An Interview with Cheese Wearing Theology

A while ago I did an interview for Amanda MacInnis for her blog Cheese Wearing Theology as part of a series she did on Canadian Christianity. She gave me permission a while ago to repost the interview in its original form but thanks to being busy trying to figure out the secrets of the universe I hadn’t gotten around to finding my original notes for the interview until now.

I was asked to talk about where filmmaking and Christianity meet, having worked in both Christian and mainstream media. What followed was a discussion of why I think Christian films fall short, of how they can improve and why censorship is self-defeating, with Indiana Jones and Superman thrown in for good measure.

If you’re so inclined, part one is here and part two is here.

Cheers!

Sermonizing!

It’s been quiet around here at Shaneisms. Too quiet…

Between having family and friends visit from both out of province and out of country and trying to convince Daniel Mullin I’m the first person to win the Indy 500 on foot, I’ve also been filling in for my church’s pastor as he takes a several week long sabbatical. I took over the pulpit this past weekend and gave the sermon and somehow wasn’t struck down by holy lightning in the process.

If you’re so inclined, you can read the results of my pastor’s momentary lapse in judgement over at my other blog, The Grumpy Christian.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

Now that my schedule is a bit more freed up, we can soon return here at Shaneisms to our regularly scheduled deprogramming.

My Head Inside Out

My wife Michelle has started up her own blog. I know, I’m just as surprised as you are at this turn of events. I’m not sure what she’s going to write about (which is fair since she usually stares in bewilderment at my daily life) but I look forward to seeing what comes out of her head.

Now if only her blog’s title would stop conjuring up images of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus opening sequence, it would be, indeed, a fantastical moment in human history…

So please, feel free to check out my wife:

http://myheadinsideout.wordpress.com/

The Unemployed Philosopher Podcast

For those of you who follow Shaneisms you’ll probably recognize the name Dan Mullin and his blog The Unemployed Philosopher. He does a monthly podcast where he interviews people who incorporate their philosophical training into their various daily lives.

This month his guest is… me! We talked about social activism, a new podcast we’re collaborating on and why philosophy can (and should) be funny! Head on over and take a listen. You should enjoy listening, even if my claim of “being the first man to win the Indy 500 on foot” doesn’t quite hold up to rigorous analysis…

“We begin with equality, that’s the origin isn’t it? That’s justice.” – Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln”

I was asked to speak about myself at a business luncheon recently. I talked about about growing up with medical issues, about being being an Aboriginal adopted into a non-Aboriginal family, and about work I’ve done with at-risk youth. There was a question and answer period after my initial talk and one of the questions asked was “how can we make Hamilton (Ontario, where I live) a better place?”

I took a few moments to try to formulate an answer and I finally said “that’s a damn good question.” I told those present, many of whom have experienced a good degree of success in their lives, that there is no easy answer. I told them that it’s not enough to simply donate money to causes or build more infrastructure or even get involved in local community events. I said that the real starting point lies in becoming and remaining open-minded to seeing the qualities in those different from us. What did I mean by “different from us”? I meant that it’s far too easy to dismiss someone based on any criteria we choose.

We can dismiss someone on gender, age, race, sexual orientation, religious background, education level, clothing choices, music preferences, really the list is endless. I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives where someone has based our worth and what we have to offer on something that really has no bearing on our ability to help out or achieve a specific goal. That there are differences between people should go without saying. We should embrace those differences because they mean the chance to expand our outlooks and social education.

As I answered the question of “how do we make Hamilton a better place” I realized that I myself am guilty of putting people into preconceived categories. I am ashamed to admit this but I can’t deny it either. And even though I know it’s not exactly in the spirit of community building, there are times when I’m walking through the downtown core of Hamilton that I can’t help but think I’ve somehow stumbled upon the world’s largest trailer park because of how run down the core has become. Unfortunately that run down feel has attracted more than it’s share of homeless, street youth and those who’ve otherwise seemingly given up on themselves.

I use the word “seemingly” on purpose because it can be too easy to dismiss someone based on a first impression or because they don’t measure up to some arbitrary standard. It can be too easy to look down on someone because they don’t share the same goals and ambitions that you do. We have to keep in mind that the things we want, the goals we set, are based on our specific life experiences. It’s not too far-fetched to believe that if you had a different set of experiences up until now, you would currently have a different set of goals and desires.

