A Jesus on the Shelf?

I have long declared Elf on the Shelf to be pretty much the worst thing ever. A made up “family tradition” that’s not even a decade old that imposes a creepy stalker Elf in your home to enforce good behaviour from children for the sake of encouraging Santa’s good will? Not to mention just being yet another “thing” parents have to stress over to ensure a magical holiday season for the kiddos. In my less snarky, more thoughtful moments I have occasionally confessed my fear that things like “Elf on a Shelf” emphasize the idea that we need to focus on “acting good” because some mysterious being is watching us — whether that’s God or the man in the big red suit. I fear what the Elf may be teaching kids about how we are invited to engage with God.

Well, my friends. I am here to tell you there is now something worse than the Elf on a Shelf. Something that confirms all the spiritual concerns I have long had with that seemingly harmless Christmas innovation. And, no, I am not talking about the Mensch on a Bench (at least he’s just meant to watch over the Menorah). Alas, but I have seen a sight that cannot be unseen — The Christian cash grab that is Jesus Sees Us.  I mean, I guess there are much worse things in the realm of Christian kitsch than a Jesus doll based on “Elf on the Shelf.”  I’m sure the moms who came up with this somewhat gimmicky idea had the best of intentions about trying to introduce children to the idea of relating to Jesus in a tangible way.

At the same time, there are some truly insidious problems with this toy that speak to much broader trends in how we relate our faith to our children, and how we often understand it ourselves. Lets leave aside for a moment the fact that the “Jesus Sees Us” website itself draws a connection between Jesus and Santa Claus. That’s problematic enough. But the deeply troubling part of this toy as a foundation for spiritual understanding is exactly what it draws from that creepy stalker Elf on a Shelf. The assumption of the “Jesus Sees Us” doll is that it is meant to teach kids how to live with Jesus as a regular part of our lives. That’s not a bad thing by any means. We should teach children to incorporate their faith into their lives. But all the materials (particularly the “lesson book”) that comes with the doll are fundamentally about learning to do the right behaviours, presuming that Jesus is always watching us, as the website states: “By understanding the positive and negative actions of the characters, they will be more likely to make the right decisions in their own lives.”

I have no problems with teaching children good behaviours. I have no problem with seeing Jesus as the ultimate example of how we are meant to live in this world and interact with others. You cannot find a more radical example of self-giving love. I do, however, sincerely worry about the messages we send our children when we present our faith as nothing more than learning to be “good people.” Yet it is a persistent (mis)understanding of the purpose of religion by many people whether child or adult. And I dare say it is the reason so many atheists look with some derision on religious communities. Many of them live lives demonstrating great love and compassion and they are right to question why religion in general (or Christianity specifically) is needed, if its only purpose is the establishment of a moral imperative.

I am writing this post on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Admittedly, I fall more on the Catholic end of the Christian denominational spectrum … but it has to be said this is one of my favourite Feast Days. I love that through much of Christian history, this was seen as one of the principle feasts of the Church. The nerd in me likes to point out that JRR Tolkein had Frodo throw the Ring of Power into Mount Doom and defeat the dark forces of Sauron on March 25. That’s a wonderful image because it reminds us that the work of the Gospel began the moment the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to declare that Mary would give birth to the Messiah. The Christian story — the story of the God who loved the world so much that he came to share in our humanity for the sake of bringing us into communion with God — begins long before Jesus ever said a word or gave us a lesson to follow. Our Christian story is not a moralistic tale of how we can behave in a way to earn the favour of a creepy doll watching us while we sleep. Our Christian story is about actually being loved and being welcomed into communion with the maker of Heaven and Earth.

Sure, that’s hard to teach a kid. I have no idea how I’m going to do it with my daughter. But what I do know is that if we only teach kids about the boring side of Christianity–that it’s primarily about learning right and wrong–we can’t blame them if they decide that’s not much compelling to it.

Also, while I’m at it — stories about God deciding to violently wipe out most of the human race probably aren’t ideal bedtime reading for kids, either, even if they do involve lots of cute animals. But that’s a rant for another day.

