the religious impulse of a nation

Canada is often described as a nonreligious nation. A commitment to organized religion plays a secondary role to personal fulfillment, hence the phrase "spiritual, not religious" used to define the spirituality of many Canadians. There is, however, one exception: Hockey.

And now with a paramount hockey gold medal showdown between Canada and the USA in the Vancouver Olympics, Canadians are gathering for perhaps their largest ever corporate worship event. John Van Sloten's excellent article, "Hallowed be thy game," describes this epoch in Canadian cultural history well. He states,

This Sunday a sacred ritual will play out.

And the faithful will gather from sea to sea to sea. Congregating on the edges of our couches, eyes glued to our sets, we'll get caught up in an ecstasy, lost in a glory. And for a few rapturous moments we'll experience what can only be described as heaven on earth.

While the minority of us Canadians who are religious in the traditional sense may feel an equation of hockey fanaticism to worship cheapens a description of our religious commitments, it does say one profound thing about our culture: a religious impulse in Canada is a alive and well. And after I worship our Creator God with my church Sunday morning, I'll admit, I'll be right there with the rest of Canada, joining in the unifying devotion of a nation. I can't wait!

branding athletes

One of the things I like about the Olympics are the inspiring stories of the athletes. The influence of Alexandre Bilodeau's brother or the courage of Joannie Rochette to compete amidst the grief of her Mom's death - these stories reveal a humanness to the athletes that we can all relate to.

But while many of us resonate with the down-to-earth stories, in victory we still place a sort of super-human quality upon the athletes. And while heroes can inspire a nation, a nation and a culture also impacts the hero. One of the greatest impacts, sadly I think, is the athletes transformation into a commodity, a brand to be marketed. Victory is as much about patriotic celebration as it is about branding athletes.

Watching the inauguration of new Canadian heroes during these 2010 Winter Olympics has given insight into this cultural phenomena that sees celebrities - athletes in this case - transform from people to brands. And in the case of the Olympics, the achievement of a gold medal makes this transformation almost instantaneous. Take snowboarder Maelle Ricker, for example, in one of her countless post-victory interviews this week, she was asked how it feels to be forming her "brand." What's it like, the interviewer asked, to be a commodity that people desire? You could almost see the confusion (revulsion?) on Ricker's face at the idea. For her, she's still just Maelle Ricker who happens to have won a gold medal. But for the rest of the world - marketers in particular - she's now a gold medal winner who happens to be Maelle Ricker.

I realize this capitalization on athlete's success is by no means a new phenomenon. I mean, how else could Tiger Woods become the first billion-dollar athlete if it wasn't for the Tiger Woods brand? What bugs me, revealed in the interviewer's question to Ricker, is our culture's outright acceptance of this reality. In fact, the interview appeared to assume that Ricker was enjoying the transformation. Ricker's look of confusion, in my opinion, revealed the need to question this idea that heroes are foremost a commodity. Her genuine humility in hesitating to accept this transformation, thankfully, gives me hope that while our culture strives to transform and consume our heroes, some heroes are less inclined to embrace their own brand.

So while I cheer along with the rest of Canada at our athlete's success, I hope and pray that our celebration doesn't turn into blind consumption - making these real people into unreal heroes known more for their advertising potential then their real-life stories.

BTW: Dora Dueck has a thoughtful reflection on our responses to the athletes' success, also pointing out an irony of using their stories to blog about the excessive attention on their lives - a thought that crossed my mind, but alas, didn't stop me from posting... :)

Surprised by Lent

I'll admit, Lent always seems to sneak up out of nowhere, often going unnoticed in my own life (and many churches for that matter). In a society that immerses itself in celebration at Christmas while paying little attention to Easter time, I fear the church - and our experience of faith - often follows suit. We set aside time to mark the birth of the Son of God, yet spend little energy reflecting on how we are transformed by the rest of Jesus' life story - a story that expands and completes what began at the Emmanuel event of Christmas.

So this year, I'd like Lent to be different. Instead of being surprised by the mere presence of Lent, I'm exploring how I might be surprised by Lent itself - how might40 days reflecting on the life of Jesus affect my understanding of faith?