I see this as being true from my own life. As I mentioned before, I’m an Aboriginal who’s been adopted by a non-Aboriginal family, into a culture that is not my own. I’ve come to realize that if I hadn’t been adopted, many of the things that I hold dear, such as my circle of friends, my education, the hobbies and recreations I enjoy, would be vastly different. I do realize certain things would have most likely been the same, such as my love of reading and playing sports, but the difference between who I am and who I would have been if I hadn’t been adopted lies solely in the opportunities I’ve had. I can only imagine what opportunities life would have presented me if I hadn’t been adopted but when I do theorize, I come to see that the greatest difference has come from the impact my adopted parents have had.

The difference between my birth family and my adopted family is night and day. The family values are almost completely polar opposites of each other. I follow my adopted family’s value system but that doesn’t mean I look down on my birth family. I’ve realized growing up that things in my birth family’s history such as alcohol and drug addictions and the abuses of the Residential School system have taken their toll. My birth family works from the moral and social education they received from their experiences. If I had grown up with them instead of my adopted family, I would most likely have that same social outlook.

The reason I talked about this is to show the different paths that a single person can take, given the circumstances they find themselves in. More than most, I’ve seen with stark reality the road not taken and the potential for what I could have been like. Given that difference set of circumstances, those in my life who’ve affected me the most, that I’ve loved, that I’ve been mentored and influenced by, would have been replaced with a different set of people who in turn would have influenced me along different paths and choices.

When I think about the question I was asked at that business luncheon, “how can we make Hamilton a better place”, I realize there is no easy answer because in giving a definite “this is what we must do” answer, I force everyone and their experiences to now fit a specific set of rules and guidelines, and all it will cost someone is their individuality, heritage and social education up to that point.

So where do we start from? How can we make somewhere with so much diversity better? How do you build a stronger community as a whole while respecting the individual communities found therein? I believe the only place we can start from is understanding that each community we come across has innate value, just like each person we come across as innate value. If we’re willing to put aside our differences and embrace our similarities, amazing things can happen.

But is it enough? Looking past our differences is a good start, but it requires more than that. It requires love, and love in the purest form requires self-sacrifice, a letting go of our own desires so that a greater good can occur. It can even require us to see the value in those we consider an enemy.

This is where it can get uncomfortable for a lot of people, including myself. People have an innate need for justice when something bad happens to them. We yearn for the good to be restored and the bad to be punished. Unfortunately that need for restoration can give way to a need for vengeance, regardless of the guilt or innocence of those we think are responsible.

It’s too easy to look at some wrongdoing say “Aha! That is why this happened!”, while completely disregarding the underlying circumstances and evidence. I believe part of the need to blame, especially when it comes to events involving those different from us, is so that we can say “I’m not like that”. If the person is different enough, you can justify away that you and those you associate with couldn’t and wouldn’t break whatever social and moral rules have been broken. You can continue to believe that you live in a good and just society, and that when bad things happen, it’s because those responsible are not part of your society.

But society doesn’t work that way. In places of diverse cultural heritage, like Hamilton, society ceases to be comprised of a few specific cultural heritages and becomes a melting pot of many different ways of life. Unfortunately when this happens it can be too easy to claim that we no longer live in a good and just society because our values are no longer are own because they’re now made by everyone else. It’s an attitude I’ve seen expressed in many different forms since 9/11 and with immigration issues coming to the forefront in both the United States and Canada.

Here’s the thing though: the problem isn’t that we don’t live in a good and just society. The problem is that comparatively we do live in a good and just society, which means there is no excuse for those who are most at risk to be slipping through the cracks. It is only our choice not to do something, to say “someone else will handle it”, that allows injustices to continue.

Nelson Mandela once said “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones”. For those who are most at risk in our communities, whether they are the poor who’ve become the victim of economic forces beyond their control, or minorities who’ve been born here into less than the North American ideal, or immigrants from around the world who’ve come here believing they can find the freedom they can’t find at home, we need to keep in mind that they still have something to contribute, if only given the chance.