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R.I.P. Sir Terry

Late last week I was just coming out of a meeting, when I checked my phone to find a message from Leeman: “I can’t believe the news about Terry Pratchett.” My heart fell, and I turned to Facebook to have my fears confirmed that one of my favourite authors (Sir) Terry Pratchett had passed away at age 66 from complications related to his Alzheimer’s.

A shelf and a half of Pratchett (with a healthy dose of Neil Gaiman for good measure).

A shelf and a half of Pratchett (with a healthy dose of Neil Gaiman for good measure).

It’s hard to sum up Terry Pratchett’s style to someone who has not been a regular visitor to his fictional Discworld, though you can hear Leeman and me doing our best to pay him tribute here. How does one explain the anthropomorphic personification of Death with his horse Binky? Or the Wizards of Unseen University, complete with their orangutan librarian? Or the rise of consummate policeman Sam Vimes? Suffice it to say, Pratchett was glorious mix of Tolkien’s classic high fantasy, turned upside down by a healthy dose of satirical social commentary. With whimsical footnotes.

Terry Pratchett has meant different things to me at different points in my life. But my love of Pratchett always comes back to his unique capacity to harness the power of silliness to comment on the absurdities of the human condition (sometimes with a twinkle in his eye, sometimes with a cynical edge to his voice). What other writer could make DEATH his most lovable character? Death who holds no malice for humanity. He’s just incredibly good at his job.

Among Pratchett’s many memorable creations,  the crotchety crone Granny Weatherwax has always been one of my favourites for her no-nonsense insights on humanity. I cannot wait until Amanda is old enough to read his young adult series about the young would-be witch Tiffany Aching, as she comes into her own under the occasional guidance of Mistress Weatherwax. It is also through the eyes of Granny that Pratchett offers some of his most profound comments on the subject of religion. And for all that Pratchett was quite the unambiguously outspoken atheist, I can’t help but feel that he managed to convey some profound thoughts on faith through the piercing perspective of Granny Weatherwax, who just calls it as she sees it. At one point, Granny encounters “The Quite Reverend Mightily-Praiseworthy-Are-Ye-Who-Exalteth-Om Oats,” priest of the Omnian faith (the closest Discworld analogue to Christianity). Reverend Oats prides himself on a reasonable approach to his faith, willing to engage all points of view, and not requiring too radical a conversion of life. An attitude toward which Granny bluntly replies:

“You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mean, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declarin’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just . . . is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.”

Now, I cannot imagine Pratchett was using Granny Weatherwax to suggest that religions should go about literally burning and sacrificing. But, perhaps, looking at religion from the outside, Pratchett could see a truth that we are often unwilling to face ourselves. Which is that our faith should make profound claims on our lives. If we actually do believe in the message of radical love we, as Christians, see revealed in the life and ministry of Christ, that has to have impact on our life outside the doors of the church. Sacrificing our lives one day at a time in our works of love and our desire to see the image of God in all those we encounter. What else are we to contemplate as we approach the profound events of Holy Week than the boundless love of God that culminates in utter self-sacrifice? How do we dare to imitate such self-giving love?

After all … anything else is just … just being nice.

It might be said in the words of a witch, but that doesn’t make it any less challenging point for us to take to heart. Pratchett was probably the only author capable of writing something at once so absurd and so profound. I also don’t know how he would feel about his words poking fun at religion inspiring an Anglican Priest to reflect on the call to radical discipleship at the heart of Christianity. But I like to think that he would appreciate the irony. Rest in peace, Sir Terry, and Thank You.

In the meantime, perhaps we can all band together and sign the petition asking Death to kindly bring Terry back for us.” Also, check out my friend and author Caroline Lee’s reflections on what Pratchett meant to her. She is, after all, the one who first introduced me to Discworld, nigh 20 years ago!

In Good Company

This weekend, Leeman and I actually got to leave the house (!) together (!) without the baby (!). It was like a Lenten miracle. We embarked on our exciting excursion in order to attend our friends’ final concert as the geeky musical duo Debs & Errol“.

