Monday, January 30, 2017

Dance-off with Dionysus

The Dionysiac sacrifice is the voice of the mob, and the Christian solution – the victim is innocent – is the truth of a very small minority. The aristocrats are there. They happen to be, socially, a fisherman here, a good-for-nothing there – what does it matter – they turn into aristocrats at the moment when they oppose the mob around them, according to Nietzsche. But Dionysus is obviously the mob. There is not one episode of his myth that is not decided by the mob. Christianity is the exception, saying no to the mob, and Dionysus is the acceptance of the mob. - René Girardi
When I attended my first Pride Parade in June 2013, I saw Winnipeg’s streets full of same-sex couples walking hand in hand, relaxed, smiling, laughing at the antics of some of their more flamboyant peers. Many of them sported T-shirts with slogans supporting the right to same-sex marriage.

I was there with my friends and neighbours, Heidi and Irina. When I first met Heidi and Irina, they introduced themselves as one another’s wives, and I loved them for claiming a covenantal definition for their relationship. I dislike the generic term “partner” because of the costly, unique relationship I have with my wife. Partners are for tennis, business, or crime. I appreciate how the gay rights movement has spent much of their political capital (which was slender enough in the beginning) pursuing marriage, while so many heterosexuals seem to be giving up on it.

But I wrestled with the mix of signals in the Pride Parade. While there were strong signals rallying support for covenantal sex, there were equally strong signals suggesting casual sex. The atmosphere was charged with bacchanalia, those riotous, intoxicating behaviours named for Bacchus, Dionysus’ Roman counterpart, the “man-womanish” god of wine, fertility, ritual madness, theatre and religious ecstasy.

When we passed an athletic young man wearing a Speedo, running shoes and body glitter, he danced and gyrated provocatively, his slender body shining and glistening in the bright sunlight. Heidi and Irina laughed: “He can’t help himself. He’s just gotta dance.”

My reaction to his open eroticism was more mixed. Of course, part of that came from my remaining homophobia and my Mennonite discomfort with any kind of open sexual display. I realized that the young man was challenging me to get over my puritanical fears of sex, for as Sebastian Moore observes, “Homophobia is at root erophobia.”ii And yet, while I had to accept that an essential element of the Pride movement was to celebrate unapologetically a form of sexuality that for so long has been shunned and shamed in this society, I also had to wonder how the sight of this young man was affecting the gay male couples walking arm in arm down Broadway Avenue. For if the sight of a scantily clad young man moving his body suggestively would have the same effect on a gay man as a similar young woman would have on me, such a presence would be very distracting at a public celebration of my marriage—if not outright offensive.

In the myths and orgiastic rites of Dionysus, the wine, dance and revelry ultimately climaxes with the devotees tearing a young person limb from limb with their bare hands, sometimes quite literally consuming him. The lines between bacchanalian ecstasy and madness are fluidly ambiguous, as in, “You Say Party! We Say Die!”iii At the Pride Parade, I saw many of the participants playing with this ancient, real and ultimately murderous fire as they mixed the message of grace and acceptance with the pressure release valve of a Dionysian carnival.

Of course, I was not worried that the young man would actually be torn limb from limb by the end of the night, though I’m pretty sure he aroused in a number of potential assailants an animal hunger to get their hands on him. But what I saw on parade under the rainbow flag was not only a banquet of justice where all are welcome, but also a dramatic rehearsal of a particular story about sex—a hedonistic tale where, by the end, somebody is going to get hurt. This story is not unique to the gay rights movement by any means. Take any romantic comedy: you don’t want to be the main character’s fiancée or spouse at the beginning of the show, for the same reason you don’t want to be the cowboy with the black hat at the beginning of an old-fashioned western. Your elimination is essential to the climax of the plot.iv

At the Pride Parade, I witnessed a “two-spiritedness,” by which I do not mean the mix of masculine and feminine spirits, which Aboriginal communities have discerned and affirmed in queer folk. I am talking about two spiritual powers, two competing meta-narratives, each with a truth claim that is ultimately unreconcilable with the other. One spirit was telling a story about human culture from the perspective of those it has marginalized and hurt while also seeking healing. This spirit was pursuing what Martin Luther King Jr. called “The Beloved Community,” a togetherness compassionate and conscious of “all God’s children,” as MLK proclaimed in soaring voice at similar marches for similar rights. The other spirit was holding out a narrative about a kind of freedom that is the opposite of community, the opposite of coming home to one another: the freedom for me to pursue what I want and for you to pursue what you want and in our pursuits to be left alone. That somewhere in this striving is the inevitable category of the unwanted is something we don’t talk about. Both meta-narratives turn on sacrifice: the first on its unveiling, the second on its veiling. . .

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross, Culture, Stories. To reserve a copy, email me at

i“The Scapegoat: The Ideas of René Girard, Part 5” on CBC Ideas. Podcast available at

iiCommendation for James Alison's Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay, iv.

iiiThis is the former name of a Canadian dance punk act—ironically employed, as far as I can tell. Their lyrics are impenetrable to me, but they seem like nice people. They recently dropped the “We Say Die!” part of their name after their drummer died of a brain hemorrhage on stage.

ivThat’s a funny word, by the way: plot, which is a simple and ancient word that can mean either the place for a garden or a cemetery, the act of marking out a line on a map, the central narrative of a story, or a secret plan for murder. For a fascinating exegesis of how these meanings all cohere in the sacrificial Roman rite of marking the boundaries of a family field, see Gil Bailie,

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Beatitude for Bucket-poopers

A contrary view . . . prevails when a community chooses a subsistence-oriented way of life. There, the inversion of development, the replacement of consumer goods by personal action, of industrial tools by convivial tools is the goal. . . . There, the guitar is valued over the record, the library over the schoolroom, the back yard garden over the supermarket selection. . . . They try to “unplug themselves from consumption,” . . . women seek alternatives to gynecology; parents alternatives to schools; home-builders alternatives to the flush toilet. –Ivan Illichi

I poop in a bucket. Does this mean that I am poor?

