired me finally to purge any unnecessary stuff from my life. Leeman and I have finally embraced the long-anticipated project of chucking DVD cases to put store our disks in compact slip cases (the urge to simplify hasn’t quite driven us to purging the disks all together quite yet … it’s about baby steps people). Mountains of hats and gloves are packed up for donation to the church’s mitten tree. Piles of socks worn through with holes are finally being sacrificed to the trash heap. So it goes.

I suppose there are many meditations I could offer on the process of sorting through a decade or so’s worth of accumulated stuff. Going into the pre-Christmas season, especially the consumer-extravaganza known as “Black Friday,” it can be a little overwhelming to consider how much stuff one can acquire in such a short time, and that it is oh, so easy to just replace the stuff I just cleared out with newer, brighter, fancier stuff. But I will save the anti-consumerist soap-box for another day (although, because it does need to be said, check out this blog post before heading out to hit the sales too fiercely this weekend). Instead, I want to draw a more symbolic meditation out of my recent domestic purge. Which has to do with this season of Advent into which the church is about it enter.

It goes without saying that Advent has long been lost in our culture that begins celebrating the festive holiday season on November 1 and starts tossing Christmas trees to the curb on boxing day. But Advent remains a season that is well work maintaining in our lives and in the church. If we think of Advent at all, we think of it as a season of waiting and expectation. That is certainly true. But what is it exactly we are waiting for? It is the presence of Christ. Throughout Advent, we pray as individuals and as a community the ancient cry of “Maranatha … Come, Lord Jesus.” There is preparation to be done as we await the coming of Christ for which we so longingly pray. It’s true, we usually think of Lent as that time of penitential preparation–a time for fasting, prayer, and intentional almsgiving. But Advent is just as much a season for preparation. It’s true, at least in the Church’s collective discipline today, Advent has taken on less of an overtly penitential character. It is, nevertheless, a time we are called to … prepare.

Perhaps one of the most important ways that we can prepare for the coming of Christ into our lives is simply by doing that spiritual house-cleaning that creates a space for Christ’s presence. What is the spiritual clutter that blocks out Christ? It can take many forms. From the excessive time spent on social media that prevents our awareness of Christ in our relationships or in our life of prayer. To more insidious forms — the business or, I dare say, the comfort that prevents more of us crying out for God’s redemptive presence when we see yet more evidence of the deeply broken world in which we live.

The Christmas story is a story of making room for the infant Christ. There was no room except for a simple stable and a humble manger bed. Yet, even that little space was room enough for God to enter our world.

As we approach this first Sunday of Advent, the question for us is, how can we make room for Christ in our small corner of the world. And then, perhaps, how will we allow God to use us to bring the light of Christ to others.

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Retractions

Today is a sad day on my blog. Today, I must issue a rare retraction of my previously expressed opinions.

As you are no doubt aware, I often use this forum to indulge in whimsical musings on popular culture. I am a lover of pop culture. Our movies, books, and (yes, even) T.V. shows both reflect and influence larger societal attitudes on everything from politics, to racial awareness, to ethics. It’s worth keeping an eye on it.

Some weeks ago, eagerly anticipating the return of last the TV series Sleepy Hollow, I made some observations about things we as the church could learn from that surprise hit. Namely that not be afraid of embracing our own eccentricities and that we take bold steps in highlighting the traditionally marginalized–such as women and people of colour. Sleepy Hollow had been a TV series which stood out from others in it’s decision to highlight a racially diverse cast and allow women to have interpersonal conflict NOT actually about a guy.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Now well into its second season, something tragic has happen to what was once a ground-breaking series. Oh, sure, the supernatural plots are as unabashedly bizarre as always. The chemistry between the central players of Ichabod Crane and Lieutenant Abbie Mills is as awesome as ever.  There is, however, something decidedly lacking in the make-up of the cast.

Now, full disclaimer time. What I am about to say is based on nothing but my own suppositions. We are entering wild speculation territory. But it seems to me that Sleepy Hollow became more wildly popular than anyone ever expected it would be. It is as if that surprising popularity suddenly made a bunch of studio producers pay attention to this little show that had once been permitted to simmer away quietly unobserved in board room meetings. One executive then said to another — “It’s great that we have a hit on our hands. We should try to get an even bigger mainstream audience! You know what we need? More WHITE MEN! There aren’t enough of those on TV.”

