Duck Hunting, Platinum Jesus, and Robert H. Schuller’s Passing

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Authorial Note: The following is a small piece inspired by my father’s suggestion that I write a piece about Schuller’s passing, given that we had visited the Crystal Cathedral many years ago. It was submitted to a variety of publications two days after the passing, written under 1,000 words, and, I would like to think, very readable. If anyone while reading this could give me advice as to what it is that I may be doing wrong, please let me know and I would appreciate it very much.  

         It was the summer of 2005, and as a fourteen year old from Toronto, Canada it would have been hard to believe if someone had told me then that this was not the last time I would have seen duck hunting, riches, and Jesus go together as if nothing were amiss. We were in California for a family vacation, and we had found out that our hotel was near the famed Crystal Cathedral, founded by the now recently departed Robert H. Schuller, and decided that we should take a quick visit. jesus walking onw ater.0During our brief visit, as we were admiring the statue of Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a duck pond, we hear a small boy yell out, ‘I wanna go duck shooting! Bang! Bang! Bang!’ My father and I really laughed this off as some American kid just having fun with toy guns and what not—but it is eerily prescient of the rise of the now famous Christian family featured in the A&E hit-show The Duck Dynasty. Also in the midst of our visit there, as my father recalled, while we were impressed by the opulence of the cathedral, we were also astonished at the contrast between the decadence of the cathedral, and the near poverty-level living of the trailer parks and neighborhoods just merely across the street from it. It is this intersection of violence as fun, and the ignorance of riches, that really ought to make Evangelical Christians pause over the legacy of Robert H. Schuller and his peculiar American-positive-thinking brand of the Christian faith. For no matter how doctrinally correct he may have been, or how his television ministry was inspired by the likes of Billy Graham, it still should make one wonder- how is it that such a beloved and celebrated, and seemingly seeker-friendly movement as positive thinking and self-esteem with all the wealth and technology one could possibly hope for at the time, produce a church that colluded with and ignored Jesus’ teaching on such important matters as violence and poverty?

         Now some may say, ‘can duck hunting and opulent building structures really be said to be examples of this church’s love affair with violence and ignorance of poverty?’ to which one need only refer to one of Schuller’s poetic sermons delivered in 1972, I am the American Flag. The sermon is delivered from the perspective of the American flag itself, as if it were God himself speaking to his chosen people and why he is proud to be their God. As if the flag had taken Schuller’s own advice, it had a great self-image. ‘Sure’, it might admit, ‘I’ve had my sins and shames’ and like any evangelical making a humble confession, never state what those would be but only derail against its detractors’ false accusations. In the 2001 rendition of this sermon Schuller in the character of the American flag says that in America, ‘You can do anything you want to!’ while also saying that ‘Freedom depends upon morality’—which may as well be code for, ‘do whatever you like, no matter how immoral, just be sure to make an ethical justification for it’. Schuller then goes on to say that the Sermon on the Mount, has been part of the ethical foundation of the US…really? Does even the most generous account of America’s foreign policy really believe that it stands on the principle of ‘turn the other cheek’? Even with the enormous generosity of the US government’s foreign aid to other countries, does anyone really believe it is based on the principle not to ‘announce it with trumpets’? Or that prayer in the Oval office and elsewhere is really based on the principle not to pray in public? He then proclaims, “I see a new America, for a new century,” perhaps not even knowing that it was the Washington think-tank Project for a New American Century that pushed for regime change in Iraq in the years shortly following ahead of this sermon.

         Make no mistake, that Schuller’s depiction of the American flag’s self-image of itself may truly be the best representation of someone who has fully followed Schuller’s own teaching concerning self-esteem. God is your sponsor, and is there to help you feel better about yourself, and if one continues to say ‘Lord, Lord’ then your conscience can be clear—

         “Repentance’ is a dirty word full of negative energy that fills people with guilt, when people already know their sins!” a disciple of Schuller’s might say.

         The response would be, “Of course people already know their sins, and its not God’s job to just appease your guilty conscience, but to actually get you to strive toward repentance.”

         “But people need to hear about grace!” says the disciple.

         “Of course they do,” replies the respondent, “but God’s grace is what can sustain a life of faith and repentance, not to do away with them!”

         See, Schuller’s legacy may have been pioneering televangelism and bringing pop-psychology into Evangelical churches across America, but for a young Canadian Evangelical man, having visited so many years ago, the legacy of Schuller is that his gospel of self-esteem appeases the consciences not only of individual Christians, who live in lands of poverty-ignorant opulence supported by gun-obsessed military violence, but also, the conscience of his nation at large. Lastly, one more image should suffice to show how the God-like character of the American flag in fact shaped, even in the most subtle of ways, the Crystal Cathedral’s view of Jesus. In the midst of its garden of statues, was a depiction of the holy family, and a Jesus, as platinum looking as the church he’s housed in.


A Flashlight Over My Shoulder- Faith as a Student: A Letter (2nd Version)

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Authorial Note: The following is the published second version of a piece, the first version of which will be posted on this blog shortly. This second version was published in the September 2014 issue of The Newspaper, the University of Toronto’s Independent Paper but due to layout complications it did not turn out as planned. However both myself and The Newspaper look forward to publishing more together. The following was written for the new undergraduates at the University of Toronto who identify with a faith tradition. 

             The Psalmist says of the Hebrew Scriptures, ‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119:105). Now while one cannot necessarily reflect the rays of divine light unto your path, one can hope to illumine your divine light with reflections upon one’s own path. It is with this endeavor that a former undergraduate can hope to shine a flashlight over his shoulder to illumine your future by his past. Coming fresh out of high school, I had one goal—get the best education possible. To give you a noble reason for why I wanted to get the best education I possibly could get, would be a masterpiece of deception I hope I will never be capable of. Being raised in Christian apologetic material, scholarship, books, movies etc… that sought to ‘defend’ the Christian faith on historical grounds against the perceived onslaught of secularism, Islam, and post-modernism I had begun to notice that those who were talked about the most, and were taken most seriously in the public court of opinion, were those with high degrees from top universities. They had proven themselves more than capable in the scholarly realm and had wished to make a public defense of the Christian faith, and their status as elite academics only helped the cause. In a rather cynical manner, as I perceive it now, coming out of high-school with the same desire, I sought to get the best education at the top university in Canada, the University of Toronto. If I exposed myself to the harshest criticisms of the Christian faith, studied the New Testament under the ‘liberal’ scholars, and engage at the highest levels of academic debate—I would come out with my Christian faith all the stronger, and a mark of status so that people would have to listen to my opinion.

             As cynical as this endeavor originally began, it did instill a virtue in me that I would now trade for nothing else in the world—the courage to pursue the truth, for the truth has nothing to fear. Throwing my faith in the ‘deep waters’ as it were, while originally beginning as a pursuit of a mark of status, was also a sign in the deep trust that I had in the truth of the Christian faith—reading about the Qu’ran, Karl Marx, New Testament textual criticism, and atheism, did not frighten me in the least, nor should have they. First and foremost then, while I may not know why you wish to pursue your education as you are so doing—be prepared to be transformed, and in the process possibly value your education in a different light. Second, truth has nothing to fear, do not view ‘faith’ as a set of propositions that must be defended at all costs, rather, view ‘faith’ as trust, as a verb, that invites you to throw yourself in, knowing that after all the transformation has been gone through, no matter how painful, that it is worth it.

            Speaking of painful transformation, let me tell you a story from my first year that should reassure you in two respects—one, your education will be challenging, and two, your professors are not your enemies, despite all appearances. My program was a specialization in Christian Origins, so I was required to take two years of classical Greek—if you’ve ever studied another language you know how difficult it is, let alone how difficult it is when the language is considered as dead as you feel after you’ve learned it!!! During our first day of class, our professor, invited us to read a passage of Homer’s The Odyssey…in Greek. Most of us were not sure we knew the entire alphabet of the Greek language. Needless to say, near the end of the first semester the class had dwindled from 40 people to 12, and before our first exam I was considering to be numbered among the 28 that dropped out. I had never struggled so much learning anything as I had classical Greek, I had come out of high-school with a 92% average with little to no difficulty—to be unable to grasp the complex grammar of classical Greek was an embarrassment to whatever ego I had, and brought me to tears, as I was failing the class miserably for nearly four months. I asked our professor repeatedly how I could do better, she gave the same answer each time—‘memorize, everyday’, ‘memorize, everyday’ almost like a mantra. I decided that I would take her up on her challenge and prove her wrong that even with such studying, the class was far too difficult. Sure enough however, my pride went before the fall (Prov. 16:18), and she was right. I memorized and studied everyday, and ended the course with an A.

