Loaves, Fishes, and OITNB

I got in an argument earlier today about season 3 of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Our esteemed parish administrator says it is the weakest season in the series to date, but I must confess I rather liked it. I appreciated how the writers realized the only thing more demoralizing to inmates than a state-run prison would be a corporate owned and operated for-profit model. At least the state bureaucracy sought to help women in the prison system, albeit ineffectively. I was also struck by how much the season focused on issues of faith — most notably through the character of Norma and the inmates who flock to her seeking some meaning in their incarcerated lives. But the season found other ways to explore themes of spirituality — one of them in connection with Red’s relationship with food.

Red (or Galina Reznikov) is one of my favourite characters — a feisty, middle-aged woman in prison for her involvement with the Russian mafia. Suffice it to say Red is one of the dominating forces of the prison social order, a dominance achieved by running the prison kitchen. Red controls how and what everyone else eats. But preparing meals for her fellow inmates is about more than just wielding power over them. Culinary creativity affords Red the only meaning she can construct for herself in an institution that seeks to rob her of her purpose and personhood. Food is her offering

Until this latest season. When suddenly all the new corporate owners of the prison determine that the food will be supplied by huge industrial bags of heat and serve ready–made meals. While this is a point of frustration for the rest of the prison population who are forced to eat bland, tasteless slop. For Red, however, the shift in meal preparation basically destroys her sense of identity.

Red’s salvation comes in the form of a small garden that yields just enough for her to host small dinners, with guest selected by lottery. Red’s meagre feasts offer something far more than the nutritionally sufficient but spiritually empty boil-in-bag sustenance. There is nothing utilitarian about Red’s meals. They are not enough to provide for the whole population of the prison, but the meals offer something far more to the community than food with flavour. She restores to her fellow inmates the act of eating as a moment grace, fellowship, COMMUNION. In stark contrast to those who see the inmates as financial units who just need a correct number of calories to survive, Red restores eating as a sacramental moment for the prison population.

Tabgha_Church_Mosaic_IsraelI cannot help but see a parallel in our lectionary reading for this coming Sunday: John’s account of Jesus’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish. It is very easy for us to see this familiar miracle story as simply a sign of Jesus’s compassion in meeting the physical needs of those who have gathered to see and hear him.

Jesus is not offering that crowd the spiritual equivalent of a boil-in-bag ready-made meal. Jesus is offering them something so much more. The true abundance multiplied in this story is the presence of our creator who is able to enter into and transform the whole of creation.

Like Red, I think we know instinctively that food has the capacity to mean so much more to us than mere physical survival. We know that sharing a meal together is a source of profound community and fellowship, as we share together in the goodness and bounty of God’s creation. The miracle of the loaves and fishes pushes us to see such spiritual abundance throughout the world that God has made for us. To recognize that we receive from God so much more than we can ever ask or imagine. It might just come in ways we do not expect.

 

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Of Crosses and Tornadoes

I spent Tuesday afternoon in a basement waiting out a Tornado warning. This is not how I expected to spend that space of free writing time at Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon College. I suppose it was fitting, however. My time as a Kenyon student also ended in a basement waiting out a Tornado warning. Severe storms blew through Gambier on the eve of my graduation sending students, professors and the parents who were there to meet them into well-protected interior rooms all over campus. Ah, the strange memories one acquires at a small midwestern liberal arts college.

20150715_135125From all I can tell, the college emerged unscathed from this recent meteorological event. Not so eleven years ago, when a falling tree toppled the stone cross standing at the northwest corner of Old Kenyon. To quote myself on the dozens–probably hundreds–of tours I led past that fateful spot over the years, the cross marks the place where the infamous Philander Chase declared “This will do” when seeking a home for his fledgling Episcopal seminary.

Though the cross has been repaired, it bears a scar from that fateful storm. Over the years, on my return to campus, I have made a bizarre tradition of visiting that broken cross, as if its cracks are a secret shared by the class of 2004 and I have come to pay my respects to a college institution damaged on our watch. A silly thought, perhaps, but it does put me in mind of the impermanence of a place even as rooted in tradition as Kenyon. Tornadoes come. Time passes. Monuments get damaged and repaired, but never perfectly. The scars remain to show the passage of time.

Certainly not all the changes and developments at my alma mater are like that broken cross. Everywhere I look I see signs of healthy growth, a sign of vitality. I am writing up this post in an immaculate dorm room which puts my undergraduate residential life options to shame. Bright new seminar rooms reflect an updated style but the same commitment to lively conversation and enthusiastic learning of the more traditional collegiate Gothic academic buildings.