To aid my Lenten exploration, I'm using a couple of helpful resources. One is a Lent devotional put out by the Mennonite Brethren Seminary - "Walking With Jesus in Faithfulness." Another, "The Lent Project" is a creative collaboration facilitated by Artisan Church in Vancouver

a tale of two torches

The Olympics are here! And living within a ½ hour of Vancouver makes it hard – no, impossible – to ignore the looming presence of the Winter Games. And as with all Olympics, Vancouver 2010 is viewed both positively and negatively, with responses ranging from uncritical embrace of the spirit of the Games, to unrelenting protest at the innumerable injustices associated with putting on such a large-scale event. This week I encountered both extremes.

The first extreme – uncritical embrace – I saw while attending the torch relay earlier this week as it passed through our neighbourhood. I saw how the Olympics create an electric atmosphere of celebration. The “Olympic spirit” was palpable. And I’ll admit, I revel in these type of community events - this experience of unity amidst the diversity of our world. I appreciate the intangible quality of the Games that literally brings people together. It’s a rare thing. So I walked with Landon and participated in the hoopla of watching the torch (see picture below). In an age of impersonal busyness we’re often insulated from personal contact with people in our community. In these Olympic moments, even if just for a few minutes on the side of the road, I see an alternative view for community relationships, one we see far too rarely. Perhaps these moments offer us a glimpse into the way God intended his creation to interact, however brief and incomplete that glimpse is.

These moments of celebration and unity, however, run parallel to another reality of the Olympics - the reality of exclusion. The marginalized in our society are usually left out, or worse, completely ignored. I was reminded of this dark side to the Olympics by another torch run that took place this week. At the culmination of an event called the “Poverty Olympics,” this torch relay calls into question the cost of everything "Olympics," including that glimpse of unity and celebration I enjoyed at the official torch relay. Quite simply, how can the world fight so hard to create brief moments of excitement while failing to place the same efforts towards fighting the ongoing moments of poverty? I’ll admit the glamor of the Olympics is very appealing, but the protesters question, "at what cost?" The Poverty Olympics cause me to ask how I contribute to the exclusion and injustice, and how my fully endorsing the Olympic spirit may in fact run contrary to Jesus’ command for Christians to love "the least of these" among us (Mt. 25:40). I realize, then, that however hopeful and positive the Olympic torch-relay euphoria is, its hope is incomplete.

And so, I feel stuck. The contrasting opinions and experiences reveal a tension in how I participate in the world around me. I see two different visions of hope – one easily accessible and fun, the other complicated and unpredictable. Common in both, however, is a vision of hope for a better world, however different those two visions are achieved.. Personally, I long for a time when unity is easily experienced such as many of Olympic moments provide. But I also realize this isn't the reality most of the time. Hope for unity requires a realism to address the messiness and sacrifice required to achieve that unity long-term.

Maybe, then, we need both torch relays. The Olympic torch relay reminds us of humanity’s deepest longings to connect, offering glimpses of true connection. The poverty torch relay reminds us that glimpses of unity are not enough as long as the injustice of exclusion remains. I think we need both messages. In fact, this tale of two torches illustrates a constant tension that Christians navigate as we participate in the world around us, seeking to affirm the goodness of God's creation while striving to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mi. 6:8).

skills of a cousin

I have a cousin who's a really good skateboarder. Turns out he's got some film-making skills as well. Check it out:

Rainy Night Session from Dan Funk on Vimeo.

fightpastor follow-up

Ok, after posting a link to the NY Times article on churches and mixed martial arts (MMA), the fightpastor posted a link on my blog to his response. Wanting to be fair in my criticism, I thought I'd mention his response (see here) and make a few comments.

I'm glad to hear fightpastor's passion for faith and MMA has nothing to do with the supposed "feminization of the church" that some Christian individuals blame for a decline in church popularity. It's also good to hear fightpastor is just an "ordinary guy" with no agenda beyond connecting and loving the people around him. And I affirm fightpastor's faith in the ultimate victory of Jesus. In a world full of brokenness and violence, Christians do proclaim that evil and suffering don't have the last word.

My problem, however, is the message of Christ's victory being communicated through the "sport" of MMA. Can an activity that promotes victory through violence and brute force really present a picture of Christ's victory over violence - victory achieved through a non-violent submission to the brutality he was presented with? I just don't see how the message of God's self-sacrifice at the cross - the ultimate declaration against violence - can be represented through such a violent activity. I don't get it...