            However, this does not mean that your professors are always right about everything that they may advise or teach. It is here where we must come to the straight-forward reality of the campus of the University of Toronto, that will you meet people not only with different beliefs but conflicting beliefs to your own. The question then is how will one interact with the ‘other’. When it comes to your professors, the first thing that I can advise you, for I had seen it in many of my friends throughout my undergrad, is that when you encounter a professor who appears to be challenging your particular beliefs about something is- do not panic. Many Christian friends had continually asked throughout the course of my study—‘how has studying under liberal professors affected your faith?’, ‘how did you manage to keep your faith in the midst of all the criticism of the Bible you had learned?’ While, these questions were greatly appreciated, it is important to note that they came from a place of timidity and fear and what I always reminded them was, the professors were not out to destroy my faith. To be quite honest, most professors could probably care less about what you actually ‘believe’, what is important for them is that you understand the teaching material, not that you yourself subscribe to their point of view. I myself most assuredly changed some of my beliefs because of what I had been taught by professors, but, as equally important, I was all the more enriched and confirmed in some of my beliefs because of what professors had taught. The key was that at the end of the day I had to trust that I could engage 100% with the thoughts and worldviews presented to me, without my entire world falling apart. You may study something, and come out believing exactly as you did before, or you may study something and be utterly transformed, as all good education would do. But either of those outcomes must come from a willingness and courage to step out of your comfort zone.

            The question and challenge of the ‘other’, when it comes to your peers, can be best exemplified by my interaction with a Yugoslavian acquaintance of mine. In my pursuit of understanding science (and fulfilling my science distribution requirement, of course) I took a history and philosophy of science course. Unexpectedly, I had seen another guy who I knew from my middle school days in the same class—we were not on the best of terms. Whenever the topic of ‘religion’ came up amongst our mutual friends on Facebook or whatnot, inevitably we’d get caught up in those utterly time-consuming and ineffective internet-debates. He would accuse me of being an idiot, a Biblical literalist, and what not, where as I had overtly made the point that I was much more well-read than him and that because I felt that I was smarter than him, he should back-down. Well, this course in the history and philosophy of science could not have been a better situation to put an angry atheist and a proud Christian together in to see what would happen. Throughout our conversations and studying, I don’t think either of us actually persuaded one another about the truth of our particular stances but we did manage to laugh, interact, and even become friends. He became convinced that I was not a ‘religious’ idiot to be ignored, and I became convinced that his anger came from a real anguish over the conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. I learned not to use an intellectual status to clobber people into agreeing with me, and I’m sure that he learned that insults were not arguments.

            The reason that I relate this story to you is because in your new environment, if you walk, live, and study with your peers with a posture of trust towards that with which you have been brought to trust in, you can treat those ‘others’ in: (1) a hostile manner, imagining them your enemy, (2) an indifferent manner, imagining them as other objects essentially in your world to be tolerated, or (3) in love toward them, imagining them as, while fully being the mysterious ‘other’ as, nevertheless, like you—fragile, scared, anxious, and a whole other host of issues that afflict students today. The interaction between my Yugoslavian friend and myself, is a great example of the third. We were enemies, at first we tolerated each other, but the more that we saw that though we were an ‘other’ to each other, that if we did really trust our beliefs, trust in that which we believed to be the ground of our being—then there was no fear needed to be had.

            Lastly, however, I must tell you about my extremely traumatic encounter with an issue every student faces, anxiety. During the summer after the third year of my undergrad, I had a GPA of 3.6 and I had been awarded a student award of excellence scholarship, for which I would work on a research project with my one of favorite professors, Dr. John S. Kloppenborg, throughout this summer. During the summer however, I had a very unexpected onset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a result of guilt over sexual-related anxieties, and isolation due to the research project. The aspect of myself that I had most trust in, and had relied upon for my entire university career, my brain, had begun to fail me. In OCD the brain alerts you of your worst fears, no matter how irrational and the more one tries to get rid of those fears with every little practice the worse it gets because you have now alerted and taught your brain that there really is something to fear. My fearful obsessions had me hospitalized for a week due to sleep and food deprivation to the point of thoughts of suicide. In a matter of weeks I had went from viewing myself as a top scholar to the psychiatric ward at St. Joseph’s hospital, in the company of those who were much more mentally afflicted than I. During my time in the ward, my grades, my scholarship, my learning meant nothing, for at the end of the day I was as fragile and weak as anyone else there who I may have considered myself as having an advantage over before. Through a process of medication, therapy, and an understanding of the deep love of God that I could trust no matter what, I recovered in time to bring the research to a close and start my final year of university, not knowing whether I would be able to handle it. The most important lesson then that I have to offer you is, that as a student of a particular ‘religious’ faith, you can boldly trust that while you may not always have it together, there is a love in the universe that cares for you. That may sound sentimental to anyone that has not had their ‘life’s-breakdown’ moment yet, but, to those who are keenly aware of their own fragility and anxiety ridden nature, the news that one can trust that there is a love greater than you and whatever broken things you may have relied upon, is good.

            Hopefully, now having helped you initially navigate what it means to be a student of faith, and how you should interact with your peers and professors in how you hold your beliefs, I’d like to leave you with some helpful tips to take full advantage of the resources available to you at the University of Toronto, as you grow, learn new things, possibly change some of your beliefs, while holding others in even a more trustful manner than before. One of the most wonderful attributes about the campus (and, not to mention, something which McGill has nothing like, haha) is the Multi-Faith centre (https://www.multifaith.utoronto.ca) , located at the Koffler House (569 Spadina Ave), which hold various events and conversations intentionally so that students from different faith traditions can meet, interact, and grow. On their website you can find the Campus Chaplains Association to find leaders of various faith traditions, as well as lists of the various faith communities on campus, with whom you can feel at home with. Another tremendous resource available to you at the University of Toronto for students of faith, is the immense library catalogue that the university is home to (http://onesearch.library.utoronto.ca). If you encounter an issue with which you have had not dealt with before, i.e. the textual history of the Qu’ran, Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of religion, transgender people, chances are there is someone from one’s particular tradition that has written on the subject that can help you react to that as you navigate and enjoy your life as a student.  While much more could have been said or advised, it is the hope of this writer that you will have enough trust to take the next steps yourself, and to share the light you encounter with others as I have endeavor to do so here. May you be blessed by the reading of this reflection. May you trust that the ground of your being can handle any question or trouble you may encounter. May you treat others as sites of love and not battle-grounds. Finally, may you find home in community as you engage, explore, endure, ponder, question, and live life as the gift that it is at the University of Toronto.


Caleb Upton


The Necessity of Charity in Criticism: A Review of Michael Coren’s “Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity” (McClelland & Stewart: 2014)

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Authorial Note: My father and Michael Coren have been friends for a number of years, and with such being the case, my father, whom I love and respect, invited Coren to speak on his most recent book, Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity” (McClelland & Stewart: 2014). 51A86Et6KwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ My father and myself came to varying opinions on the work after having both read it. Having myself grown up in a largely Muslim immigrant community, having a number of good friends and acquaintances who are Muslims, having studied the Qur’an for a semester at the University of Toronto, and being extremely concerned with the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Canada and throughout the world- I felt a strong conviction to write a review of this work. While critical of the work in the most important matters, my review will nevertheless attempt to be more charitable concerning the argument in the work than Coren was toward Islam within it to illustrate a much larger lesson concerning public dialogue and criticism, that, as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in The Sorrow’s of Young Werther (1774), “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.” [daß Mißverständnisse und Trägheit vielleicht mehr Irrungen in der Welt machen als List und Bosheit. Wenigstens sind die beiden letzteren gewiß seltener.] It is in that spirit that I will approach Mr. Coren’s work, its criticism, and perhaps try to illumine both sides of this discussion, as someone who is an intellectual Christian much like Mr. Coren himself, but will argue that i) because Mr. Coren’s work misunderstands, social location in determining ‘religion’, the nature of violence, and Islamic, as well as Christian, theology Mr. Coren’s work is deeply flawed and in some respects, even if unintentionally, dangerous, and that ii) his misunderstandings should not be attributed to any deep racism, but rather just to that- misunderstandings, that were most likely the result of legitimate outrage over the suffering of those around the world, whom we call brothers and sisters. Lastly, much reference will also be made to the panel discussion concerning this work- ‘Who Speak for Islam?’ on The Agenda with Steve Paikin on Nov. 5th, 2014, because in many respects Coren is more concise in this discussion and the criticism of his work poignant. 

