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Of Mice and Men


Abbotsford writer Jerry Raaf’s new novel is all about mice. The Mice in Sophie’s Mattress— Giuseppe, Patrizio,Angelo, and dozens of others—are living a happy existence in an old mattress in an old farmhouse. The house is safe and warm, and there is an abundance of food. All goes well until the farmer’s wife, Sophie Brunzhoffa, decides to buy a new mattress. The old mattress, with its resident rodents, is unceremoniously dumped at the back end of the farm, where life is much more difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous.

This novel is about mice (interspersed with some interesting insights into the lives of the humans who own the farm), but it is no more a children’s story than George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

It can perhaps be seen as an elaboration of the well-known Robbie Burns poem that “the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley” (often go wrong). By telling a story about mice, Raaf shows that people, like mice, are often ambushed by the bad things (and the good things) that happen to them as a result of powerful forces and movements from the larger world outside their peaceful little communities. These powerful forces are not only beyond their control but also beyond their understanding. The mice in Sophie’s mattress have no idea why disaster has befallen them. They only know that good times do not last forever and bad times come. Unable to control what happens, they can only control their own reactions to what happens, and they learn to face the vicissitudes of life with faithfulness, resilience, and self-sacrificing love.

Raaf is a good storyteller and an insightful observer of human nature. He draws the reader into the miniature world of mice and tells a story full of mystery, pain, folly and wisdom, failure and perseverance. He offers no easy answers, only an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of joy and suffering and the deep questions of life.

 The Mice in Sophie’s Mattress was published by Mill Lake Books, my publishing imprint.

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Manufactured Authoritativeness and Contrived Objectivity

I have noticed a disturbing trend in modern news media, particularly television news. It is a tendency to engage in something I would call “manufactured authoritativeness” or “contrived objectivity.” What I mean is the increasing use of statements such as the following in news stories.

Many news reports start with a statement such as “There is outrage over…” A careful analysis of the rest of the report often reveals that the “outrage” is mainly being expressed by the reporter or news anchor. This suggests that the reporter or news anchor is telling listeners to prejudge an event before they even hear what that event is. The reporter or news anchor is saying that the listeners should feel outrage over whatever it is that has happened. Of course, this means that the reporter or news anchor is not so much reporting the news as shaping and even making the news.

To be fair, reporters and news anchors might not be aware that they are doing this. They might simply assume that their own ideas are so obviously right that everyone—or at least “all right-thinking people”—will agree with them and be outraged.

Another often used statement in news reports is “There is a scandal…” “Scandal” is a vague word. It suggests that something very terrible has been done, so obviously terrible that it should be condemned outright without further thought or investigation. In fact, “scandal” implies that public opinion has already passed judgement on whatever has been done and so the details no longer matter. Those involved in a scandal have no recourse. Judgement has already been passed, the details don’t matter, and so there is no way for them to defend themselves. And yet the reporter and news anchor remain above reproach. They have not accused those involved of committing any specific crime or immoral action. They have simply reported a “scandal,” that there is a vague feeling among the public that something wrong has been done.

A similar term often used by news reporters and anchors is “controversial”—a person or an action or an idea is labelled “controversial.” This doesn’t actually really mean much of anything. If someone else is opposed to a person, action, or idea, then, by definition, there is a controversy. “Controversy” is defined in the dictionary as “a discussion marked by the expression of opposing views”—from Latin words meaning “turned against.” By that definition, it is hard to imagine a person, action or idea that is not controversial. However, by labelling one person, action, or idea “controversial,” the reporter or news anchor is implying that the “controversy” is the fault of the person, action, or idea so labelled. Strangely, the opposing people, actions, and ideas are not labelled “controversial” even though the first person, action, or idea is opposed to them. The reporter or news anchor is telling listeners which people, actions, and ideas are wrong. And, of course, this means that the reporters and news anchors, their actions, and their ideas are right.

Sometimes news reporters and anchors are more straightforward. They say, “There is growing opposition to…” To prove it, they have done “investigative reporting,” gone looking, and found somebody who is opposed to whatever the story is about. By “growing,” what the reporter or news anchor really means is that he or she is using his or her position to try to increase the opposition.

Another frequently used phrase is “There is great anticipation/excitement for Joe Flibbertymus’s new album/movie/book/song/TV show.”  What the reporter or news anchor really means is, “I have great excitement/anticipation for Joe Flibbetymus’s new work.”