Hanging out with Debs and Errol after the concert.

Hanging out with Debs and Errol after the concert.

We’ve been huge fans of Debs and Errol since their debut performance nearly four years ago. They were a regular part of the annual “Simian Showcase” put on by Leeman’s theatre partners “Monkeyman Poductions.” We use their music in every episode of the world’s best married Christian Geek podcast. (In fact, you can check out our interview with Errol–who leads music at the Anglican Church of the Resurrection–here). There is so much we have loved about D&E, from their affectionate banter, to their quirky lyrics, to their heart-warming tunes. But, perhaps most importantly, they were–like us–geeky at heart. Their songs touched on everything from Star Wars, to Battlestar Galactica, to board games, to narwhals. And they did it with the unashamed joy that being a geek is all about. Lets just say they’ve brought us a lot of happiness.

Hanging out with my fellow geeky kind at Debs and Errol’s concert–singing lyrics that would confound 90% of the population and cheering at fandom in-jokes–I was struck by two things. I love being a geek. And it is so much more fun to be a geek in a crowd of people than it is to be a geek alone.

As I have intimated, I don’t get out much any more. Having a kid will sort of do that to you. But that’s not to say I haven’t found time to indulge occasionally in my favourite geeky obsessions. I still blog about all the TV shows I watch, after all. Over the past year or so, however, I have noticed what at different experience it is to discover a new series on my own, or to follow a currently running show independent of the larger fan community. There was a time I would regularly get together with friends to watch the latest episodes of shows like Lost. And our time became as much about the shared experience of watching the show as it was about the show itself. It may sound strange, but I have very close friendships born out of binge watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD. That connection added a level to the “fandom” that cannot be replicated when am sitting alone watching Netflix.

We are creatures who crave connection and community–whether that is through sports teams, or political ideologies, or “fandoms.” Perhaps we geeks feel that need for building communities more acutely because our interests tend to be a little bit more esoteric. So it becomes something special when we say “Farscape” and someone knows what we are talking about. And it is why I feel an instant sense of camaraderie with a room full of total strangers, all celebrating the end of a geeky duo who brought us a lot of happiness.

Lest this post become merely a meditation on my fangirlish inclinations. It is worth noting that there is an obvious parallel here with respect to our spiritual lives. If we are creatures who desire connection with respect to the various sub-cultures with which we identify — how much more fundamental must community be when it comes to our spiritual identities. There is great significance, for example, to this season of Lent where we fast *together* and prepare *together* for the celebration of Easter. It is far more meaningful to have the support of a community of faith as we take on spiritual disciplines, or abstain from certain foods or behaviours. Far more than if we are purely left to our own devices.

It is fair to say, our world is becoming increasingly individualized. But I think sometimes, it is fair to ask — what is the cost of living in such individual bubbles all the time. When I think of how much joy I experienced at a bizarre, geek music extravaganza Saturday evening, it reminds me that we need community. We need companions on every level of our life’s journey — to enrich us, to challenge us, and … just to have more fun.

#WeAreUofT

Because I am psychologically incapable of saying no to anything, I found myself representing my fellow Medieval Studies TAs on the Stewards’ Council for CUPE local 3902 for a brief stint in 2006-2007. I’ll admit, it was not a job for which I was particularly well suited, and I believe I passed the proverbial baton to the first willing taker to come along. But the experience did give me some insight into the issues faced by those at the bottom of the university hierarchy — graduate students.

Years later, and I am happily outside of the academic bubble. Yet I find myself wishing that I could once again put on my union rep hat and march in solidarity with the TAs who are currently on strike at the University of Toronto. I believe in what they are doing. Many of them are my personal friends, and I would be out on the picket line with them if I hadn’t jumped the academic ship some years ago.

I figure the least I can do is to try to give some clarity to the handful of people reading this blog about some of the issues facing not just the TAs at the U of T and the contract faculty at York (who are also on strike) … but the issues facing higher education as whole, of which these current disputes are but a symptom.