        “Some radical Muslims do see a place for ancient Christian communities…” is half a sentence one would not expect to see in a book titled Hatred: Islam’s War on Christianity (McClelland & Stewart: 2014) while the second half of the same sentence, “but few if any will allow and tolerate Muslims leaving their faith for another” (80), most certainly is. It is this confused, and half-answered questioning nature of Michael Coren’s work that leaves the reader either angry at the argument presented in it, or sympathetic to the general outlook of the work because it does seem well moderated.  The only entirely clear aspect of the work perhaps is that it is not a scholarly work, nor simple objective journalism- it is a work of advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world- an issue which most can agree does not get enough coverage in the media for reasons of either outright anti-Christian bigotry or simply because, as well expressed by Ron Csillag in the Toronto Star,* “Persecution of Christians just doesn’t compute. After all, it’s the faith of record in the world’s richest and most powerful countries, where Christians have been ensconced for centuries.” However, when advocating for a cause there must be three things entirely clear and reasonable/desirable, none of which, unfortunately, are in Coren’s work: (1) on whose account one is advocating, (2) for what cause is one advocating or what problem one is trying to address, and (3) what are the proposed solutions to the problem. To give a simple illustration as to why it is vitally important to get these three aspects correct: imagine if you will someone wanted to advocate (1) on behalf of the minority Muslim community in Myanmar, (2) to address the violence and genocidal-like policies implement against them by the largely Theravada Buddhist population and government,** and (3) to eradicate Buddhism from the region through counter-terrorism operations and forced conversion to Hinduism. Now immediately we can see the problematic nature of having not defined and made reasonable/desirable any one of the three aspects here. In this example, defining the group for whom one is advocating solely on the basis of religious affiliation misses entire strands of ethnic conflict and makes it appear as if the Islamic identity of this group is the sole sufficient factor to explain this phenomenon.*** If the second aspect of the problem is not made clarified by reference to the nationalist pride many have against this population, then the problem will be construed as a problem of ‘religious’ ideology and not one also based in problematic state power and governance. Lastly, the solution was construed as a response to the problem of ‘Buddhism’, and it would be a terrible solution because it would create more problems than it solved in trying to eradicate it. We can see then that it is vitally important that in a work of journalistic advocacy such as Coren’s book, that the three aspects of who one is advocating for, what problem is being addressed, and what solutions to the problem are being proposed, are clearly defined and reasonable/desirable.

        On whose account Coren is advocating for, one would think that it is a fairly straightforward answer: Christian populations persecuted by Muslims throughout the world. To Coren’s credit he is quite critical even of US foreign policy with regards to the Middle East, writing in relation to the 2003 Iraq war that it was, “A war fought ostensibly to keep Christians safe in Ohio and Alabama” but “has made the lives of Christians living in Baghdad and Mosul completely unbearable” (56). However, even with regards to this first aspect, it is not entirely clear. Towards the end of this work Coren tries to argue that Islamic persecution of Christians occurs even throughout North America and Europe in the form of recent attacks such as The Fort Hood massacre in 2009, the Boston Marathon bombings, and much more. Coren puts these attacks in essentially the same category as all the other attacks mentioned throughout the work because they “All evince a total contempt for Christian values…the perpetrators refer to the need for Islam to dominate and conquer Christianity” (160). It is here where Coren’s problem lies because his work is not merely a work of advocacy in defence of persecuted Christian populations, it is a work in defence of the Christian tradition and ‘Western Civilization’ in general. Despite being critical of US foreign policy, Coren’s work begins with a minimizing of the cruelty and importance of the medieval Crusades (27-41). The discussion of this history should not be at all necessary in a work that desires to stand on behalf of persecuted Christians of the present time- it would however be necessary in a work that sought to portray Christians as inherently peaceful and Muslims as inherently violent- something which, despite Coren’s constant protesting on Steve Paikin’s The Agenda, is something which this work constantly engages in. The question Coren consistently asks throughout this work is,

“…whether the persecution of Christians by Muslims is a modern aberration, an abuse of the Koran, a misunderstanding of the teachings of Mohammad, or something intrinsic and integral to the Muslim faith. In other words, are moderate Muslims the true believers or is it the fundamentalists who have properly understood the message correctly?” (80)

While this is an interesting question, it is a dangerous question for someone who is not an adherent of the Islamic faith to answer in a work concerning advocacy. It is dangerous precisely because it should not be left up to an English Catholic to decide what is orthodox Islam and what is heretical, for this is a properly theo-ethical question that should be left to those of the Islamic faith to decide for themselves concerning their tradition, not a question that can be answered by an appeal to the ‘essence’ of Islam, as discerned by someone who does not privilege the truth value of Islam in the first place. Coren himself would immediately recognize the inappropriateness of someone who is not a Catholic to tell a Catholic, such as Coren, what he should believe and what he should not believe according to Catholic teaching- the question of what is orthodox and what is heretical according to a faith tradition is a essential theo-ethical question that should be left to the adherents, not to an outside tribunal.+

        To Coren’s credit he quotes a number of different people who all give various answers to the question posed, but it is the very fact that he feels its a question that could be decided by everyone is a form of cultural imposition that engages in a colonial discourse of the worst kind. american_sniperNot only does Coren highly suggest that Islam is inherently violent, but according to his reading of Christian theology and Christian history, one would think that the Christian faith has seldom ever been used to justify violence. Coren has a seeming complete lack of awareness (or admittance) to the fact that Christian Dominionism is currently one strong component in the ideological justification for US militarism. The recent film American Sniper (Warner Bros, 2015)depicts but one example of how the Cross of Christian theology was turned into an emblem of war for the justification of violence in our most recent military conflicts. Now while any Christian is free to rejoice in Coren’s estimation that “…Christians behave violently in spite and not because of the teachings of Jesus Christ” (20), it does take a special form of historical privilege to ignore and underplay, as much as Mr. Coren has, the role that some forms of Christian theology have played in justifying militarism and violence.++

        As for the second aspect of advocacy, that of what problem one is trying to address, again, one would think that the answer would be quite clear: the persecution of Christian populations by Muslims around the world. With regards to this, it must be clearly said that Coren is to be commended for drawing more attention to this reality- any attention that is given to any persecuted and discriminated minority around the world is a step-forward. Despite Shabir Ally’s protestations on Paikin’s panel and his improper invocation of Candida Moss’s work The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom (Harperone: 2014), the reality of Christians being persecuted throughout the world is not a paranoid dream of the Christian right in the United States- the paranoid dream of the Christian Right in the United States is that they themselves are being persecuted. In addition, what we cannot do in this instance is protest that Coren should have addressed in full manner other instances of Christians being persecuted by non-Muslims such as in China or North Korea- books of a popular nature need to be limited in scope. What then is the confusion with regard to this second aspect? It simply comes down to what is the nature of the ‘persecution’ of which Coren writes about? Coren gives an impressive litany of instances of Christians being discriminated against, injured, raped, and killed throughout the world in a panorama of violence only differentiated significantly by geography. He has one simple purpose in presenting it in this manner, in order to show that “…the notion that Islamic hatred toward Christianity is purely a geographical or politically local phenomenon is simply untrue” (13). Framing it in this manner then signifies the problem as Islam itself- the problem then Coren is addressing is not simply Christians being persecuted by Muslims, but the fact that in Coren’s estimation there appears to be something inherent in Islam, which when fully imbibed by the adherent, would compel them to commit violence against Christians, and that therefore, its not simply that some Muslims use Islamic theology and rhetoric as part of their ideological defence for their violence, its that Islam itself creates and not merely supports the very violence that these people commit. Coren’s perspective is not only problematic in terms of its strong idealism (in the philosophical sense) but also in terms of Christian theology. In terms of the strong idealism, as Mohammad Fadel, the associate Professor and Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto on Paikin’s panel rightfully points out, its doubtful how much Islamic theology really has to do with this issue because most people frankly are rather ignorant concerning theology, and furthermore, in addition to Fadel’s point, it is doubtful how much a person’s study of theology would impact their behaviour at all- just because one reads the Qur’an daily does not mean one will more likely persecute Christians then does one reading the Sermon on the Mount everyday mean that one will more likely ‘turn the other cheek’.

