The Wonders I’ve Seen

Today is my birthday, which I think means I get to be a little self-indulgent. Also, I only have a few weeks left here with the wonderful people of Grace Church on-the-Hill. I have resisted as long as I could, but my friends the time has come for me to share with you my love of Farscape

You know you have good friends when they make you baby clothes featuring the spaceship from your favourite TV show.

You know you have good friends when they make you baby clothes featuring the spaceship from your favourite TV show.

Farscape was a quirky little sci-fi show produced by the Jim Henson company in the late 90s/early 2000s. It tells the story of the All-American Astronaut John Crichton who gets sucked through a wormhole into a distant part of the galaxy. He comes to travel on a living spaceship also inhabited by a strange assortment of alien creatures who would eventually become his friends. Along the way, Crichton makes many enemies, finds himself a fiercely hunted fugitive, and searches for a way back to earth — before ultimately forging a life for himself in his strange new world. There is much that I love about the series. The appearance of products from the Jim Henson Creature Shop. Aeryn Sun, arguably the greatest female science fiction character of all time. Liberal use of scatalogical hunour.

At the end of the day, Farscape is a show about wonder. Predating slightly grittier science fiction shows like Battlestar Galactica, Farscape billed itself as the “anti-Star Trek.” The writers wanted to allow space for the darker, messier parts of human life into the sometimes too-pristine world of space opera. Through the course of the series, John Crichton encounters some truly horrific experiences. It is not going too far to say that by the end of the series’ run, it is a story about a man struggling with PTSD (it doesn’t hurt when your lead actor has a BA in psychology). Crichton is not a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He is a crazy man in space, just trying to stay alive. While that may not sound particularly uplifting, what keeps him alive is his sense of wonder and, above all, hope. Crichton never loses his sense of AWE at being in another world. Although it is hardly a transition that happens instantaneously, by the conclusion of the series he has basically given up on his attempt to return home to his “normal” life and family. Partially because he is too damaged (“you can’t go home again”, after all). But also because he has found a new life and a sense of belonging in strange, frightening, but still wonderful world on the other end of the galaxy.

Over the course of the years on this blog I have written much on the intersection of faith and science fiction. I think wonderful, fantastical tales challenge us to see wonderful, fantastical things in the world. A show like Farscape captures that sentiment better than most. If a man who is hunted, cut off from his family, and doing his best to maintain a semblance of his sanity can still see the gift of the wondrous creatures and events around him — can we not rise to the challenge of seeing the wondrous in our own lives.

More specifically, stories that fall into the category of “portal fantasy”–whether that means the Pevensie children walking into the doorway to Narnia or John Crichton getting sucked into a wormhole–teach us about what happens when we encounter the transcendent. We cannot step away from such experiences without being changed and transformed in some way. I hardly think it is a coincidence that C.S. Lewis used the story of children setting foot in Narnia as a way of imaginatively framing religious experience. And while I am not making the argument that my bizarre little sci-fi obsession is somehow a metaphor for the spiritual life — it is fair to say Farscape appeals to my love for the wonderful, the quirky, the “something more” that I desire in life. And such longing certainly resonated in my own understanding of God and how I find God’s presence in the world.

So, all I can do is share the words of John Crichton to his own audience: “Look upwards, and share the wonders I’ve seen.”

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On moving and microaggressions

Moving is the worst. A truth universally acknowledged, indeed.

And yet my family is about to embark on that most enjoyable of tasks–packing up and relocating all our worldly possessions. As I contemplate with trepidation in my heart the enormity of this whole enterprise, I am always intrigued by what I find most daunting about moving. Friends and acquaintances are always eager to comment on our number of books (not to mention our DVDs and board games). We are a media-rich family, no doubt about it. Packing books really isn’t that big a deal though, Sure, they are heavy. We may end up with a lot of boxes. But that’s manageable. It’s a single, fairly straight-forward task. Put on some audio commentaries to episodes of Farscape I’ve seen a few dozen times and you end up with a not unpleasant evening of book-boxing. (Protip: Ideally, one gets boxes from the liquor store–ideal size and shape for heavy books). Even furniture doesn’t scare me that much — hire movers and they get things in and out in a highly efficient manner. Nothing too much to worry about there.

No, what I find gets most demoralizing in a move are the little things. Bits of papers and documents I should have sorted through months or years previously to figure out what needs to be kept and what needs to be thrown away. Sorting through clothes to figure out what’s worth taking with us. Finally dissembling all the boxes in the basement from two years’ worth of baby gadgets that we just never bothered to cast out to the recycling. What is trash? What’s worth passing on to be sold at the church attic sale.