Enter white dude Nick Hawley (adequately portrayed by Matthew Mcconaughey impersonator Matt Barr) taking up an awful lot of screen time. Suddenly Sleepy Hollow Police Chief Frank Irving (played by Orlando Jones) and his black family find themselves relegated to a narrative no-mans land. Abbie’s (black) sister Jenny is nowhere to be found. It is frustrating to have characters I spent a season getting to know and love be shunted to the sidelines. It is even more frustrating to feel they have been sidelined to make more room for stories concerning characters who, lets just say it, are white. Heck, even the (white) headless horseman is getting a more nuanced narrative than Frank or Jenny at this point. Maybe that is not the case and the removal of certain characters has nothing to do with race. But it seems a little suspect to me.

There are a couple of points to be made from this. First … can we please accept that racism is still a factor in our society? Whatever higher-level discussions went on in planning for the second season of Sleepy Hollow, it is a fact that the season to date has spent far more energy on the stories of white characters (particularly white men) than on the stories of people of colour. And it has done so by effectively *dropping* major relationship arcs the first season so painstakingly developed. That may or may not have been an overtly racially motivated decision. I am in no position to judge that. But we cannot deny the stories that we see played out over an over again are the stories of straight, white men.

At the same time, there is a positive observation to be made. All around the comments online, I hear people crying for more screen time for Frank Irving, and to know what will happen to his family. I hear people demanding more screen time for the drama between Abbie and Jenny (and not just fighting over the attention of newcomer Hawley). That is a really good sign. That means even if there are executives somewhere who are creating little space for minority characters … audiences aren’t buying it. We want to see stories about women, especially women of colour. We want to see visible minorities having realistic, complex relationships with their families. We want to see LGBT characters who aren’t reduced to stereotypes. Namely, we want to see PEOPLE. Maybe, just maybe, things will change one day.

In the meantime, maybe Sleepy Hollow can at least salvage the rest of this season?

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Mindy Project

I have loved Mindy Kaling from the moment she smacked Steve Carrell in the face on the first season of The Office. I thoroughly enjoyed Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me. We need more clever, quirky women in comedy. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler can’t have all the fun.

And yet, I have been rather ambivalent about Kaling’s sit-com The Mindy Project, which features Kaling as OB-GYN Dr. Mindy Lahiri. Sure, much of my frustration with the series is directed at the show’s incredibly negative view of midwives. As someone who experienced an incredibly empowering birth under the care of (admittedly Canadian) midwives, I rather resent the depiction of Dr. Lahiri’s professional rivals as a bunch of new-age hippies who eschew proper medical care. Sure, my own family doctor thought I was bonkers for attempting a home birth. Nevertheless, he totally asserted that midwives offered the best pregnancy and postpartum care for a low-risk women. It’s fair to say I don’t see why we need another source in pop-culture perpetuating negative stereotypes around a model of care that is being embraced throughout most of the developed world.

Personal soapboxes aside, I’ve had a number of other feminist frustrations with The Mindy Project. At least in its early days, the premise of the show seemed to suggest that Mindy was broken in some way. But why? She has a great career. Is she a wreck simply because she can’t get a guy? Why do we so rarely see Mindy interacting with other women — must her world be dominated by men? With rare exceptions Mindy’s professional life succumbs to the Smurfette principle–she’s the one woman holding her own in a group of men. It bothers me a bit because I feel like we are so scared as a society of showing stories about women engaging with other women. A woman functioning in a man’s world–that’s cool. But we can’t get too caught up in women interacting with other women–that gets a little dubious. (Check out my thoughts on our condescending attitude to the Gilmore Girls.)

But then, at some point, it struck me that maybe the best contribution The Mindy Project makes to popular feminism is its very imperfection. Dr Lahiri is a deeply flawed character. Despite being a person of colour herself, she’s kind of racist. She doesn’t recycle because she thinks it’s lazy. She is seriously self-absorbed. And, honestly, she is perfectly competent at her job, but it is not integral to her character that she must be absolutely the best doctor in the history of New York City. There is no “leaning in” going on. Which is awesome! So often women (especially women of colour) have to be PERFECT in popular culture. Perhaps that is why for so long it was assumed that women “couldn’t be funny”. Women were expected to be competent. To have their lives together. To be sensible. Women weren’t screw-ups, or self-destructive, or simply adequately competent at their careers. In short, women have not been allowed to be fully human.

Behold the great timeline of women in the Bible.

Behold the great timeline of women in the Bible.