        From the perspective of Christian theology, there are two extremely odd aspects in Coren’s work, the first of which is related to this second aspect of advocacy. One would think that Coren is advocating for these persecuted Christians as a Christian himself, but while Coren is a Christian it does not appear as if Coren is arguing within a Christian theological framework at all. For Coren to centralize the problem of the persecution of Christians by the hand of Muslims at the feet of Islam  betrays a profound ignorance, whether intentional or unintentional, of the nature of evil as well expounded by in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with strong resonance in Christian theology, that ““If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” (The Gulag Archipelago, Part 1, “The Bluecaps”). What Solzhenitsyn saw was the same truth articulated by the Apostle Paul that “…there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:22-23, RSV). For Coren to effectively argue that Islam is the problem is actually not only necessarily ‘off the mark’ according to ‘secular’ reasoning but even dangerously confines of the problem of the manifestation of this evil to Islamic ideology rather than to human sin and rebellion against God, which much of Christian theology would teach and suggest.

        Lastly, concerning the third aspect of advocacy, that of what are the proposed solutions to the problem, it is here where Coren is most obscure, and once again where Coren does not seem to argue within a Christian theological framework though he is a Christian advocating on behalf of persecuted Christians. Near the very end of the work Coren writes, “Christian forgiveness is vital in all this but the new equation has to begin with the cessation by Muslims throughout the world of their hateful campaign against innocent Christians.” (176) One cannot help but wonder what the ‘new equation’ is. For the sake of being charitable we shall refrain from speculating as to what Coren might mean by the ‘new equation’ and why it, as opposed to the older equations, requires more than just forgiveness, but all the same it seems as if part of the solution in Coren’s view is not only do Muslims need to speak out more, but for North American and European governments to overcome their guilt-complex of their Christian past and in some manner intervene on the behalf of the Christian minorities throughout the world whether through boycott or sanctions (quoting approvingly Farzana Hassan, 166-167). If Coren thought that Muslims throughout the world were falsely accusing the ‘West’ of conducting crusades in the Middle East before, it can be said with absolute certainty that if North American and European governments were to begin to explicitly advocate and intervene on behalf of Christian minorities in the Middle East that not a single soul would be mistaken in labelling the campaign a crusade. In Fulcher of Chartres’ account of Pope Urban II’s speech at the council of Clermont in advocating for the first of the crusade campaign in 1095, the Pope argues that,

“…you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them. For, as the most of you have heard, the Turks and Arabs have attacked them and have conquered the territory of Romania [the Greek empire] as far west as the shore of the Mediterranean and the Hellespont, which is called the Arm of St. George. They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire.”+++

It is not too much of a stretch to say that much of the discourse in which Coren and others engage in replicates a similar call for action with little difference other than the use of less explicit ‘religious’ language and without an explicit call to military action- though, in the only moment of speculation of Coren’s views we shall engage in here, that call cannot be too far from the surface.

        The second of the odd aspects of Coren’s work in relation to Christian theology aforementioned in relation to this third aspect of advocacy, is the complete absence of any thought that Muslims could be converted out of Islam by missionary activity  or that Islamic theology could be reformed. The call to proselytize or evangelize the Islamic world is exactly what Coren does not advocate for, and that is extremely interesting because in spite of his defence of the Christian faith he does not argue for the most easily associable Christian proposition that Muslims need to be converted to Christianity through preaching and persuasion. Instead, it would seem, that Coren, in desiring to cater to the values of ‘Western civilization’, appeals to human rights and other such values of the ‘Enlightenment’  while at the same time despising the ‘liberalism’ to which he is appealing to! The call to missionary activity and conversion, it could be argue, would be actually more controversial than proposed military action or sanctions, as it would be called a form of cultural imperialism by those who despise ethnocentrism and a denigrating of Islamic culture, and yet Coren does not appeal to this despite his own distain for aspects of Islamic culture. If the common rallying cry in relation to ‘terrorism’- that the ideology of Islamism must be fought with an ideology be true, as Coren does seem to agree to some extent- then the Christian tradition, which as Coren acknowledges has produced a strong pacifist stream of thought and adherents (18-19), can be but one of many bases to be appeal to in order to counter-act the ideology of Islamism- instead Coren appeals to and wants to employ secular state power in the service of the Christian tradition rather than appeal to the God and the call of the great commission, which the Christian tradition by-and-large argues one should appeal to. Even in a secular ideological framework, there should be no argument against the right of people from various ‘religious’ traditions to evangelize and share their faith through speech and persuasion, rather than coercion and state-power, in order to convert people from one tradition to another- no matter how much you yourself may disagree with that tradition.

        More than this however, Coren seems to display an utter willingly ignorance of Islamic history and theology, if he truly believes that, in quoting approvingly of the Roman Catholic priest Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, that “The absolute nature of the Qu’ran makes dialogue all the more difficult, because there is very little room for interpretation, if at all.” (174) In the spirit of charity one cannot fault Coren for not knowing Arabic, for not giving an exhaustive history of Islam, for not quoting every passage in the Qu’ran or the Hadith and much else in such a brief and limited-in-scope work- however, one can fault Coren for not looking to basic authorities on Islam and its history of interpretation in those instances in which Coren does wish to make authoritative and argumentative statements concerning those topics. To appeal to a Roman Catholic priest to make an authoritative statement concerning Islamic theology is as grave an insult and stupidity as ‘new atheists’ who appeal to the historical myths propagated by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as authoritative in discussion of Church history.  Jane Dammen McAuliffe’s (Ed.) The Cambride Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge University press: 2006), an introductory scholarly text often given to undergraduate students, would more than suffice to show that Islamic history and interpretation is much more complex than many in the ‘mainstream’ media, including Coren himself, appear to think. For instance, it may come as a great surprise to Coren and others that one of the most influential works of Islamic exegesis of the past century, namely In the Shadow of the Qur’an of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), which influenced the Iranian revolution (1979), the Shi’i Hezbollah (hizb Allah, ‘party of God’) in Lebanon, and the Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, explicitly appeals to western concepts such as ‘revolution’, ‘social justice’, and ‘democracy’.^ It is Coren’s nihilism about the potential for future Islamic theological reform, ignorance about current Islamic theological reform, and ignorance about past Islamic theological reform that lead to views such as Coren’s which see Islam and its adherents as irredeemably violent and in need of quelling and control by Western intervention.

        We have striven to critique Coren’s work in the most charitable and fair manner possible, treating it as a work of journalistic advocacy, not as a scholarly tome- and it is in this vein that we very carefully discerned and found wanting all three aspects of advocacy in Coren’s work, namely: (1) on whose account one is advocating, (2) for what cause is one advocating or what problem one is trying to address, and (3) what are the proposed solutions to the problem. However rather than delving into much more that could have been discussed concerning this work, it is proposed here that the principle of charity, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount of “…whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them…” (Matt. 7:12, RSV), is a necessity in criticism. Coren’s work, if it had been conducted in this manner would have treated Islam with the same fairness, respect, and knowledgeableness that Coren would expect critics of Catholicism to have when they speak on Catholicism- it obviously did not. Advocacy is difficult to navigate not because there is not enough to be angry about, but because our own anger is inevitably entangled in the process of perpetuating the very problems we seek to resolve. Coren is extremely sincere in his advocacy for those whom we consider brothers and sisters. Christians around the world are being discriminated against, persecuted, and killed because of their ‘religious’ affiliation, and it is something which much of our media simply ignores out of cowardice or simple disbelief. In advocating for the relief of their suffering however it is extremely important that we do not become merely those who advocate for the ‘other side’ of the struggle, but that we become the type of people who see the struggle entirely differently- that we do not become merely those who advocate that we need to be more assertive in the imposition of our values, but instead seek ourselves to be more faithful to our values- and finally, that we do not merely become those who will implement the cross as a weapon, but those who would be willing to die upon it.


Csillag, Ron. “Christianity arguably the most persecuted religion in the world.” The Toronto Star, December 4, 2010, sec. News/ Insight. http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2010/12/04/christianity_arguably_the_most_persecuted_religion_in_the_world.html#.