In other words–it is all the myriad of little things that make moving house such a nightmare experience. The heavy lifting itself is really more like ripping off a band-aid. Sure, it’s not fun, but at least it’s over with quite quickly. Going through all the odds and ends that seem to multiply miraculously the further one gets to the end of the packing process, is another thing altogether. In other words, sometimes those things that seem like the biggest obstacles to accomplish may take a lot of work, but the truly challenging work can be less obvious on the surface.

I have been thinking quite a lot about this analogy as it relates to the status of various marginalized groups in our North American society. Apparently, it is very tempting for many people to assume that racism/sexism/homophobia/etc. are relics of the past because we live in a world where significant legislation exists to address such issues. Women can vote and hold property. Businesses and employers can no longer discriminate against someone based on the colour of their skin. Marriage equality has finally been deemed the law in both Canada and America. I do not want to diminish the magnitude of any of those policies.

At the same time, the reality is that system racism/sexism/homophobia/etc. remain powerful forces in our world. Often these attitudes manifest themselves in the form of “microagressions.” Just this week, for example, the internet was abuzz with the story of Matt Damon blatantly talking down to Effie Brown, a woman of colour and successful producer, who had been expressing concern about how a sensitive character would be handled by an exclusively white production team. Damon’s comments, while perhaps not damaging to racial equality on a “macro” level, represent how small-scale transgressions reflect the systemic challenges still faced by people of colour. Namely, a successful white male producer does not take into account the complexity of handling a character who happens to be black, and female, and a sex worker with dignity.

It is easy to write people off as being “too sensitive,” especially when they belong to a marginalized group whose experiences we do not share. But these daily “microaggressions” actually reflect that addressing systemic oppression and discrimination of marginalized groups goes much deeper that simply saying “well, we have the Civil Rights Act so racism is no longer an issue.” Creating a truly just and equal society isn’t just about packing up books and moving furniture. It is about doing that truly hard work of sorting through our collective basement filled with junk to figure out what deeply intrenched attitudes need to be cast off into the societal trash heap.

I see far too many people sharing posts of Facebook questioning the wisdom of welcoming refugees because we are afraid of welcoming the other. This week a gifted young boy was arrested because he had the audacity to bring a clock he made to school while having the audacity to not be white. The leading Republican presidential candidate repeatedly make disgusting and disparaging comments against women. LGBT individuals can still be fired without cause in most states, despite the recent ruling of the Supreme Court.

We have done some heavy lifting when it comes to justice and equality for all people in our society. But if we are really going to move this house into a new world that reflects the believe that ALL people are truly made in the image of God — there is much harder work to be done.

Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on…

For reasons that defy understanding, several Christmases ago, Leeman presented me with a DVD set of The Littlest Hobo. Not even the cheesy-if-nostalgic 1980s series, but the original show of the same name produced in the 1960s. We’d actually never watched the DVDs until a fit of whimsy struck us on Labour Day … until the blatant misogyny got to be a bit too much to handle. (Seriously, that show begins with two dudes harassing a woman, despite her obvious attempts to rebuff them. I will spare you all a digression on the deep roots of our rape culture, but just know that I really want to get up on a soapbox right now! #endrant).

Where was I? Oh, yes, the Littlest Hobo. My, admittedly brief, exposure to show got me pondering the ever-changing nature of life. The whole point of the titular canine’s adventures is that he goes to a community, finds someone to help, but then moves on. His life is always itinerate, always on the go. As the quintessentially 80’s theme song articulates: “Maybe tomorrow I’ll want to settle down / Until tomorrow, I’ll just keep moving on.”

It might be strange to connect the life of a character on a children’s TV series to the life of the priesthood, but I must confess I feel a sort of resonance at the moment. The mixed blessing of ministry is that clergy are indeed often called to serve different communities, but not permanently. There comes a point where we are called on to new challenges and new ministries. I find myself at this particular moment called to such a time of transition.

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The Church of the Holy Spirit, Kenyon College

Some of you will no doubt have heard by now that I have officially accepted a dual position as Priest-in-Charge of Harcourt Parish and Episcopal Chaplain to Kenyon College in Gambier, OH. My final Sunday at Grace Church will be October 25, and we will be moving out early in the following week. This is an incredible opportunity. It’s not a far stretch at all to say that this position is literally my dream job. Both Leeman and I are graduates of Kenyon, and it is a particular community which shaped us both in many ways. We are incredibly excited to be “going home” in a sense to face new opportunities and challenges.