Something similar happens when the news reports that someone or something is “being praised.” Indeed that person or thing is being praised—by the reporter or news anchor.

Finally, there is the phrase, “There is a lot of media buzz about…” Reporters and news anchors report this as if “the media” was something different from them. They are really reporting about themselves. If they were honest, they would say, “We in the media are buzzing about…”

One of the reasons I have noticed all of this is that my ideas are often different from those of many reporters and news anchors. Listening to the news reports, I realize that I am not outraged, I am not opposed, but I am controversial. And I have never heard of Joe Flibbertymus.

It all reminds me of some words of wisdom spoken by that great Canadian philosopher Red Green, who said that things were better in the past: “In the old days, Walter Cronkite told us what happened. He didn’t tell us what to think about it.”

Personally, I was inoculated against such nonsense a long time ago. When I was in university, a fellow student (cynical, opportunistic, or manipulative, take your pick) explained how to work the academic system: “If you want to state something for which you have no evidence, just cite anonymous sources. Say ‘Research indicates…’ or ‘Studies show…’ or ‘Statistics demonstrate…’ If you say it with enough confidence and conviction, few people will question what you say, no matter how dubious your assertion.”

I guess many reporters and news anchors went to the same school. It is not a school I would recommend.

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The Arrogance of Apologies

Back when I was in high school, a teacher had arranged some small group sessions in which the students were to discuss certain assigned readings. When we assembled, it soon became apparent that most of the students had not done the assigned readings and thus were unable to discuss them. In frustration, the teacher cancelled the whole program. In order to rescue the situation, the students got together and decided to offer a formal apology. They asked me to be their spokesman and deliver the apology. I refused. It happened that in this case I had been one of the students who had done the assigned readings. (There were, of course, other occasions when I had not done some assigned work.) I did not think that I should be the one delivering the apology because I was not one of the ones who was at fault. I judged that in that case my apology would have been rightly deemed to be meaningless. Apologizing for someone else’s actions is not really an apology at all. It is merely a judgement from the sidelines that someone else’s actions were wrong.

I was reminded of this incident from my youth when, on November 7 of this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a formal apology to the Jewish refugees on the ship MS St. Louis, who were not offered sanctuary in Canada in 1939. It led me to write an article, which has now been published in C2C Journal.

I have never been a fan of belated proxy apologies. I have long suspected that apologies such as this are primarily for the benefit of those who make the apologies. It is an opportunity for them to pat themselves on the back and display their moral superiority to those of a previous generation. It is a chance for them to proclaim, “I would not have done that. I would have done better.” As I pointed out in that article, it is too easy to judge the actions of someone else in an entirely different context. We cannot know that, if we had been in that person’s situation, we would not have done the same thing.

What is really inappropriate in such apologies is the arrogance of them. In spite of what we would like to believe, we are not morally superior to people in the past. We just commit different sins and injustices on different victims. The irony is that those who issue such belated apologies for other people’s sins do so because they seem to be unaware that they might have faults of their own. A little humility might help them to realize that a few generations from now someone may feel moved to apologize for some of their unjust actions.

 

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A Book of Its Time: To the glory of God at work in a world of chaos

Sometimes I come across a book by accident that turns out to be more interesting than I expected. Such is the case with Through the Hitler Line: Memoirs of an Infantry Chaplain (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), which I picked up in the local library along with some other books. Some of the other books were disappointing. This was not.

The book was written by  Laurence F. Wilmot, who served as an Anglican chaplain with the West Nova Scotia Regiment of the First Canadian Infantry Division as it fought its way northward through Italy during World War Two. His book clearly reveals the nature of warfare as seen through the eyes of the soldiers who took part in it. It also reveals attitudes and ideas very true to its time.

Wilmot felt called by God to be a military chaplain. He saw the war as necessary to defeat the evil of Nazism, a goal that he assumed God approved of. But he was no blind patriot. He also recognized that the battle of good and evil was being waged on a personal level in the lives of the men he ministered to. He called the men to whom he preached to personally commit themselves to God in Jesus Christ, recognizing that their lives were in danger, but also, more importantly, that their eternal destiny was at stake. He also showed deep respect for the beliefs of a pacifist stretcher bearer, who chose another path in the conflict and who lost his life while saving others. Wilmot did an admirable job of balancing his various responsibilities.