** For more on this see: Ellick, Adam B., and Nicholas Kristof. “Myanmar’s Persecuted Minority.” The New York Times. June 16, 2014, sec. Opinion. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/06/16/opinion/nicholas-kristof-myanmar-documentary.html.

*** Not to say that it is not ‘a’ important part of the account. In Kristof’s reporting we can see how these genocidal-like policies of the Myanmar government are in part ‘justified’ by appeal to the fear that this Muslim minority will become violent because Islam is inherently violent. An important appeal and set of policies to look out for when we survey our own North American context, and something which we can only pray will not be advocated for or occur here. 

+ The principle equally applies to those politicians who are not Muslims that nevertheless designate ISIS as ‘monsters’ not Muslims. The fact is that as to whether or not ISIS and groups like them are Muslims or not is an issue that the Muslim community should decide for itself. The Muslim community does not need the guidance of western Christians to determine who is a ‘true’ follower of THEIR faith. We can only go off the basis of their own self-proclaimation, and ISIS claims to be Muslim, and therefore we should take them at their word- it is up to the rest of the Muslims community to judge ISIS’s claim. 

++ For more on Christian Dominionism in the United States and Canada see: Hedges, Chris. American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. (Free Press: 2007); McDonald, Marci. The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Vintage Canada: 2011); Phillips, Kevin. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. (Penguin Books: 2007).

+++ Halsall, Paul, ed. “Medieval Sourcebook:  Urban II (1088-1099):  Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095,  Five versions of the Speech.” Fordham University Press, December 1997. Internet Medieval Source Book. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/urban2-5vers.html.

^ Wild, Stefan. “Political interpretation of the Qur’an.” in The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe (Cambridge University Press: 2006), 282-283.; For more on ISIS’s modern influences in particular see: McDonald, Kevin. “Isis jihadis aren’t medieval – they are shaped by modern western philosophy.” the Guardian, September 9, 2014, sec. Comment is Free. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/09/isis-jihadi-shaped-by-modern-western-philosophy.

Satan’s Temptations in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy pt. 1

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        Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) in his masterpiece within the masterpiece of The Brothers Karamazov, ‘The Grand Inquisitor‘, as well as Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910) in his The Gospel in Brief, both, as the master Russian novelists that they are, comment on, recapitulate, and in some manner ‘translate’, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) with varying interesting results. Since they both take the temptations in the Matthean order of the temptations, we shall take them in that order as well, as we compare Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel accounts together to see how this story serves not only as as Dostoyevsky saw them, as the ‘but three human phrases’ in which ‘the entire future history of the world and mankind’ was enveloped, nor only as Tolstoy saw them, as part of ‘the only doctrine which gives a meaning to life’, but also as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation, and pointing to our way out of the systems that enslave us.

Dostoyevsky, 1871

Dostoyevsky, 1871

        Of the first temptation, of that changing the stones into bread, Dostoyevsky in his portrayal of the Inquisitor’s understanding of the temptations, anticipates by almost a hundred years John Howard Yoder, who argues in The Politics of Jesus (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing: 1994) that the temptations of Satan to Jesus were not temptations to sin, but rather temptations to differing options of how to be a Messiah/King. Satan is not, in this understanding, attempting to get Jesus to sin or prove that he is the Son of God, but rather to influence Jesus’ entire missional program as the Messiah from the beginning. Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor understands that the temptation Satan was offering Jesus in the wilderness, was not to satisfy Jesus’ own hunger alone- as if the Son of God could be tempted with a wafer!- no, the temptation was to use the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. Tolstoy, sadly, misses this entire schema, ironically, because he was reading the narrative in the ascetic manner, most likely the same manner that the established Russian Orthodox church of his period, which Tolstoy rebelled against,  did- as a narrative about the primacy of spirit over flesh for individual conscience. In Tolstoy’s reading, Satan is tempting Jesus to do a magic trick to prove that he is the Son of God, and, with Tolstoy’s typical antipathy for the miraculous, Jesus refuses to perform it because his spirit has no need for material bread- a dangerous asceticism most certainly. But the narrative, as in the Gospel account, does not show the disregard Tolstoy has for the material- as a dear friend used to say at breakfast, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but it helps’. But what of this idea that people could be enslaved by the promise of material prosperity? Dostoyevsky puts into the mouth of his Inquisitor the words, speaking to Jesus, “Are you aware that centuries will pass, and mankind will proclaim with the lips of its wisdom and science that there is no crime and consequently no sin either, but only the hungry. ‘Feed them, and then ask virtue of them!'” He further elaborates that the Catholic-esque state would be willing to be the paternal father-like character to the hungry and feed them, for the price of their freedom, for mankind left to his own freedom would never be able to share, and that this state, in the figure of the Inquisitor, will care for the weak, unlike Jesus, whose commands they view as only for the strong. Yes, they will be slave masters, but benevolent ones, who at the end of the day actually love those whom they enslaved.

        Dostoyevsky anticipated the rise of the socialist states of the 20th century with remarkable foresight, but rather than denounce the ‘welfare state’ against the liberty of free-market capitalism, the task is to point out that the temptation story in the wilderness is not about the temptation of Jesus to achieve utopia, as if the Messiah really had an inner struggle with whether he wanted people to be fed or not,* but of using ‘prosperity’ as the dangling carrot in front of the masses to persuade one to follow him. It is for this exact reason that the general trend, historically, has been that those colonial powers who desired to convert their subjugated peoples to the Christian faith were actually the most counter-productive in their aims of subjugation- they did not promise them material prosperity alone, and therefore the subjugated were not concerned merely to obtain the ‘white-man’s’ wealth, but believed themselves to have direct access to the divine. Dana L. Robert argues in her summation of this colonial history that,

“Another important factor in understanding the ambiguous relationship between missions and imperialism before decolonization was the importance of missionary schools. Christian missions pioneered Western learning in the non-Western world. In 1935 missions were running nearly 57,000 schools throughout the world, including more than one hundred colleges. Mission schools promoted literacy in both European languages and vernaculars, and they spread Western ideals of democratic governance, individual rights, and the educability of women and girls. Despite their limitations, missions through education provided local leadership with the tools it needed to challenge foreign oppression.”**

They did not merely want ‘bread’ but ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’. Many, like Matthew Parris once did, say that while they applaud the morally good works and benefits of missionaries around the world in building hospitals, schools, and whatnot, they do not believe that Africa or any other impoverished country needs the ‘religion’, the ‘faith’, that these proselytizers are trying to sell to the masses. But, as Parris and other atheists may have surely discovered,

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.***

Furthermore, Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor and the Satan figure in the Gospels both imply the same accusation against Christ- that he is too heartless- and the same boast of themselves- that they are the ones who ‘really’ care, as opposed to those that merely want to enslave people with ‘religion’. Those that accuse the Christian faith of such and such atrocity here or there will almost never forget to leave out the fact that their humanitarian organizations, while likewise helping people, do not suffer them to believe ridiculous things- for the Christians just want converts whereas the humanitarians really want to help people.

        The problem occurs then as to what constitutes ‘help’. G.K. Chesterton (1847-1936), in his essay ‘The Orthodox Barber’ found in the collection Tremendous Trifles, begins by stating- “Those thinkers who cannot believe in any gods often assert that the love of humanity would be in itself sufficient for them; and so, perhaps, it would, if they had it.” Chesterton’s point was the lack of joy in the love of the highly humanistic rationalists of his day, but for our purposes it suffices to point out that we should not assume that ‘secularists/humanists’ and  the ‘religious’ share the same definition of ‘love’, or ‘help’. For many of the former, love is mostly equivalent to generosity of material need and toleration of the cultural difference of the other, whereas for the later quite often love is the desire to transform the other, for the purposes of the overall betterment of them, even if that requires the self-sacrifice of the reputation of the lover in the short-term. Alas, it would seem that both of these impulses are beset by a central contradiction in the colonial mind-set of separation versus homogenization. For some of the former, the separation is in part advanced by the narrative of how pure the ‘savage’s’ culture is in comparison to the decadence of the ‘west’, and by this narrative the colonized are kept separate from fully enjoying the life, both materially and else wise, of the colonizer. For some of the second-group, the ‘religious’, the desire is to homogenize the colonized so they may become, in the words of the Gospel of Matthew, ‘twice as much a child of hell as [they] are’ (23:15), though under the guise of love and transformation, while an indigenous culture is destroyed.

