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Gerry Turcotte: Change is always seen as radical

  • February 20, 2021

Recently I was listening to a report that explained why margarine was bad for you, which concluded that we would all be much better switching to butter.

This is surely the third or fourth time that some scientific study has established beyond the shadow of a doubt that either butter or margarine was worse than spring water from Chernobyl. It brought to mind the many examples of things that were first fashionable, then discredited, only to be celebrated once again. The notion that the universe revolved around the Earth is probably the most obvious example of certainties gone wrong, though flat Earth theories must come close behind them. Having said this, proponents of flat Earth theory are growing, and given all the reversals to known truth, who’s to say they’re wrong. Pluto as a planet anyone?

Perhaps the most egregious attack on habits that come particularly close to home are the studies that listed coffee as especially pernicious complements to our diet. Imagine my joy as study after recent study has argued for more of it, and stronger! I’m sure there’s a similar study for single malt scotch. There is hope for me after all.

It is tempting to attack these revisionist studies as something specific to the sciences, but the truth is that this revisionism holds true for virtually every area of human life. In literature, for example, what is first denounced often later becomes a classic. Can anyone imagine criticizing Brave New World today? If anything, the depressing future it predicted, and which accounted for its extraordinary unpopularity among critics and readers alike, is now seen as either prophetic or downright pastoral. Think of other outrageously depressing works that were equally scorned in their time. Grapes of Wrath anyone? Lord of the Flies? Interesting how many of these authors went on to win Nobel Prizes.

The same is true of film, of course — Psycho, The Shining, Alien. Even the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life was panned, with The New York Times chiding it for its “sentimentality … its illusory concept of life.” Ouch! This is akin to those critics who panned Pablo Picasso’s work, labelling it “schizophrenic,” Monet’s Impressionism which one critic labeled a “preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern,” or even conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp whose work went from the gallery floor to the garbage in 1917. His now prized work, Fountain, only exists as reproductions. Banksy, as protest art, sits in all the most prestigious galleries and is beloved by Sothebys — especially the one that partially shredded itself mid-auction.

The question we need to ask, I suppose, is why the human condition is so fickle. What is it about our species that delays and confounds our judgment or invites us to second guess our tastes? Or is it simply that we are hardwired to be suspicious of the new, so that innovation takes time to reveal its value?

I often think of this when I imagine the journey that Jesus undertook and His radical message of hope and acceptance. It must have been an extraordinary thing to hear an account so bold from one so humble.

I often try to put myself in the sandals of everyday people who first received such a challenging message that went against the religious and political orthodoxies of the day — that called into question the most powerful, and in many cases, respected figureheads of the community. What must it have been like to have someone deliver such an extraordinary account that not only interrogated how things were done, but also set expectations that were so simply but radically difficult to achieve?

The surprise isn’t that so many rejected what He had to say. It is that so many accepted it! How would we respond today if a similar figure walked our streets? How many false prophets have tried to repeat the exercise with limited or disastrous consequences?

The truth is the message of change and hope which Jesus brought to us was radical in the extreme. And like so many things before and since, the human mind rejected the innovative and the new, taking centuries to grasp and understand, process and embrace.

Like so many insights, we have often built on the basic building blocks of Jesus’ message and gone off on tandems, tweaking and at times reinterpreting what He had to say to better suit our preferences or present day circumstances. Then, at times, we’ve returned to the starting point, feeling perhaps that we have gone too far. Beginning again. What was old is new once more.

Perhaps, in the end, this is the reality we need to embrace especially as we enter a new year. That whatever fashionably changes, whatever modifications or revisions we administer, an unshakable universal law was given to us. It won’t change even if we do — until we do. Until we become our better selves. Coffee or tea, butter or margarine! None of it matters if the core isn’t whole. And that was the one thing Jesus brought to us — a recipe to make the soul right, a work of art that will always be fashionable and good. There’s a reason the Bible is the bestselling work of all time.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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