Sunday, March 15, 2020

Quick Lit: three good novels for a time of social distancing

I haven't linked up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit" in a long time. But right now, with the coronavirus pandemic causing the cancellation of activities and the need to distance ourselves from others to prevent the spread, there really isn't a better time to read. Not that there is ever a bad time to read...

So if you're looking for some good fiction to get you through the next few weeks, here are the three novels I've read this year so far. BONUS: they are all by Canadian novelists!

(I'll do another post for nonfiction another day, just to spread things out.)

The Difference by Marina Endicott.
I may as well start with the best. The Difference (to be released in the US in a couple of months under the title The Voyage of the Morning Light) is one of the best novels I've read in a long time, maybe ever. Set in 1911, it is about a young girl named Kay who joins her older sister Thea and Thea's husband, the captain of a merchant ship, on a voyage from Nova Scotia to the far east. Kay has nightmares about a traumatic time she and Thea lived through in western Canada where, we come to find out, their father was head of a native residential school. Then an encounter with a boy on a small island in Micronesia changes all their lives, deepening Kay's questions about God, forgiveness, and the differences between people and between all creatures. The descriptions and settings are breathtaking, and the characters are unforgettable. The only negative thing about this book was that it had to end.

Five Wives by Joan Thomas.
Another great novel. This is a fictionalized account of the real-life story of five American missionaries (the best-known being Jim Elliot) who were killed by members of the Waorani people in Ecuador in 1956. Thomas imagines the events up to, including, and after the missionaries' deaths from the points of view of their wives; she also includes modern-day episodes about some of the missionaries' children and grandchildren (these parts are completely made-up, with invented names, etc.) and how these later generations reflect on the true impact the missionaries had in the lives of the Waorani. This novel really makes you think hard about Christian missionary efforts and the choices people make in the name of doing God's will. So good.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson.
My daughter Allison, knowing my great interest in The Crown television series, thoughtfully chose this book for me as a Christmas gift. It is a lovely novel about two young women, one English (Ann) and one French (Miriam), in postwar London. They work as embroiderers and are, to their great excitement, tasked with doing embroidery for Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress. The story is told from the perspectives of both women as well as that of Ann's granddaughter, who receives some pieces of embroidery when her grandmother dies and who goes to London to try to find out more about Ann's early life. If you like Kate Morton's novels, you'll probably like this one.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Five Minute Friday: LESS

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is LESS.

(Last week I wrote my FMF post about an episode from the Gospels, so I thought I'd do the same here. There is so much to unpack in the stories of Jesus!)

In Luke 21:1-4 we read,

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered their gifts out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.”

This sounds like an inspiring story of generosity: this poor widow had so much less than the other people there, but proportionally she gave more -- "everything she had to live on" -- so Jesus was praising her for her selfless act and reminding his watchers to give generously of their money too, just as she was doing.

But it may be that Jesus wasn't holding her up as an example at all. Instead, he may have been commenting on how this woman was the victim of an unfair and demoralizing system. Quite likely she felt she had no choice but to give to the temple treasury; the religious leaders probably had her convinced that it was her duty. After all, in the verses right before this scene, at the end of chapter 20, Jesus is harshly critical of the religious leaders who "devour widows' houses." And if she was so poor that her small contribution left her penniless, why weren't the religious leaders helping her out?

This probably isn't a "God loves a cheerful giver" feel-good story. It's a reminder that God isn't pleased when those in power take advantage of those who have less, making them feel obliged to perform pious acts without helping them when they need it most. 

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Five Minute Friday: TABLE

Today I'm linking up with Five Minute Friday, writing for five minutes on a given prompt. This week's word is TABLE.

There's a disconcerting story in the Bible (Matthew 15 and Mark 7) in which Jesus goes to the area of Tyre and Sidon and is accosted by a Syro-Phoenician woman. She begs him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon.

Jesus doesn't reply, but she persists, and his disciples urge Jesus to get rid of her. So he says to her in a dismissive-sounding way, "I'm sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." 

She knows that as a Greek woman (and more insultingly, a "Canaanite" as the passage translates it), she clearly doesn't qualify. However, she keeps begging for help, so Jesus says to her, "It's not right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."

Wow. What a slap in the face. She approaches an esteemed Jewish rabbi for help, and he calls her a dog?! But she still doesn't give up. She gives an instant clapback -- after all, what does she have to lose? -- "But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall under the table, don't they?"

Jesus is impressed by her faith and persistence and instantly heals her daughter.

There are various ways to interpret Jesus' exchange with this woman:

- Jesus is totally in the right calling her (a desperate Gentile woman) a dog. Jesus is God and can say whatever he wants, even if it sounds unkind and racist. 

- In fact the "dog" remark isn't really that bad -- I wouldn't mind being called a puppy, would you? And if he said it he was probably just joking, which is also perfectly acceptable if you're God.

- He's trying to test her faith: he wants to know if she really wants her daughter healed or if she'll flounce off in a huff at the first sign of being insulted. She passes the test.

- Jesus' encounter with the woman expands his vision of his own ministry. Before that moment, he was focused on preaching, teaching, and healing "the children of Israel"; through this woman's words and actions, he discovers that his ministry is much broader than that.

This last interpretation might make us uncomfortable: The Son of God got it wrong and had to be corrected? The Son of God had to learn something? But of course Luke 2:52 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom, just as he grew in physical stature. In his full humanness as a man of his time and place, he might understandably have seen Greeks as second-class people and expressed that in his words to the woman. 

And if that does make us uncomfortable, then alternatively we've got to come to terms with the story in some other way: maybe by saying it's OK for God to make a racial slur (which is definitely how it would have been taken), because he's God and his ways are higher than ours. Or that it really wasn't a slur, just a harmless joke, and she responded with her own witty humour. Or that he didn't really say it at all, that Mark and Matthew got it wrong ... but then that means the Bible's "wrong" ... and/or they went ahead and wrote it even though it made Jesus look bad. Or that Jesus was literally correct in the first place: he came only to save Jews ... in which case all the Epistles -- and the whole gospel, come to think of it -- fall like dominoes ... Whew. It's complicated. 

I'm not a Biblical scholar, but I love reading the gospels -- and I'm OK with the "Jesus learned a lesson" interpretation. It doesn't make him seem any less divine to me; it just shows me that, in his humanness, he might have had mental/social blind spots. It doesn't make me upset or weaken my faith, anymore than it would if I learned that he had some physical limitation. 

But regardless of the interpretation, I love this story. I love this woman, who is humble enough to plead for help and confident enough to believe she deserves whatever crumbs she can get. I think when we encounter Jesus we're always going to be changed in some way. And it's exciting to think that maybe Jesus is changed through his contact with us, too.