For one thing, the graduate student funding question is far more complicated than most media coverage leads readers to believe. I was impressed when I read articles in both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. As far as I could tell, neither completely reflected the reality of the funding situation for graduate students at the U of T. Obviously, I am no expert on the subject of labour relations between university administrators and teaching assistants. I can only speak from my experience as a graduate student within the last decade. But the issue seems to be this: PhD students at the U of T are offered a minimum funding package of tuition + $15,000 a year for 5 years. Of that $15K a portion (approximately $6K) is pure scholarship, while approximately $9K can come from research assistantships, teaching assistantships, etc. University administrators have made much over a proposed hourly wage increase for TAs as part of their initial offer to the union. The problem is, without a corresponding offer on the amount of scholarship that makes up the funding package, that hourly wage increase is effectively meaningless (and will actually result in saving the university money!).

I have seen any number of comments online condemning the U of T graduate students for “expecting to be paid to go to school” and urging PhD candidates to work part-time off campus to supplement their income. Such attitudes, however, betray a lack of understanding of how this level of higher education operates. The funding packages that universities (not just the U of T but all universities) offer their graduate students are an investment in the next generation of academic scholars. In addition to finishing their degrees (within a 5-year funding window), PhD candidates are expected to publish, present at conferences, and engage in any number of professional development activities all of which not only enhance the CV of the particular candidate, but enhance the reputation of the university. Offering promising candidates a (livable!) funding package allows them to engage in those necessary aspects of scholarly development. As this computer science student has pointed out — U of T cannot hope to maintain its reputation as a top university if it loses its competitive edge in recruiting the best candidates.

This brings me to the heart of the matter — the current strike by the U of T teaching assistants is about so much more than this crop of graduate students at this university bargaining for a living wage. This is about a growing system of inequality throughout higher education. Fourth-year undergraduate Zane Schwartz sums it up:

“What’s happening at U of T and York is symptomatic of a larger problem across Canada. Underpaid part-time staff teach a majority ofundergraduates in Canada. For example, at U of T contract faculty and teaching assistants do 60 per cent of the teaching but make up 3.5 per cent of the budget. This is not an isolated problem. According to one study, the number of contract faculty in Ontario increased 87 per cent in between 2000 and 2014.

While contract faculty and teaching assistants are doing more of the teaching nationwide, their salaries and job security have not changed. They have no job security. Contract faculty do not enjoy academic freedom protections. No matter how hard working someone is, if they’re worried about feeding their families they’re going to be distracted in the classroom.”

In recent decades, but especially since the recession of 2008, the proportion of contingent faculty and sessional lecturers has ballooned in proportion to full-time, tenured professors. As tuition prices skyrocket, undergraduates are increasingly taught by contract faculty who may not even be sure they are working from term to term, or who are teaching beyond a full course load while barely making enough to live on — not to mention have time to hunt for jobs or engage in necessary scholarly publications. Think of it in these terms — how much of your own university education was made memorable not because of the content you were learning, but the teachers who made it memorable or who took the time to build a relationship outside of the classroom? Now, imagine students today with TAs and course instructors unable to give their courses the most perfunctory personal investment?

Amanda wants to go to college one day--but she also wants fairly paid teachers when she's there!

Amanda wants to go to college one day–but she also wants fairly paid teachers when she’s there!

I gave up my professional academic ambitions. But I have not given up my passionate commitment to the ideals of higher education. When Amanda goes to university, I want to think that her tuition dollars are going to pay a fair wage to faculty given the capacity to be fully engaged scholars and teachers — not lining the pockets of university administrators! Furthermore, I want to think we live in a society that values learning and education for their own sake. We should want our students to receive the best education possible — and that means a investing in our scholars and teachers.

Finally, as a person of faith, I am called to stress that the income disparity in the university system is but one example of the growing income inequality all around us. As one commentator has put it, the U of T has become the Wal-Mart of higher education in terms of how its employees are treated. And so, I have no choice but to stand in solidarity with my friends on the picket line.