        While affirming that there is no escaping the difficultly of the second half of the dilemma, namely the destruction that comes with homogenization, it does appear to be the case that homogenization may have a certain ‘kick-back’ effect of creating a group of equals from the colonized that choose to rebel as equals against the colonizers, that the method of the separation of the dominated colonized does not have.

Adidas Shackle Shoes

Adidas Shackle Shoes

        Consider the case of two Hip-Hop artists, namely, Soulja Boy and Immortal Technique, two very different artists altogether. Soulja Boy in 2008 was heavily criticized for saying, “Shout out to the slave masters! Without them we’d still be in Africa. We wouldn’t be here to get this ice and tattoos.” His cry is mimicked by the cry of the masses given by Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor, ‘Enslave us if you will, but feed us.’ Soulja Boy was separated, and kept separate by the promise of material prosperity, ‘Sure’ white supremacist institutions would say, ‘he is not free, he’s an idiot, but at least he’s a happy idiot. We got him out of poverty, we took him from ashy to classy, and turned his stones into bread!’ Whereas an artist like Immortal Technique in his song, Civil War, from his 2011 release The Martyr, raps, “And white execs that love to see us in that position/ They reflect the stereotypes of America’s vision/ They want us dancing, cooning and hollering/ Only respect us for playing sports and modelling/ More than racism: it’s stay in your place-ism/ More people are trapped in practical blackface-ism”. ‘Stay in your place-ism’ is an extremely potent phrase for the colonial method of separation described earlier. What is more interesting is that in some sense Immortal Technique, or Felipe Andres Coronel, is himself the product of political science courses at Baruch College in New York City after spending sometime in prison. He was separated, and then there was the attempt to homogenize through higher education, but in the process, his higher education led to his rebellion against the very systems of the prison-industrial complex and corporate sponsored education out of which he came.

        Dostoyevsky’s depiction of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, then, is a profound insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels in its character as a resistance of the use of the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. Such a promise of material prosperity is now essentially the new neo-colonial method used by global institutions and corporations to lure the formerly colonized nations into a relationship that effectively still keeps them separated and dominated. For all the talk of how much material development will be brought about, it is still only a promise based upon the enslavement of international monetary standards, debt payment, and much-else. When Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”, he is quoting the tradition of his Hebrew ancestors from the Book of Deuteronomy, where the admonishment is to an enslaved people to remind them not to forget the God of freedom that lead them out of slavery and into prosperity, by the very means of the rest of their consciences brought about by their prosperity. The God of the hebrews understands that the promise of material prosperity is one of the most effect means by which a formerly enslaved people can become once again slaves and slave masters themselves. The Kingdom of God brought about by Jesus is not built upon the promise to become wealthy, and to not worry about the state of your minds and hearts. If the rest of the world has any hope of coming into new relationships of equality, freedom, and justice, they will need more than the mere benefits of western prosperity, they will need the same transformation of conscience the western world itself needs, brought by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The figure of Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor though notes that ‘if at the same time someone takes mastery of his conscience without your knowledge- oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow the one who seduces his conscience. In that you were right.’ It is in the further temptations of Satan where we see how Jesus resists the ways our world enslaves our consciences, and chooses another path for his Kingdom.

Astute readers will note that Jesus several times in the Gospels performs the very miracle of multiplying food to feed hungry people.

** Robert, Dana L. “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 2 (April 2000): 50–58.

*** Parris, Matthew. “Matthew Parris: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God – Times Online.” Blog Re-post. RichardDawkins.net, January 7, 2009. http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/3502-matthew-parris-as-an-atheist-i-truly-believe-africa-needs-god.

Journey ‘Away From’ Scotland, ep. 8- The Epilogue: Toronto Return

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          At this moment, the lack of motivation, time, and general overall stability has kept me from writing on this blog, 2000 words a week, as per my original discipline, but I had to let life happen. Coming back to Toronto, the city I remembered as the winter tundra land I visited in December and had every desire to leave again, greeted me with much more warmth, both metaphorical and literal, this time around thankfully. For economic reasons I had to depart from Edinburgh, a city that had stolen my heart, and everyday I still miss it terribly- the history, the beauty, the friends I had made, student life in general, the pubs, the clean air, the confidence and stability, the joy of living independently, and (as a recall to my first post about my journey) the spirituality of learning how to live as a Christian disciple as best as I could conceive of it. Before I let you all know how I have adjusted and ‘settled’ (will I ever be again?) in Toronto, I would like to do something, at least in an informal manner, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile- list some practices and disciplines that I would ideally follow to become a better disciple of Jesus throughout life. My current reading, that of Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief (1896), has in part inspired this, for while I do not agree with Tolstoy in every respect concerning the Gospels and the Christian faith, I have appreciated very much his desire to distill Jesus’ teaching into very simple monastic-rules- orthopraxy is just as important as orthodoxy. Some of these I had begun to do in a very devoted manner back in Scotland, while others are yet to be realized, but its all what I have contemplated.

  • Give away all the change in my wallet to any homeless person I may see on the street- a spirit of radical generosity has to be cultivate before critical suspicion can have its way.
  • Have friends over for tea once a week- no need to spend money vainly to have friends, hospitality will always beat entertainment.
  • Write once a week, 2000 words- reflection is important for an active mind, as it allows one to build upon one’s experiences, and helps others to learn from them.
  • Schedule readings, both Bible and otherwise- often we find that we don’t think we have time to read, but once its scheduled it gives structure to instruction.
  • Begin prayers everyday as a review- when anxious, I find that looking outside of myself, both at external circumstances and other’s own situations that it helps to get out of the tyranny of emotional subjectivity that often drive us to fear, anxiety, and despair.
  • Have as few possessions as possible- the less you own, the less responsiblity you devote to those things, and the more you devote to wealth in heaven.
  • Abstain from the sports industrial complex- the amount of money and suffering caused by it, is absolutely obscene.
  • Abstain from debates over any textual medium such as computers or phone- text, depersonalizes a person’s thinking, allowing one to become more vicious in an argument and actually miss the point.
  • Devote one self unconditionally to a Church community, as if they were your own family- Let me just refer you to this last essay :)

These are just my causal ruminations of course, but it’s a start. Now onto TORONTO!

          One of my chief goals in having returned into Toronto was to get some sort of a job in order to pay off the immense amount of student debt I accumulated over the past year (though it was totally worth it!!!), and thankfully the Lord more then readily provided. Within a week and a half I landed two interviews, took the one job, and am awaiting a second interview for the second job later in October. The first job is as an overnight tasking position at the Indigo store at Bay and Bloor- looks like a lot of my earnings will go toward books!! hahaha, well hopefully I can have some self-control. It has been a bit of an adjustment to work 10pm-6am, but thankfully the Lord has kept my mind steady and awake to get the right sleep and to enjoy the work the best I can. The second job, I can’t talk much about but its for a pastoral position of sorts at a Church downtown. I have had meetings with them, and the much more formal interviews will be taking place in October. If you’ve kept up-to-date with me, you’ll know that this past year in Scotland has brought me great clarity as to how God wants me to invest my time and abilities. Trading the lectern for the pulpit, though someday day I may return to the lectern, I have decided to pursue the ministry, so needless to say I’m really hoping that this second job turns out well. I’ll most certainly Skype or meet-up with anyone who wants to know more about how I have decided to pursue the ministry but in the shortest terms possible: everything in my life has prepared me for it, everyone in my life saw it, and now I’ve just admitted the vocation with joy to myself!

          Returning to Toronto has also had the blessing of seeing many of my good friends again, including a man who is my very heart, Greg Matthews, who is getting married soon and I’m delighted to attend :D I was thankfully able to rally many of my friends to a pool hall to catch-up, and to all my friends in Scotland (and around the world now I guess haha)- I hope that one day I’ll be able to get you all in the same room!!! I would love to see Ryan chat up politics with Jared! I would love to see everyone enjoy Sida’s amazing cooking! I would love to see Tobi and Mo chat it up about Hip-Hop! And two of my spiritual mentors, Dave Smith and David Nixon chat about theology! One day friends, one day!! While I have missed many things about Scotland, like the food, the scenery, and the clear air (did I mention that Toronto recently has smelled like weed has been laced in the air almost anywhere you go?), I have missed serving and ministering at Carrubbers Christian Centre. I’ve learned more about what it must be like to be a pastor in a year there then many years in Toronto combined (no offence to my home church though!).