As an evangelical, I could quibble with Wilmot’s overly strong emphasis on the sacraments and formal church services. He was also a man of his age and his denomination in apparently holding postmillennial views, assuming that human beings could and would bring in the kingdom of God on earth.

But I cannot quibble with Wilmot’s deep devotion to Jesus Christ. I was challenged by his practice of spending up to 90 minutes a day in a personal quiet time with God, praying and reading the Bible. He recognized Christians of other denominations as his brothers, and I have no hesitation in recognizing him as my brother.

The book does a very good job of revealing the struggles that Canadian soldiers experienced in the war. Wilmot helped men dealing with fear and battle fatigue. He recommended compassionate discharges for men who had served for a long time and who had learned of family troubles at home. He offered advice on morale issues to senior officers concerned about the welfare of their men. He counselled atheists, offering the books of C.S. Lewis to those who had intellectual questions. He was awarded a Military Cross for his work with stretcher bearers rescuing wounded soldiers from a minefield at the risk of his own life. His duties included retrieving bodies from the battlefield, laying out cemeteries, burying the dead, conducting funerals, gathering the personal effects of the fallen, and writing letters of condolence to families at home.

The work of Wilmot and his fellow chaplains bore fruit. Over 600 men were received into the membership of various denominations after the chaplains conducted a joint church membership retreat. Some soldiers decided to enter the ministry as a result of the spiritual renewal they experienced during the war. Both of these developments helped set the stage for the rapid and unexpected growth of churches in Canada in the 1950s.

This book also had a personal resonance for me. One of my uncles served in the Italian campaign, although there is no evidence that he ever encountered Wilmot.  Another uncle decided to become a Christian minister during his military service in World War Two.

The book is dedicated to the soldiers Wilmot served with, many of whom “gave their lives to rescue from oblivion such civilization as we had been able to achieve.” It is also aptly dedicated “To the glory of God at work in a world of chaos.”

 

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Is It Time to Get a New Watch?

Almost twenty years ago, my wife bought me an expensive watch for Christmas. (In my world, expensive is a couple of hundred dollars, on sale at half price, not a Rolex.) For almost twenty years, it has given me good service, and it is still doing so. It was a good purchase.

This watch was a replacement for another expensive watch that had served me well for almost thirty years. It was given to me by the Baptist church I attended throughout my early years.

There is a history to that watch. In the midst of the Temperance movement—about 1911, I think—a wealthy man was concerned about the youth in the congregation. He set up a trust fund called “Purpose of Heart” that would give a fifty-dollar gold watch to any young man who took a pledge not to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol. The pledge was to last for the young man’s entire life, but the watch was given if he kept the pledge until age twenty-one. It was assumed that patterns of life established by that age would continue. In 1911, a fifty-dollar gold watch was a remarkable gift, worth more than a man’s monthly salary.

Some teaching went along with the offer of the gold watch. One of the arguments was that Christians’ bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and it would be wrong to defile such temples (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

When I was growing up in that church in the 1950s and 1960s, the program was still in place, and I took the pledge. When I turned twenty-one, I was given the watch (at that time a watch worth more than fifty dollars but certainly not gold). I accepted the watch but with some ambivalence. By that time, I had gone off to university and had gained some new insight into the issues.

My ambivalence was not concerned with smoking but with alcohol. For one thing, my own study of the Bible had convinced me that the Bible does not forbid drinking alcohol, although it does forbid drunkenness. On that basis, I could not judge anyone who enjoyed a glass of wine or bottle of beer.

At university, I also had my first close-up encounters with alcohol. (For part of my childhood, the small town I had grown up in had still been “dry.” As a holdover from Prohibition, the residents had not yet voted to allow alcohol to be sold in our town.)

In my first week at university, I went into the dorm washroom and saw one of the senior students lying on the floor in his underwear, passed out next to the toilet. I didn’t at first know what was wrong with him because he was the first passed-out drunk I had ever seen. But I soon discovered he wasn’t the only student with a drinking problem. This senior student’s roommate was on track to become a dentist. Every Thursday night, which was pub night on campus, the roommate would swear that he was not going to the pub. But every Thursday night he went. When the pub closed, he would come back, lie down, and throw up all over himself and his bed. It was patently obvious to me that students who drank too much became loud, obnoxious, stupid, and sick. I witnessed a number of students whose academic studies and potential professional careers were derailed by alcoholism. My roommate partially lost his eyesight for a day after chugging too much hard liquor. It was also considered acceptable practice in the dorm to get girls drunk in order to make them more susceptible to having sex. This was the era of the sexual revolution, and curbing sexual freedom was considered prudish and old-fashioned. But my father had taught me, mostly by his example, to treat women with respect, and I found the prevailing attitude in the dorm to be selfish and evil. The evidence before me did not make alcohol seem very attractive.