At the same time, I cannot deny how difficult it is to leave a places that has been so important to us–both the particular community of Grace Church on-the-Hill and the wider community of Toronto. I have been at Grace for five years now — starting as a student, then as assistant curate, and now as an associate priest. And I have been in Toronto for over a decade. Indeed, Toronto is the place I have lived longest in my life, so it truly has become the place I call home.

So, perhaps it is not fair to compare my lot in life with that of the “littlest hobo.” I am not restless, I am not a wanderer. I do crave home and I do crave that ability to settle into a place and to fully inhabit it. I found that sense of home at Kenyon many years ago, and I certainly have found it in the many people I love here in Toronto. All the same, the nature of this strange priestly vocation is that we are called to serve different communities in different seasons. In this instance, I am at least profoundly grateful that my wandering path is taking me back to a community that is so close to my heart, taking the warm memories of Toronto with me.

Hannibal Lecter as Moral Example?

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the character of Hannibal Lecter is less offensive to my Christian sensibilities than author Ayn Rand. At least the version of Tom Harris’s cannibalistic serial killer depicted in Bryan Fuller’s aptly-named TV series Hannibal.

Allow me to digress. This morning, Amanda decided it would be fun to wake up and start her day at 4:30am. While Leeman took the brunt of this early-morning playtime with our daughter, it’s fair to say no one in the house was a happy camper by breakfast. So, to salvage some sense of joy to my morning, I sought the most entertaining podcast I could find for my morning walk with dog and toddler — an old episode of “The Dead Author’s Podcast” featuring the one and only John Hodgman in the role of the objectivist icon. As walked along laughing to myself and no doubt causing those I encountered to question my sanity, I couldn’t help at the same time having serious thoughts regarding the actual beliefs of Ayn Rand that John Hodgman’s performance was parodying.

What is the premise of objectivism? Seeking one’s own individual happiness as the primary moral end. There is no space for altruism or charity. Not really any space for true friendship or compassion. The world Ayn Rand would have created is a world, in my view, wholly devoid of grace. It is a world devoid of love for anything other than the self. It is a world as far away from the Gospel as anything I could possibly imagine. (I will refrain from addressing the obvious question of why then so many Christians, particularly in the US have claimed objectivist beliefs as the foundation for their political beliefs.)

Hannibal has also been on my mind of late, seeing that the series ended its third–probably final–series last weekend. (Because like all the beautiful things Bryan Fuller gives us, Hannibal was snatched away before its time). I have long been an advocate for the moral universe of Hannibal. When viewed against the nihilistic backdrop of so much of this alleged “golden age of TV” in which we live, Hannibal gives us something incredibly important. In contrast to anti-heroes (I’m looking at you Don Draper and Walter White), Hannibal presents its audience with a legitimate villain. Dr Lecter is Satan, the fallen angel. Hannibal corrupts all things that are good — most notably food, art, and friendship. Hannibal is, in no uncertain terms, evil itself.

And yet I love Fuller’s interpretation of the character–subtly brought to life in Mads Mikkelsen’s performance. Dr Lecter can only corrupt beauty and art because the world of Hannibal is a world that affirms virtues like beauty and art exist in the first place. Hannibal can only corrupt friendship because the world of the show affirms friendship–and more broadly connection outside of oneself–as a fundamental human craving, one to which not even Hannibal himself is immune.

The central focus of Fuller’s series has not been gruesome murders or Hannibal’s mind games but the intimate connection between its two central characters–FBI profiler Will Graham and Hannibal himself. Whatever twist and turns the show takes, these two men remain inexorably drawn to one another. Their friendship is distorted, to be sure. Will wants nothing more than to be rid of Hannibal forever and Hannibal wants to corrupt Will for his own purposes. But a friendship–an intimate friendship–it remains nonetheless.

When Leeman and I were recently discussing Hannibal‘s finale, Leeman posed to me the question: “Is the world of Hannibal a world without grace?” To which I must say that the answer is no. Over and over again, the series as brought out the theme that there is a kind of redemption offered in our connection to one another, to something outside of ourselves–if we can only grasp it. Even Hannibal describes his love for Will as “inconvenient” to his more sinister purposes. There is something in that which resonates deeply with my faith. What are the two great commandments? To love God and to love our neighbour. To seek our meaning and our purpose outside of merely our own ends and our own happiness.

So, in the end, I would rather live in the world of Fuller’s Hannibal than in a world of Randian objectivism. I would rather live in a world where friendship and love exist as positive virtues, even if they are capable of being twisted and corrupted. Lucifer was, after all, at one time the bearer of God’s light.

Also, “Hannibal at the Zoo” (or mall) on Twitter is just too much fun.