I also co-own 144 acres of farmland. Does this mean I’m rich? I spend my summers bending my back, working outside, with dirt under my fingernails. Does that mean I’m poor? I find restaurant food sub-par compared to my regular diet of made-from-scratch meals, loaded with meat and organic produce. Does that mean I am rich? Our family’s after tax income last year was about $25,000. The poverty line for a Canadian family our size is calculated at $34,829. Does that mean we are poor? We own two vehicles, one of which is a 2003 Mercedes Benz SUV, sold to us for a silly low price because the seller likes us, and I think because she thinks we are poor. Does that mean we are rich?

. . .back to the bucket-pooping, exhibit A in this goofy, but serious, argument about the meaning of poverty. It’s not that gross. We cover our business with sawdust, so it’s really no more smelly or unsightly than a kitty litter box. When the bucket is full, I add the contents to a pile covered with straw, where all that carbon and nitrogen are digested by a community of microorganisms that turn filth into fertility. This eventually goes on our hay-land, making it bloom a verdant green wherever the humanure has fallen. These are things that make me happy.

But here’s where things get complicated. For while I am happily closing the loop of my poop, Aboriginal communities in Manitoba are trying to get my larger and privileged Mennonite faith community to lend their voice to those of local chiefs, who are challenging the government to address the scandal that in the twenty-first century, Aboriginal reserves still lack basic plumbing. That is to say, they have to poop in buckets.

Here I have to reckon with the strange but indisputable fact that my white male privilege allows me to enjoy and celebrate the practice of twenty-first-century bucket-pooping, which remains to my Aboriginal neighbour a disgusting misery. When I carry out the poop bucket, I am thinking back to the Gandhi movie, which I watched with adolescent fervour with a pile of other liberal Mennonite teens, as we stuffed our faces with taco chips and packaged macaroons while Gandhi defeated the British Empire with fasting and nonviolent truth-force. . .

Ivan Illich names the odd way in which I am rich and privileged by growing my own food, living in a cabin built of reclaimed hog barn lumber, cutting my own firewood and composting my own crap. I am freer to refuse the “progress and development” package than my Aboriginal neighbours, who are penned in and bureaucratically administered on the reserve. I can pick and choose my renunciations. By way of these renunciations, I can find “a way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world,” as Illich puts it. I can choose my story. I am not “underdeveloped.” I am breaking free. . .

Illich draws angry rebukes for his criticism of development. He is decried as unsympathetic to the poor and as an enemy of their advancement. . . I believe that time will tell that Illich has a more compassionate, honest and hopeful vision than the champions of progress and development. As a closer reader of history, he can see further ahead. He . . . can imagine a good life for the poor beyond the collapse of unsustainable, globalizing missions. He can make out “rivers north of the future”. . .

This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Life at the End of Us Versus Them: Cross, Culture, Stories. To reserve a copy, email me at

iIvan Illich, Vernacular Values, 1980.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Trinitarian Yes

Do I believe in God?

I don't know how to answer that question anymore.

To say yes, I would allow for the adequacy of a sentence structure where one minor swap could ask: Do I believe in Santa Claus?

Is there an ineffable mystery before which my soul opens outward and says yes? I cannot say no. Every thing that is in me wants to say yes. Longs to say yes. Does my soul pant for God as the deer pants for streams of running water? Yes.

Do I accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour?

Again, I stammer and hesitate. In a bumperstickered world, where language is highjacked, trampled, photocopied, run off and repeated without end and without meaning, where we are wedged between the self-certain impositions of propaganda and the chaotic rantings of the online wall of noise, I recoil from casting a public ballot that aligns me with a Christian “us” against a non-Christian “them.”

Does the cross of Christ move me to tears? Yes. Am I stirred by a gospel that names a God who suffers, disciples who sleep and betray, and a Risen One who forgives all? Yes. Is this vision of the Divine - taking our punishment, instead of meting it out – the one vision I trust, that I cling to for assurance, for sanity, for truth, for hope, for light against the falling dark? Yes and yes.

Have I received the Holy Spirit?

Now we are in territory where even my kinspeople have no words. Mennonites are no holy rollers. But am I falling in love with the Holy Spirit anyway? Yes. Am I stunned by the implications made by St. John, pitting the Paraclete, “The Attorney for the Defense,” against Satan, “The Accuser”? Yes. Do I want to join in declaring the whole world innocent? In busting the ugliest criminal out of his prison of shame – the prison within me and the prison without? Yes! Am I drawn to the beautiful bridge between transcendance and immanence, between the Father and the Son who goes - for our sake - as far from the Father as it is possible to go? Am I enchanted by the Trinity's dance of love, between the Light Unspeakable and the Word made flesh? Do I strain for the music that conducts their dance? Does its pulse tug at my own sinews? Yes, yes, and yes.