When I was growing up, Christians were ridiculed for their opposition to smoking and drinking. They were accused of having a puritanical desire to deprive people of enjoyment. I find it odd that no such arguments are levied against the health professionals and politicians who are waging war against tobacco today. Back then, we did not have all of the current scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer, but it was obvious to anyone who was willing to look that smokers all seemed to have what was then called a “smoker’s cough.” However, back then Christians seemed to be about the only people concerned about this.

When I started university, I saw no evidence of illegal drug use. But, by the time I was in my senior year, a new wave of students had come in who were regular drug users. For the most part, they seemed unhappy, depressed, distracted, and stupid. They seemed unaware of what was going on around them. I wasn’t sure whether they took drugs because they were stupid or the drugs had damaged their minds.

Since then, our streets have filled with homeless people, many of them addicted to drugs. I have watched as a close relative, once active in his church, descended into drug addiction. In spite of all attempts to help him, he died. He had apparently started with marijuana. I never want to see that again, although it is happening all around us.

As I said, when I was at university, my study of the Bible had convinced me that the Bible did not forbid the drinking of alcohol. Knowing what I did then, I would likely not have taken the “Purpose of Heart” pledge. But my promise not to drink or smoke was a solemn promise, made before God, and I kept that promise. I am still keeping it. From what I know now of my personality, I suspect that if I had started drinking, there is a good chance I would have become an alcoholic, and my life would have turned out very differently.

This explains my ambivalence when I was given that watch. It felt as if it was being given as a reward for virtue when what I was feeling was gratitude for having been saved from possible alcoholism. Similarly, my avoidance of tobacco saved me from a horrendous early death from cancer and the waste of literally thousands of dollars. In our society, which glorifies pursuing our dreams and creating our own futures, we too often fail to recognize our own human frailty. If we play with fire, many of us will get burned.

These reflections, coupled with our Canadian government’s recent decision to legalize marijuana, have led me to consider whether we need a revived temperance movement today.

I am not talking about passing laws to ban the sale and use of alcohol, tobacco, or even marijuana again. Popular opinion says that Prohibition didn’t work because “You can’t legislate morality.” This is nonsense. All laws are an attempt to legislate morality. We have laws against murder and theft because they are considered to be wrong. What Prohibition demonstrated is that you can’t legislate morality if a significant minority is determined to break the law. It is very difficult to outlaw marijuana in our society because there are too many judges, lawyers, police officers, and politicians who have used marijuana. We have had laws against marijuana, and the leaders of society have not wanted to enforce them. It is also stated that Prohibition encouraged the growth of organized crime. This is true, but it also reduced a lot of disorganized crime. In any case, alcohol is now legal and is a factor in many traffic accidents, incidents of domestic abuse, assaults, and murders. We have legalized alcohol and we have now legalized marijuana, and we will live with the consequences.

As I said, I am not pushing for any laws to be passed or for any other legal solution. What I have in mind is a temperance movement in which Christians (and others) resolve that, no matter what the rest of society is doing, they will not defile themselves. That is what the Baptist church of my youth was doing. There is also a fine example of this approach in Daniel 1:8, where Daniel and his friends refused to partake of the royal food and wine in Babylon. There is also the example of Joshua, who said that the rest of society would make its own decisions but that he and his house would take a different path (Joshua 24:15). 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is still in the Bible, and it would still be wrong to defile the temples where the Holy Spirit has come to live. The best and easiest way to cure an alcoholic or drug addict is to prevent the person from becoming one in the first place.

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The Migration of Peoples

In recent months and years, First Nations peoples have been requesting/demanding the removal of statues of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, from public places. They usually say that they find the statues offensive because of Macdonald’s role in the creation of the residential school system. However, if we think about the issue clearly, we may realize that the establishment of residential schools was only one aspect of the European takeover of northern North America. In history, the assimilation of conquered peoples routinely follows a successful invasion. I suspect that what Native people really object to is Macdonald’s role in the creation of Canada, a country stretching from sea to sea, filling the land previously occupied solely by Native peoples. They see this as a key factor in the overwhelming of Native peoples by an influx of mainly European immigrants.