I got percolating on this line of thought at a conference I attended this weekend on women in ministry. At the opening plenary lecture, we outlined conventional attitudes towards the role of women in scripture (in the background, subservient, property). Then we contrasted those cultural assumptions with the wide dichotomy of women depicted in the Bible. Sure, one can easily point to uncomplicated examples like the polar opposites of the Virgin Mary and Jezebel to suggest women in scripture must be either saints or monsters. But there are any number of more nuanced characters. The Egyptian midwives who open the book of Exodus by defying Pharaoh’s command that they must kill all the male infants born to Hebrew women. There was Jael who drove a tent peg through the head of an opposing warlord to save the people of Israel in the book of Judges. There are the complicated dynamics between the sisters Rachel and Leah as they compete for the love of their shared husband Jacob.

One of the things that struck me in the chart we assembled of women in scripture was how complicated it became to properly categorize women as “positively” or “negatively” treated by the biblical authors. Poor Hagar–the handmaid of Sarah given to Abraham when Sarah got tired of waiting for a baby–got listed on the bottom “negative” category. But Hagar had little agency and received great mercy from God in her misery. Sarah herself got a good check by her name, yet she was often full of doubt that God could provide her with a child in her old age and, as I just mentioned, at one point got tired of waiting and took matters into her own hands. It gets to be a tangled web. But suffice it to say that the women in the Bible are indeed allowed to be flawed, complicated, imperfect. That is to say … they are allowed to be fully human. And, indeed, they are allowed to be fully human in a way that is not often reflected by the women appearing in media in our own supposedly enlightened, progressive cultural context.

Which is all to say that … bring on more women like Dr. Lahiri. Women who are competent. Interesting. Dynamic. But not always perfect. Because in that complexity lies humanity. And women are, in fact, quite human.

Mea Maxima Culpa

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”

So we pray in the general confession week after week as we prepare to receive the Holy Eucharist. We confess not only those sins we have committed, but also, as it were, our sins of omission. There are times when we can be just as guilty when we fail to do “right” than when we actively do wrong. Indeed, I might argue that these subtle failures can be a far more insidious and toxic presence in our lives and in our shared cultural reality.

Sigh. I don’t want to talk about Jian Ghomeshi. I really don’t. I am certainly not the type of person to pretend to be “above” popular culture. But it is fair to say my pop cultural tastes are idiosyncratic, to say the least (Farscape, anyone?), and I honestly don’t know that I could have picked Jian out of a crowd before last week.

But I do want to talk very briefly about the (very healthy) conversations that have sprung up around rape culture, consent, and the structures that implicitly condone sexual predators and harassers. Because if there is anything positive that has come out of this latest debacle, it is that we as a society are being forced to confront a certain toxicity that we have allowed to simmer below the surface of our collective reality for far too long.

What has astounded me over the past ten days are the number of articles and opinion pieces written by individuals (mostly men) owning up to their knowledge of Ghomeshi’s troubling behaviour with women. Behaviour they knew about, and yet did nothing to prevent. Maybe some in the Canadian arts and culture scene quietly whispered warnings to the women in their circle to be aware of an all-too-creepy celebrity. But nothing was done officially. No action was taken. Who knows how many women, unexposed to the “in-crowd” rumour mill, became victims of the CBC golden boy as a result of such “sins of omission” by so many who likely could have done something to prevent these crimes sooner. Again, though, there is little that I can add to this conversation that others are not saying on larger platforms and with better knowledge and authority.

What is far more interesting to me is how universal the pain caused by our various “sins of omission” can truly be. For example, in the wake of the Ghomeshi crisis a number of my friends and former colleagues and professors have been compelled to expose the rampant culture of harassment that exists in academia. Specifically in my former discipline of Medieval Studies. On the one hand, it has been truly disturbing to hear people I know share their experiences of sexual harassment. On the other hand, it is inspiring to see women in the academy (as well as male allies) stand up to find productive ways to change a toxic, abuse-enabling culture. And as I watch these conversations, as a someone silent social media observer, I find myself pondering my own complicity in that unhealthy academic culture. Believe me, there is plenty I saw and plenty I heard through friends that I, along with so many others, simply allowed to carry on. Because it didn’t impact me directly. Or I figured there wasn’t anything to do about it. Any number of understandable excuses. Mea Maxima Culpa.

We, ALL of us, fail in so many ways every day to do everything that is in our power to speak up for the marginalized or challenge those who abuse their positions of authority. I commend those I know who commit themselves to challenge power, privilege, and injustice wherever they see it. But it is an uphill battle.

As we approach the season of Advent, however, I am reminded that it is not up to me alone–or to any one of us–to defeat the unjust power structures of this world. For this, I am profoundly thankful.