Looking at the choices my adopted parents made towards me, to choose to take into their lives a child that they didn’t have to, makes a profound statement to me. That statement is that each of us has the power to completely change the lives of others for the better if we so choose. My adopted parents could have said “someone else will take care of him”, and they wouldn’t have been wrong. Someone else would have come along, whether they be new foster parents or a provincially appointed social worker. But because they made the choice to take on the financial and, more importantly, the moral responsibility of taking me into their home and treating me as an equal, my life was set on a completely new path. To paraphrase Robert Frost, they took the path less traveled by and that has made all the difference.

So here’s the question I leave with you: how can you make where you are a better place? How can you make life better for those around you? It doesn’t have to be something huge and world-changing. It doesn’t have to be planned out. Maybe all that’s needed is simply stepping outside of a comfort zone and making a stranger feel welcome. Rarely do we change someone’s life because we’ve planned to.

Perhaps the best way I can sum every thought I have tried to present here is a quote by philosopher Albert Camus:

“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” – Mark Twain

For the followers of Shaneisms (all two of you), you’ll have heard me mention Dan Mullin, he of The Unemployed Philosopher fame. Not only are we best friends, but we were college roommates and, during most of our time, our university’s sole philosophy majors. We both took a certain pride in that fact, making sure that we were faithfully representing the grand tradition of Philosophy, even if Dan was more in the tradition of Kant and Hume and I more in line with Jonathan Swift.

Recently Dan has been writing about leaving the academic world and becoming a post-academic. From the talks we’ve had, it’s been a decision that weight heavily on him, one that took many long nights of contemplation to reach. We’ve had long talks about “what now?” and what the future holds for someone who, for many of the years I’ve known him, has looked at the academic world as somewhere he was was supposed to be.

For all the similarities we have, a big difference is that I’ve never seen the academic world as somewhere I’d end up. This isn’t to say I don’t value education and don’t love learning about everything I can. The constant, seemingly never-ending pile of books cluttering up my desk says otherwise, but as I’ve read Dan’s posts as he reflects on his academic journey, I can’t help but reflect on my own.

While Dan has gone on to get his doctorate in Philosophy, I never finished my undergrad degree. While I had my reasons, my own decision to leave was based on something different from the reasons why many people leave university.

I have always had a very hard time in an organized school setting, from grade school to university. Technically, I have two learning disabilities, even if for all practical reasons they’ve never interfered with my actual learning process. Case in point, I taught myself to read at three years old with minimal help. When I say “taught myself to read”, I mean I could read at a high school level by Grade 3. More than once I was given the opportunity to skip a grade in grade school. In her wisdom my mom didn’t take those offers, and I thank her for that. My learning disabilities would have manifested that much worse if she had agreed to skip me ahead.

The first problem I have to contend with is dyslexia. For me, it exists mostly in transposing letters in words or words in sentences. Public speaking has helped me immensely with the verbal part of it but if I’m tired I have a harder time controlling it. While dyslexia hasn’t affected my grades for the most part, higher math, such as algebra, is an issue for me. In university a friend in the math program discovered I could solve complex algebra equations just by looking at them, but when I tried to actually show the steps in solving it, I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. In high school, I lost marks in math classes because of this, since the marks were assigned for showing the work more than getting the correct answer.

The second learning disorder is far more problematic. I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which makes sitting still for a prolonged period very arduous for me. While I can absorb and memorize large amounts of information in a very short time, I’ve always found structured class settings very difficult. The best way I can phrase it is that the class was far too slow for me. I can remember many times in university, the professor would start a lecture and within a few minutes I’d figure where he was going with it, and I would zone out and let my mind go on tangents. However, this left me lost if the professor would suddenly ask a class question.

With ADHD, when I get bored, I get restless and fidgety. When I get fidgety, bad things happen. In grade school I’d get up out of my seat and wander around, start rummaging through my backpack or a textbook, regardless of what was going on in class. This led to my mom homeschooling me for my high school years. Grade wise there was a meteoric improvement, from low 70’s in a normal classroom setting to mid to high 90’s homeschooling. Without the structure of class holding me back I could do an entire day of schooling before noon. When I went to university, the problems I had with being in a classroom setting crept up again.