And so while I commend some of fightpastor's motives to reach out those around him, my response to all things MMA remains the same: "ugh."

for your amusement (or annoyance)

A few things have come my way this week that I couldn't help but share. I'll admit, the first two are high on the cringe meter, particularly for someone concerned about the relationship between Christianity and culture. Hopefully my third link will make up for the first two.

1. Jesus and MMA - “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide.”

Go here to read about how Christians are using Mixed Martial Arts as an evangelistic tool.

"Recruitment efforts at the churches, which are predominantly white, involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in."

One leader is actually called the Fight Pastor.


2. Return on Ministry

Follow the arrows to see how just the right formula can lead to church success, or as they say in the church business, a better "return on ministry." They may have good intentions, but with the absence of questions like, "how is a church being faithful, not just successful," I'm a little suspicious.

Or check this out for a comical critique as someone navigates the Return on Ministry tool.

ROM - Return On Ministry from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

3. Ok, enough cringing, as I quite like this last link, a video interview with N.T. Wright on how we read Genesis 1-3. How we understand the relationship between myth, history, and truth has major implications for how we read the Bible. Wright explore some of these implications.

Generation A

Douglas Coupland is a different kind of storyteller - different in a good way.

Coupland's latest book, Generation A, illustrates his ability to not only know the world he lives in, but also describe it in a manner appropriate to that world. He doesn't write about our current culture so much as his stories embody the current culture. Generation A is no exception, making for one interesting, quirky, Coupland story (if you've read any of his books, you'll know what I mean).

Set in a world absent of bees, the story follows the lives of five young adults brought together from one common experience: they were all strangely stung by a bee. And while the return of bees created a global buzz (hehe), this apocalyptic-like storyline simply lays the ground for what I thought the book did really well: describe the search for identity of this so-called Generation A. And so we meet a crew of technologically savvy young adults, all sort of wandering aimlessly, scrambling to satisfy their lust for connection, often through the latest gadget or social networking fad. And while perhaps a tad extreme in its caricatures, the book, in my opinion, isn't that far off. In their own ways, each characters reveals how meaning in this culture is typically found in the quantity of one's technological-social connection rather than the quality. And at times it's unclear from Coupland if this is always a bad thing. It just is. Although as someone in this generation, I must admit, the book at times acts as mirror I didn't always want to look into.

It's in the context of these five individuals' experiences that issues related to science, technologically, and human identity are explored. And while the book is filled with countless bizarre incidents full of colorful characters and colorful language, what I found most intriguing were the reflections around the theme of story. Coupland explores the challenges around understanding our own lives as stories, particular in our current culture. As one character remarks, "The hardest things in the world are being unique and having your life be a story. In the old days, it was much easier, but our modern fame-driven culture, with its real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information, demands a lot from modern citizens, and poses great obstacles to narrative." Strike a chord?

In the story itself, it's thought that a chemical induced by storytelling may in fact be what brought the bees back. And so the characters are led on a retreat where their sole task is to tell each other stories. And not just tell stories, but make up stories. It's in their creativity (again, Coupland's eccentric imagination is alive and well here) that the group begins to realize the effect stories can have on who we are individually and in relation to one another. As the scientist observing them states, "Stories come from a part of you that only gets visited rarely--sometimes never at all. I think most people spend so much time trying to convince themselves that their lives are stories that the actual story-creating part of their brains hardens and ides. People forget that there are other ways of ordering the world." In a sense, stories go far beyond ideas about a series of events. Stories go to the depths of who we are and how we understand this world. Simply saying my life is story isn't enough. Yet storytelling is no easy task, as one young woman laments: "Why do most of us make such boring choices for the stories of our lives? How hard can it be to change hears and say, 'You know what? Instead of inventingand telling stories, I'm going to make my life a more interesting story ." Ironically, it's as the group makes up stories that a new connection with one another is made, and the meaning of their real stories begins to unfold.

And so I think Coupland's emphasis on the significance of storytelling, however hard it is in our current culture, gets it right - the idea that we all have a story to tell and to relate to other stories. I'll admit, I don't always understanding Coupland and where he's going with his books, but if anything, Generation A provides hope that in the midst of sensory overload and shallow cyber-relationships, people still have a story to tell, however different that storytelling looks from centuries gone by (and as this book illustrates). Kudos to Coupland for this timely reminder.