          Another thing I can give everyone a bitter-sweet update about: Hip-Hop. As some of you may know, while I’ve been doing my Master’s degree and all (no biggie, haha), I’ve also been at work writing, and assembling production from all the homies- like Rel McCoy, Fresh Kils, Royce Birth, and others- for my second album ‘Help My Discontent’, loosely based on my life interacting with the dilemma of gratefulness vs. discontent- well described, if I may say so, in this essay of mine! While I’m happy to say that I’ve written all of it (except for the features) and have it all put together- with even a first draft of recordings I did back in Scotland, thanks Tobi and Nick for coming with me and being an extra set of ears for that!- it most likely won’t be completed until sometime next year due to lack of funds that I can commit to it right now. I have an immense amount of debt and I need to take responsibility for it- I can’t commit any more money to HipHop right now, plus I’ve only just put out The Audacity of Dope last year!!! What you can anticipate however is that it will be as brilliant as the album cover prepared for me by my wonderfully talented friend Karima Dieleman!


Anyways friend, I don’t have any epic conclusions, only my love to send. If you like to skype sometime, here’s my name: caleb.upton. – Please contact me! :) I miss you all very much and I hope this post has been good to suffice as to how I’m doing back in Toronto

Peace and Love


Journey Through Scotland, ep. 7- The Finale

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          ‘To begin a goodbye is also to start a new hello’- is something I’ll repeatedly have to remind myself over the next couple of weeks as I say goodbye to a city, which has stolen my heart as the best placed I have ever lived. Toronto, I am sorry for being so overly critical of you over this past year, but Edinburgh is the perfect size, perfect mixed of natural beauty and human architecture, perfect cultural centre, perfect walking, and perfect weather city, I have thus far lived in. Speaking of cultural centre, I have been spending my last close-to-a-month now, catching various (well, not THAT various, as most of them have included some element of rap) shows across the city as part of Edinburgh’s historical Festival Fringe, which is the world’s largest arts festival, that runs through the whole month of August. Let me give you just a little brief on some of the highlights of  the shows I have seen:

1) Off the Top- basically a Canadian rapper freestyles as his neuroscientist wife explains what happens in the brain when someone improvises material. During the show they invite other performers around the Fringe to do improvised material and get the audience involved. And yes, to answer your question, I did a lil’ freestyling for the audience myself! Lindsay Abrams summarizes the research of the brain activity well: “The areas implicated in processes like organization and drive were marked by an increase in activity, while those parts responsible for close self-monitoring and editing were deactivated. In this context, the authors explain, “self-generated action is freed from the conventional constraints of supervisory attention and executive control,” allowing sudden insights, seemingly unbidden, to emerge.In other words, in order to turn on their creative flow, the rappers had to switch off their inner critic. And in fact, the researchers believe that when they’re freestyling, the artists are actually occupying an altered state of mind.” Needless to say, this was a extremely fun show.- The MC is Baba Brinkman, check him out.

2) The Philosorap Cabaret- basically a spoken word artist, Charlie Dupre, does a history of philosophy course, all while impersonating different philosophical figures as rap artists representing what they’re all about. One particular highlight was something, which, let’s be honest, we’ve all wanted to see for sometime now, a rap battle between God and Richard Dawkins. My personal favourite character of his was act as Friedrich Nietzsche as basically a crazy scrawny white kid with a superman hat that asked everyone if they liked Top Gun or some other apocalyptic movie. Brilliant.

3) The Rap Guide to Religion- Performed by the same Baba Brinkman that did the Off the Top show, Baba takes the audience through his rap album explaining the evolutionary history of Religion as a form of tribalism and species propagation. I was actually very impressed by his skills as a story-teller and how he was able to translate a lot of academic jargon into more simple speech. Of course, I’m not certain that I agreed with all of his arguments but I did love very much as to how gentle it was, it wasn’t aggressive or hostile to religious belief, though he himself is an atheist. If you would like a listen to the material, and possibly, being in love with it, want to support its animated album companion, check out: http://music.bababrinkman.com/album/religion-evolves AND of really awesome interest is his TedTalk on the History of Rhyme, for all of you that want to know what we’re all about :)

4) God on Trial- I originally saw in this its movie version, but as a play it was even more emotional. The basic story line is that a group of Jews during World War Two at a concentration camp have an emotionally heated but also quite substantial debate over whether the God of Israel is guilty of breaking his covenant with the Jewish people, due to the fact that their survival as a group is now severely in question. The ‘trial’ is also an excellent reflection upon the diversity of the Jewish people throughout Europe, from those who did not know they were Jewish, to the younger intellectuals, and to the older village rabbis. Most of all, what I really enjoyed about the story was how much it actually covered concerning the topic of theodicy/problem-of-evil without being overtly academic or heavy-handed. Its a really excellent script for anyone dealing with the problem-of-evil or the problem-of-suffering both in an intellectual and emotional way.

5) Hamlet- As my favourite of the Shakespeare plays, I knew I had to see a live production of this. Along with two other really good friends of mine, I saw the famous play take place in a surveillance society- the apparitions appeared on security cameras, several conversations were done over Skype, and scary techno music played the entire time. Most impressive was that the entire play was played by three actors who continually changed characters! So good.

          Aside from all the joys of the Fringe festival however, I’ve had a really great time saying goodbye to many of my classmates and people from church. ‘Everyone has a season in their life when they don’t know quite what the next step is, and now its my turn’ is what I would say to each of them in order to explain how, while I have decided to pursue the ministry, its not something they let one into very easily, and in the meantime I gotta pay some mean student debt. If I should work a retail job, I would really love a bookstore, so quite and peaceful. The smell of new book pages, helping customers find the ‘right’ next read, watching those in the coffee area attempt to write their own masterpieces- in many ways the bookstore is the university of the layman. But all and all, I just need to hustle, in the good ole’ fashion sense. I’m in the process of my second album, which, in order to get SOME revenue, I am going to have to sell, as opposed to letting people download it for free- I can’t afforded that right now (hahahaha). I’m going to try and send more of my many pieces I’ve written on this blog to various publishers, magazines, online stuff and what not, and see if I really could pursue writing or some king of journalism as a legitimate careers option- lord knows most media outlets have poor correspondents on religion. I’ll hopefully be giving some more sermons at my home congregation- I have this one three-part series in mind on the ‘two Christians’, the prophet and the custodian, and why we need both (don’t worry, it’ll sound a lot more profound once I’ve worked it all out :p ). Who knows what else I’ll pursue, but I got make the dough by almost any avenue possible over the next year to significantly decrease this over-bearing debt. Unless the revolution goes down, I gotta play the game.

          How should I end this? Well, I hope and am near certain that this will not be ‘goodbye’ forever, only the next little while. I have appreciate the generosity of many of the saints here such as David Dixon, Paul Barlow, Ray and Julia Kelly, Thom and Caroline Cunningham, Michael Reed, Tobi Oladipo, Nathan Nixon, the entire Gaspar family, Dr. Helen Bond- for being such a great supervisor- my classmates, Danny Daley, Elena Dugan, Elizabeth Corsar, Edel Ni Chorragain; my flatmates, Ryan DeMarco, Sida Wang, Leo Kitagawa, Yichirin Jin (who is honestly the weirdest person I have ever met, LOL)….and so many others! I love you all very much :D I’ll be sure to write a pt. 8 epilogue of this to let everyone know how I’ve settled in Toronto and I will put up my dissertation for everyone who wishes to read it once it is marked!



Let this song carry ya to think about Home

We are N, nor are We Alone- What Christian Solidarity in Martyrdom Means

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Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13:3, NRSV)

          When many a people group are all being slaughtered indiscriminately around the world, it may appear pointless to show any partisanship with any particular group. As Jared Walker, a good friend has remarked in conversation, “Yes there are Christians dying all over the world and that is terrible but there are also many other non-Christian people that are being slaughtered and that is equally as terrible.”* While not wishing to dispute this in the least, it does seem that within the Christian theological tradition a special importance or meaning is attached to the deaths of “…the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given…” (Rev. 6:9, NRSV). The special importance laid upon the deaths of these ones is noted by their name in Greek, μάρτυς, which means ‘witness’, also known in its anglicized form as martyr. With the recent upheaval in Mosul, Iraq by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and in particular the death and expulsion of almost the entire Christian population in the region- Emil Shimoun Nona, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholics in Mosul has estimated that from the time of the Iraq war of 2003 until now, the Christian population in Mosul has dwindled from 35, 000 to 3, 000- it may be appropriate to ask the right questions, from a Christian theological perspective, of such things as, what is the purpose of martyrdom? Why attach special importance or meaning to the deaths of Christians over others? Who qualifies as a martyr? Lastly, with what purpose do those Christians who are not persecuted strive to stand in solidarity with those who are?