Kenyon is not the same school I attended. The classrooms are different. Some of the people are different. Apparently you actually have to show I.D. to eat in the dining hall now?

But change is ok. I am not the same person I was when I left here more than a decade ago. I am more sure, more confident in myself. My life has gone in directions I could not have expected when I was 22. Canadian? Priest? Parent? I am honestly not sure which surprises me more.

I like to think of my relationship with Kenyon as a reflection of my closest and oldest friendships. We change. We grow. We develop. But we are still a part of each other. When we come together, we simply pick up where we find ourselves here and now. We are nourished by the past, but we are not beholden to it. That is the mark of a true friendship, and Kenyon has always been the best of friends to me.

“Ultimate Concern”

Heeding the advice of the internet, Leeman and I recently checked out the independent film Advantageous on Netflix. The full-length film expands on a short which is easily accessible on YouTube.

Advantageous

Like the best specimens of science-fiction, Advantageous takes worrisome elements of our own contemporary culture and plays them out to their logical conclusion. The world of the film is what we might describe as pre-dystopian. Society still functions at a reasonable stable level, though the disparity between the rich and poor has clearly intensified. We only see one family unit comfortably in the “middle class.” Others have effectively traced the link between the depersonalized process of finding employment depicted and the dire prospects faced by today’s job-seekers in the Millennial generation. Most hauntingly, however, is how the filmmakers depict what current pundits have termed the “precariat” — the class of workers who, though employed, still cannot count on continued stability.

It is in such a precarious situation that we meet Gwen, the film’s central character. Gwen is clearly well-educated, and she holds a position as the “face” of a biotech corporation promoting a new technology promising unlimited youth and vitality. Yet from the earliest moments of the film we see how uncertain her life is. All around her we see women living on the streets, with no hope of employment. At one point, Gwen hears both her upstairs and downstairs neighbours weeping bitterly, presumably at the lack of hope they see in the world around them. The world of Advantageous is, it seems, particularly hostile to single women as the prevailing wisdom has determined unemployed women pose less threat to society than unemployed, frustrated men — such an assertion may be fodder for discussion another day.

Gwen’s fragile situation comes to a breaking point when, instead of having her contract renewed with an expected raise, she is let go in favour of a younger face with more “universal appeal” (Gwen is Asian-American). While this would be troubling enough for Gwen, it is potentially disastrous for her daughter Jules as unemployment leaves Gwen without any means of sending her brilliant daughter to the only school available. And it especially makes it impossible to send her daughter to the pre-school “bonding camp” which may solidify her place among the rising social elite. Facing literally no other options, Gwen volunteers herself as the first human subject for the disturbing procedure she has been promoting.

It goes without saying that Advantageous is the type of film that raises many questions. Most of them are pretty black and white. If we do not check corporate greed and start forcing employers to see their employees as human beings we face a grim future as a society. We must force ourselves to face the reality of the rising tide of income inequality. We must value what is unique in human beings which cannot be replicated by artificial intelligences.

Nevertheless, what has stuck with me in the last few days since watching the film are the questions to which it does not offer such clear perspective. Notably in the sacrifices Gwen is prepared to make in order to ensure the best hope for Jules’ future. One can (rightly) argue that Gwen is an incredibly selfless character. Every decision she makes, she makes for the good of her daughter. And yet I wonder if, in in Gwen’s profound sacrifices, there is still a problematic, deeply individualist and deeply selfish attitude at work.

For all that Gwen herself is a product of the forces that have created the precarious, profoundly unequal society in which she lives — her goal is by no means to push against those forces. Gwen is not a social justice warrior. Her objective is to ensure, at whatever cost, that her daughter at the very least does not end up in her own “disadvantageous” position. Such an attitude is all well and good. Certainly, as I watched Gwen’s struggles, I felt sure I would be drawn to make similar sacrifices for the good of my own daughter. It is perfectly natural and human.

But can these sacrifices truly be seen as “selfless.” If we recognize that the systems of our world are fundamentally broken, is it enough for us to give of ourselves to ensure that our children have the best of these broken systems (particularly if we consider ourselves people of faith)? How do I as a parent balance wanting what is best for my child with pushing against injustice and inequality? Author and vlogger John Green asked a similar question on the birth of his son. As much as he loves his child, is it enough for his immediate family to be his “ultimate concern,” or should he be called to something higher?

I am not sure I have an answer to that question. All I can say is that as we all muddle along in a world perilously close to the world depicted in Advantageous, we must find some way to be mindful of how we are all in this together. We must find ways to push against unjust systems, even while we work within them.