In one of his posts, Dan quoted The Dark Knight Rises, writing “As James Gordon tells John Blake, structures can become shackles”. This is the best way I can describe what sitting in a classroom setting was like for me. The structure became a shackle. I’ve never been on medication such as Ritalin, so I’ve had to find other ways of coping with ADHD. One way I’d try to compensate for it in class was having a snack such as chips or peanut M&M’s on me to munch on whenever I’d start to feel myself losing focus.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with my view towards the academic world, those two learning disabilities made the academic world a place where I felt I never fit in. While in terms of brainpower I have no problem keeping up with high academic scholarship, I find it too dry, too focused on what I feel are small details such as footnotes. The resolute focus on form is something I have a very hard time doing. It’s telling that I wrote my philosophy papers in a way that almost never used footnotes.

I realize that I lucked out in terms of the professors I studied under. My philosophy professor, the late Theodore Plantinga, gave me a lot of leeway in my papers and class behavior. He knew I had a strong handle on the material and he recognized the challenges I faced in dealing with dyslexia and ADHD. A good example of this understanding is that when we had to write papers for him, we had to hand in an outline so he could tell if we were on the right track or not. Half the time I’d hand in a one or two sentence outline, as opposed to the more detailed outline we were required to do. Once I handed in an outline in the form of a beatnik poem, complete with spaces for finger snaps. When he handed it back to me, his only comment was “Groovy, man!”. He showed me similar leeway in my paper construction. While we were supposed to use proper APA format I usually ignored that and wrote in a style he referred to as “like reading a History Channel show transcript”.

I minored in Theatre and English, and here as well I had understanding professors. The English professor would often let me hand in my own original fiction in place of reviewing a play. The Theatre professor let me hand in film projects instead of theatre ones as he wanted to nurture what he saw as a gift for filmmaking. Even in these less structured classes my learning disabilities caused some issues. I’d often forget to read an assigned story or poem for various English classes, often reading them in the few minutes between the time I sat down for class and the time class started.

Theatre assignments would occasionally be forgotten as well. A good example here is we had to recite a poem in front of the class, done in the style of a dramatic reading. The professor pulled names out of a hat to decide who went first. Guess who got called first. While the other students were armed and ready with passages from Shakespeare, Keats and Wordsworth, I had completely forgotten about the assignment. I stood up, and recited the first thing that came to mind. Unfortunately that ended up being the Dukes of Hazzard theme song. My fellow students looked horrified as I went on but the professor was laughing hysterically. If you’re wondering about the grade… I got an perfect mark, with the professor commenting “Easily the strangest, most unexpected and most entertaining presentation of the class”.

As much fun as I had in my classes, by my third and fourth year I felt more and more that the hallowed halls of academia weren’t for me. And, despite knowing I could mentally could do the requirements of a post-grad program, I knew I didn’t have the discipline, or rather, I knew I couldn’t reign myself in to what I knew would be a much more structured environment than what university was. I never finished my undergrad program because by the middle of my fourth year I felt I had gotten what I had come for: the education, the knowledge, the opening of my mind to new horizons.

Am I saying drop out of university? By no means. I have nieces and nephews taking their first steps into the world of university and I’ve always encouraged them to get the education they need and stick it out, no matter how boring they might think university can be. Hypocritical? Probably.

I do remind them that while school has never been my strong point, I’m always reading whatever I can get my hands on. While structured academics isn’t for me, it doesn’t mean I ever plan to stop learning. I applaud those, like Dan, who can push themselves through the rigors of the academic world because I know I would go insane within a few weeks and probably go to the university library and start rearranging all the books just out of spite.

Would I ever go back to the academic world and finish up my degree? Probably not. At this point I find keeping myself reading on diverse topics is what works best for me and how I learn. I’m quite content with knowing that the only degree I’d ever get would be an honorary one. If that happens, cool. If not, no worries.

I wish Dan all the best as he charts his new course after having left the world of academia. Oh, and if you’re wondering what he thinks of the strange situation of having a doctorate in Philosophy while his best friend is a university drop out… he gets a certain perverse glee out of it.

I think the German philosophers had a word for that: Schadenfreude. I can’t be sure though… I’m not an Academic.

The Heart Of A Teacher

My close friend Amanda Scarlett has been teaching in the remote town of Fort Albany, Ontario for the past two years. Frequent readers of Shaneisms might recognize her from my piece on Idle No More from a couple months back.

She’s started her own blog, The Heart Of A Teacher, which is a candid look at her experience teaching and working through the ever increasingly complex teacher’s system here in Ontario. I thoroughly encourage you to check out her blog at The Heart Of A Teacher!