          Let us take them in reverse order. We can see in the examples of twitter pictures and Facebook statuses, almost a secular version of prayer, in that people will send out messages in times of great desperation though no one may be listening with the hope that the messages will be answered “…because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7, NRSV).wearen-twitter-avitar2 The international attention to the very real and horrible persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East has produced some of the most benign but endearing forms of solidarity and protest, such as the social media campaign #WeAreN in which the ‘N’ is for Nasrani meaning ‘Nazarenes/Christians’, also the same Arabic letter tagged on the homes of Christians in Iraq (see left). When the writer of the letter to the Hebrews asks us to ‘remember’, how does the remembrance take place? Should we disparage the twitter campaigns or think of them like crosses on a necklace, an appropriate symbol? In an earlier essay, a distinction was made between protest and proclamation, in that protest is action that effectively breaks out of the matrix and means of that which one is protesting, whereas in proclamation a reminder of the larger vision of justice is given through ritual. The #WeAreN campaign is of the latter, and therefore we should recognize that it is a ritual much like prayer, but does the writer of the letter to the Hebrews have more than a ritual-like reminder in mind when he admonishes remembrance? Does he have something like stigmata in mind? Is this what Paul was talking about when he said, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (Gal. 6:17, NRSV)? Controversially, it is argued here, that the remembrance is of more than a ritual reminder, though important that is, for it is also an awareness that your life is intimately bound up with those whom you are remembering. It is not only that you should remember them in twitter and prayer as if you are bound up with them though you sit at ease, it is also the awareness that as far as you share identity with them you are or will be bound up with them in some sense. What the death of these Christians in Iraq and elsewhere testify to is not only that there have been changes in the Middle Eastern political-cultural climate but that those changes will have repercussions around the world, as takes place all throughout history to people groups who claim a different and higher alliance than the state. The martyrdom of these Christians signals that an extremely important discussion will hopefully emerge concerning a group’s relationship to a state. But perhaps that for another time. The fate of Christians in Iraq will have consequences for Christians in Africa, throughout the Middle East, Europe, North America, and unto the ends of the Earth- for if the vine bled, and other branches are now bleeding, who will say whether or not your branch will bleed as well.

          What makes one a bleeding branch however is unfortunately a question that has become much muddled in Western discourse between those Western Christians who, having now lost their political dominance cry ‘persecution’, need to be told to ‘grow up’ to those Christians who may be ‘persecuted’ or ‘mocked’ not because of their faith but for other reasons such as they actually are criminals or actually are a great annoyance. Lost in this question, furthermore, are questions concerning statistics, such as Nelson Jones at the NewStatesman, who appears to think that challenging the claim that ‘Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world’ is a worthy endeavour. He says, “It’s almost certainly not the case that Christians are the most “persecuted” religious group in proportion to their numbers.” As if the importance of Christians being persecuted around the world was secured on the fact that more of them are being killed than Muslims. As if, that if there were fewer Christians being killed than Muslims, it would be a non-issue. But nonetheless he does raise an interesting argument that, “…by and large we are dealing with group rivalries, hatred of minorities, political struggles and only rarely a persecution based in the specifics of Christian theology.”

          Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this regard is an extremely interesting example, for while he is commemorated as a martyr by many for his opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer himself understood that if his blood were to bleed, it would not be an innocent martyr’s death that he would receive, but rather, in speaking about himself and his comrades in the Abwehr, “…the blood of martyrs might once again be demanded, but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness.”** Bonhoeffer understood that if he were to die a convicted criminal, for the crime of attempting to assassinate a political leader, that he would not die a martyr’s death. The death of a Christian by another does not automatically  that mean in their death they had become a martyr. Likewise if a Christian in Iraq were to be killed in a crossfire, as tragic as it is, it would not mean that they were a martyr. Rather, going back to the original name, a martyr is one who is killed for being a witness. When then the ‘N’ is sprayed painted on their houses, it testifies to the fact that the homes of those being killed belonged to those who were witnesses to the crucified and risen Nazarene. They were not killed merely because they did not fit the social order, they were not killed out of some accident, they were not killed because they were grouped in with other religious minorities, they were killed precisely because they were Christians.*** For Jones to think that Christians being persecuted by secular and Islamic governments alike has nothing to do with the content of Christian theology is simply non-sense from someone who clearly cannot understand why anyone would possibly fight over doctrines or ‘beliefs’ let alone die for them.

          Now that we have established what purpose there would be in remembering the persecution of Christians in Iraq, and elsewhere, in solidarity with them, and what qualifies a martyr, we’re still left with the question- why remember or pay special regard to the deaths of Christians specifically? What makes it different than remembering any other atrocity done to any other people group? It is here where some ancient Church wisdom, so often neglected, is of such use to us. St. Bede, in his A History of the English Church and People (early 8th century), records Pope Gregory’s response to St. Augustine’s fifth question concerning incest in the late 6th century, and has Pope Gregory recount John the Baptist’s protest of such marriages against the rulers of Judea, saying of his death,

“For which thing also John the Baptist was beheaded, and obtained the crown of holy martyrdom. For, though he was not ordered to deny Christ, and it was not for confessing Christ that he was killed, yet inasmuch as the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, said, “I am the Truth,” because John was killed for the truth, he also shed his blood for Christ.” (Chapter 27)

What an astonishing mode of reasoning is employed here! Gregory wishes to anoint John the Baptist a martyr but in knowing that John was killed because of his protest against incestuous marriages within the royal family, argues that because John was killed for the truth that that equalled being killed for the sake of Christ. Dying for the sake of truth, justice, peace, and love are not separated categories from dying for the cause of Christ, as if being a Christian and dying a martyr’s death was a matter of dying for metaphysical beliefs about the afterlife. The death of a Christian imitates the death of Christ in exactly as it exposes the depths of human sinfulness in how we create entire systems that are dependent upon the death of victims, as it exposes that the human desire to become gods inevitably becomes evil in craving to kill even the most innocent.+

          In that sense, to give special recognition to those who die in the name of Christ in the Christian tradition is not to privilege the deaths of them over others, or to say that their deaths were of some value, or that they were more valuable than other people, or even that we need to save Christians from their persecution at the expense or in precedence of saving other groups from their persecution but rather that the death of a Christian testifies to the death of Christ, and the death of Christ was the event that saved all of humanity from these systems of oppression, death, sin, and destruction. Christ, in the Christian tradition, died for many reasons but one of which was to expose empire and make a mockery of their whole system of killing enemies by holding charges of guilt over peoples heads, for “…erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:14-15, NRSV).

          To end here then, we should honour and remember the life of the Professor of law at the University of Mosul Mahmoud Al ‘Asali, who stood up against the ISIS’s persecution of Christians, believing that it went against what God had commanded in the Islamic faith. While he did not die in the name of Christ, in the Christian tradition we cannot but recognize that he, like John the Baptist before him, died for the truth, and in dying for the truth he also shed his blood for Christ.


* Slight paraphrase from a personal conversation.

** Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Fortress Press, 2000), 795

*** On a personal note, I find it somewhat disgusting the attempts by some Evangelicals to disassociate themselves from the title of ‘Christian’ because of some negative connotations the word has accumulated throughout our culture. At a time when myriads are being killed for being identified as such, some in the Evangelical community cowardly step away from the same title because it makes them uncomfortable at parties. Grow-Up, and consider yourselves lucky that you are merely being mocked and stereotyped. 

Richard Bauckham makes a most excellent point in this regard (though my dissertation would substitute ‘Rome’ for ‘Jerusalem’, the issue is still the same), in commenting on Revelation 18:24, when he says, “Rome is indicted not only for the martyrdom of Christians, but also for the slaughter of all the innocent victims of its murderous policies. The verse expresses a sense of solidarity between the Christian martyrs and all whose lives were the price of Rome’s acquisition and maintenance of power.” – Bauckham, Richard. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. 1st Edition. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark, 1993., 349.

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