Christianity's bright lights

By  Julie Bell, Catholic Register Special
  • November 13, 2008
{mosimage}Northern Lights: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Writing in Canada, ed. by Byron Rempel-Burkholder and Dora Dueck (Wiley, 260 pages, $24.95 paperback).

I have sometimes thought that faith works in our lives like the lens of a camera, capturing and framing events and emotions as they are in motion, bringing stillness to the moment and finding God in the detail of the encounter.

At other times I am certain that faith does its best work in hindsight and retrospection, discerning meaning and mission.
Northern Lights; An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Writing in Canada, launched this month in Winnipeg, demonstrates that both perspectives are present in our lives.

In poetry, song, personal story and reflection more than 45 writers reveal their diverse ways of worshipping God and being Christian in Canada. The writers come from a variety of professions: a cabinetmaker, a teacher, a veterinarian, columnists, priests and ministers, academics and authors.

{sa 0470155264}Some of them are known to Canadians: former federal politicians Bill Blaikie and Preston Manning, journalist John Fraser, novelists Rudy Wiebe and Joy Kogawa and the singer-songwriter icon, Bruce Cockburn.

Catholics are well represented in the book, including writers known to Catholic Register readers: Register columnists John Bentley Mays, Michael Higgins and Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI, as well as others who have appeared in Register pages such Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, and Marie-Louise Ternier-Gommers.

Many speak eloquently of the everyday: a killdeer scurrying across the sand in British Columbia, small children standing on rocks in a remote region of Quebec, dancing on rubber ice during a Prairie spring. The images are vivid and subtly infused with reverence for the hand of God in all that we can see and taste and touch.

Other writers reflect on people and events that have prompted change and renewal: the lives of June Callwood and Pauline Vanier (mother of Jean Vanier), the joy of World Youth Day 2002, the transition from pulpit to politics and the lessons of a summer on a reserve in northern Manitoba.

The collection unfolds in six theme-based chapters: Dance to Creation, A Place in the World, Sorrow and the Wild, Leaps of Faith, Transformation and Glimpses of Glory. Many of the selections are reprinted, or adapted, from earlier works.

As a person who has struggled with the place of faith in the militantly secular world that employs me, I was particularly inspired by writers who have considered that same challenge.

Vancouver Sun religion reporter Douglas Todd, who was raised in an atheist family, writes, “Being Christian doesn’t mean acting as if the market’s been cornered on The Answer. It means being open, as I think Jesus was, to trying to live out the truth wherever one, with the support of a mature spiritual community, discerns it.”

Daniel Coleman, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, describes a conversation with a Christian student who asks if Christians are an oppressed minority in universities, and Canada generally: “I consider those clear blue eyes and how I go quiet when my love for God gets blasted, yet again, for the Indulgences, the Crusades, Copernicus’s crushed telescope — not to mention residential schools and those burning White House Bushes. I plumb my tiresome mix of pride and shame, and think it’s time we drank the cup of our whole history; listened to, not surfaced over, the holes in our old, old stories.”

And from Toronto Star Books Editor Philip Marchand, who rejected his Catholic upbringing for a time: “What I took for granted as a boy, the celebration of the Mass, has now become in my heart a fantastic privilege, an undeserved blessing.” Marchand writes that while the Mass may be celebrated in a variety of places, with a diversity of people, there is a single purpose — “to meet Christ as He entered the room, to obey His command to eat His body and drink His blood, as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which we would be far more closely united.”

The editors — both from Winnipeg’s Mennonite community — pose a question in their introduction. They ask if there is a distinctly Canadian Christian identity. They wonder if our geography and history are reflected in the work of Christian writers. This book demonstrates that the answer to both questions is yes.

Having said that, I believe there is a dimension to spiritual life in Canada that awaits exploration. As a resident of a province with the highest per-capita level of immigration in Canada, I know that the people who come to us from around the world have much to share about Christian experience. The countries they come from, their Christian traditions, their struggles and renewal in Canada: all of these things are part of our country’s evolving Christian community.

And while this collection does include a few aboriginal writers, I believe that our native peoples have much more to contribute to this discussion. If there is a volume two of this book — and I very much hope there will be — these voices must be included in the dialogue.

(Bell is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg.)

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