July 5, 2013

Indian Horse - Richard Wagamese

This is a book that I have wanted to read for quite some time.  I have heard the author interviewed on CBC radio at several points, and then this was one of the selections for the Canada Reads debates this year.  Though why it was the British Columbia book is beyond me - this book is set, heart and soul, in north-western Ontario.

And that is why I finally picked up a copy.  I am almost finished an 8-month stay in the beautiful town of Kenora, before moving back to Thunder Bay in mid-August.  Richard Wagamese is definitely considered a "local boy" around here, even though he currently lives out in BC.  He is Ojibwe, from Wabaseemoong First Nation (known in English as Whitedog First Nation), a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive north of Kenora.  Since I work in home care and the territory that I cover includes Kenora, west to the Manitoba border, north to Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows, and south to Whitefish Bay, I have become very familiar with the land where much of this book is set.  The main character, Saul Indian Horse is from Wabaseemoong (though it is never mentioned by name - it just talks about a community north of Minaki on the shores of the Winnipeg river), and there are frequent mentions of other communities in this area - Kenora, Minaki, Redditt - as well as communities further east - White River where Saul is sent to school, and Manitouwadge where he eventually settles.  As I said, a book firmly set in north-western Ontario!

I was hooked right from the opening paragraph.  As I was picking up this book to begin, I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone from Whitedog with the last name of Indian Horse - if I were writing a book with a character from Whitdog, I would have given him/her the last name of Muckle or Mandamin.  And there in the opening sentences, "My name is Saul Indian Horse.  I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian horse."  I may have laughed out loud at this point, but I was hooked...

Anyways, on to the story.  The premise will be familiar to anyone who is aware of First Nations / settler history over the past few centuries.  Saul is born in the bush.  His family is divided by traditional beliefs and the Christianity imposed by the European settlers through the residential school system.  His grandmother tries her best to keep him from being taken away from his family and sent to residential school, but in the end, she is not successful.  The full extent of the abuse that Saul suffers at school aren't revealed until close to the very end of the book, and the way in which the abuse unfolds is disturbing.  One thing that did come from his residential school experience is a love and talent for ice hockey, and eventually he has a chance at making a career of it; but due to systemic racism (which is, unfortunately, still very much present today though perhaps less overtly), he ends up leaving hockey behind and deals with his demons in his own way.

This book felt very personal to me, possibly because the stories ring so true.  Through my work, I have been hearing stories from clients about residential schools - the good, the bad, and the ugly if I may borrow a cliche.  I have heard stories about life in Wabaseemoong before the road was built, before the hydroelectric dam flooded much of the land, and before 3 independent communities were forced to co-exist.  I have heard stories of abuse and alcoholism and racism.  And this book does not shy away from any of these stories.  (Just to clarify - I am a physiotherapist, but there is often a lot of conversation and story-telling that goes on during my physiotherapy sessions!)

Despite the decision of the Canada Reads panelists, I do think that this is a book that every Canadian should read.  It is fiction, but it is a fair representation of our Canadian history over the past century that has too-often been hidden away and denied.  And since so many of the issues continue to resonate today, the more that they can be brought out into the open, the better.  Thank you, Richard Wagamese, for sharing this story with the world.

July 4, 2013

The Great Emergence - Phyllis Tickle

For some reason, ever since February, Phyllis Tickle's name kept coming up in conversation, generally by people whose opinion I respect.  And so when I noticed this book among the 16 pages of electives to choose from for the Lay Worship Leader course I am taking, I had to pick it up!  (Incidentally, this will be the last book that I read for the course, as we are finished in a few weeks.  But for this last interval, we had to read 3 electives and I couldn't narrow it down to just 3, so I ordered 8 and still have 5 left on my bookshelf to read!)

Anyways, getting back to this book, anyone in Christian circles these days has surely heard about the "crisis in the church" - shrinking attendance, small or no Sunday Schools, amalgamations, church closures, financial burdens, increasing policies and procedures to follow, aging clergy... the list could go on for quite some time.  What this book does is it takes this so-called crisis and puts it into perspective - both a historical perspective and a cultural perspective.

From a historical perspective, every 500 years or so, the church goes through a ground-shaking earthquake.  Tickle calls this a giant rummage sale - put everything on the table, decide what is essential to keep, and get rid of the non-essential trappings.  500ish years ago was the Protestant Reformation followed by the Roman Catholic counter-reformation.  500ish years before that was the Great Schism with the Roman Catholic Church dividing from the Eastern Orthodox Church.  500ish years before that was the splitting off of Oriental Christianity (Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Syrian) from Western Christianity, along with the founding of monastic orders.  500ish years before that, Christianity was a renegade off-shoot of main-stream Judaism.  The name given to the upheaval that we are in the middle of is The Great Emergence.

From a cultural perspective, each of these "church rummage sales" has accompanied a massive cultural upheaval.  2000 years ago, it accompanied the Roman Empire and all of the good and bad that went with that.  1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire and the coming of the Dark Ages.  1000 years ago ushered in an age of broadening borders (Vikings and the Norman Conquest anyone?) as well as local fiefdoms.  500 years ago saw expanding scientific discoveries (Copernicus and Columbus) as well as the possibility for a middle class.  And the past century has included another seismic shift from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics, the harnessing of electricity, and internal combustion engines. Is it any wonder that the church has to shift as well?

And that is what I loved about this book.  If you just listen to the media and church board meetings, it may seem like we are seeing the end of Christianity.  But in each of the previous upheavals, the Christianity that has emerged has been more vital, less ossified, and has been able to spread to new geographic and demographic locations.  And so, rather than mourning the death of the church as we have known it (at least for the past 400-500 years), we should be celebrating the fact that we get to be a part of this shift.  I am rejoicing!

In the last section of the book, Tickle tries to predict how the church is going to move in the future, and the model that emerges is quite beautiful.  Flavours of Christianity from across the multi-dimensional spectrum converging around the centre, along with those that resist this convergence moving to the margins and re-defining and re-strengthening their beliefs, and various other points in-between.  It was fun to try and place my own beliefs, as well as those of my church into the model.

If I had one little quibble about this book, it is that it focused on Western Christianity rather than a more global perspective.  As someone who spent a few years involved in the church in another part of the globe (Tanzania), I couldn't quite see how the non-Western perspective would fit into this model.

But a great book overall.  I'm glad that I read it, and it left me filled with hope for the future.