However, even if Macdonald and his associates had not existed, First Nations people would not have remained in possession of northwestern Canada. Their land would have been taken over by Americans rather than Canadians—and the Native peoples would likely have been treated even more badly. Before the creation of Canada, American fur traders, whisky peddlers, and gold miners were already present. Eventually, what happened in Texas would have happened in northwestern North America—American “settlers” would have moved in, they would have sought “freedom” from the oppressive foreign power that currently claimed the area (in this case, the United Kingdom rather than Mexico), and they would have demanded that the American government rescue them by annexing the area.

Am I justifying the creation of a continent-wide Canada as the least evil of evil alternatives? That is the reality perhaps for First Nations peoples, but that is not what I am saying.

My argument puts the question into a much larger context. The migration of peoples has been a continual feature of world history. This takes place for a whole variety of economic and social reasons and usually involves the movement of people from large population centres to less populated areas. The migration of peoples mirrors the dispersion of animal species throughout the globe. This raises the question of whether the divine dictum in Genesis 1:28 (“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it”) was a command to be consciously obeyed or an innate instinct impossible to resist.

Governments can no more prevent the migration of peoples than they can stop the flow of the ocean tides or the dispersion of invasive plant and animal species. They can slow (restrict) it, accelerate (encourage) it, delay it, guide it, and regulate it, but they cannot stop it. This is largely because they cannot control the economic and social forces that drive it.

Even the mighty Roman Empire was unable to stop the invasion of barbarians from central Europe. In spite of Donald Trump’s bluster, the United States is powerless to prevent the immigration of Hispanics from Central America. Similarly, modern Europe is unable to stem the flow of refugees and other immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. These modern immigrants may yet achieve what Muslim armies were unable to do in the late Middle Ages—overrun European society and irreversibly change it. And the Canadian government, despite sporadic attempts in the past, has not been able to stem the flow of immigrants from India, China, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia.

As well, we should not forget that, despite their myths and legends, the First Nations people themselves migrated to North America from Asia, at times displacing other Native people.

It is an unrecognized irony that many of those who most vigorously decry the displacement of First Nations people by European immigrants in past centuries now just as vigorously argue that the current North American population should “welcome immigrants.”

The migration of peoples is an inexorable process, impervious to the protests of displaced peoples and the machinations of governments—and removing a few statues is not going to change that.

 

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Three Luxuries

Ah, retirement! A time of rest and relaxation after a lifetime of work.

Right.

Maybe the problem is that I am only semi-retired, still doing a lot of editing and writing work. Or maybe our ideas about retirement are wrong.

In any case, I have discovered what that free time after retirement is. It is all the time people expect you to contribute for free.

A friend of mine recently retired. To celebrate, he said he slept in—deliberately.

I guess that is one of the benefits of retirement. Most people only get to sleep in one or two days a week at most. I can do it more than that, but certainly not every day.

I had another friend who hated to wake up to the jarring sound of a ringing alarm clock. So, he used a “natural alarm clock.” He would take two glasses of water up to bed with him and drink them just before he fell asleep. This would guarantee that he would wake up in time to go to work in the morning. Of course, he was still a young man. If I tried it, I would wake up for work around 2:00 a.m. Even without the two glasses of water, I still often wake up around 2:00 a.m.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the great luxuries of life. Here are three.

  1. To sleep until you are no longer tired. It might only be 15 minutes longer, but waking up naturally allows you to start the day feeling far less stressed than if you were suddenly jerked out of a sound sleep by a blaring alarm clock reminding you of all the things that you have to do that day.
  2. To have a wide variety of good foods to choose from and to be able to eat until you are full. Most people in the world eat a similar diet every day. In the North American melting pot, there are Chinese, Italian, French, Japanese, French and Thai restaurants on the same street—right next to a North American burger chain and an English-style fish and chip place. Similar options are available in grocery stores and cookbooks.
  3. To have a ready supply of clean water and to be able to take a hot shower or bath whenever you want.

The reality is that most of us in North America have at least two of these luxuries and don’t think twice about them. And no billionaire can substantially improve on them. The billionaire might draw his shower water from a gold-plated tap, but it is the same water. He might be able to afford caviar, but most of us would rather eat something that tastes better.

We should be thankful.