Monday, March 14, 2016

Downton Abbey was good entertainment

“All’s well that end’s well”,  “everything comes out in the wash”, and “they all lived happily ever after” describe the grand finale of Downton Abbey, the wildly popular British period drama about life in one of England’s grand country houses.

Charles Dickens would have been proud. Coincidences, meddling, and the triumph of goodness all contributed to the final episode with the hopes and aspirations of almost every character coming to fruition. 

I was hooked on Downton from the very first episode.   The acting, the set, the costumes (could there have been more beautiful dresses than the ones on display in the finale?), the character development, the social commentary, and even the incredible plot twists that occasionally tried my patience, kept me engaged.

Dame Maggie Smith’s character, Violet the Dowager Countess, had me laughing with her flawless delivery of hilarious, usually biting, and frequently wise one-liners.  (As someone prone to over-thinking, I heartedly agreed with her when she said, “In my experience, second thoughts are vastly over-rated”.)

But I appreciated Downton for other reasons, too. I could relate to the characters and their struggles. Even though my modern day middle class lifestyle bears no resemblance to the upstairs/downstairs lifestyle that was the series’ lifeblood, themes of change and transformation united us.

It was easy to empathize with Carson, the butler, who was suspicious of the telephone, or with Mrs. Patmore, the cook who was afraid of an electric mixer because I was once hesitant to accept new technology. In 1995, when we bought our first home computer, I resisted my children’s pleas to sign up for the Internet. I felt like the Dowager Countess when she quipped, “First electricity. Now telephones.  Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.” 

It was difficult, too, for the characters of Downton to adapt to changing social and moral norms.  After the Great War, the idyllic and idle existence of the privileged crumbled beneath the aspirations of a generation that fought in the trenches and kept the home fires burning. Like the great houses slated for demolition, a way of life was coming to an end.  Dissatisfied with the roles thrust upon them by an accident of birth, servants like Daisy looked to education to change her lot, while Ladies Mary and Edith challenged conventions to become successful businesswomen.

As the familiar gave way to new possibilities, the interior struggles reshaped characters from the inside out.  Over six seasons, the characters grew, becoming a little more holy, as they came to grips with their imperfections and unhappiness.  Haughty Lady Mary became less selfish, mean-spirited Barrow grew in kindness, and “Poor Little Me” Lady Edith discovered her self-worth.  Character transformation kept me watching Downton Abbey religiously on a Sunday night.

Religion, though, was curiously absent from Downton, except for a few notable exceptions.  Alastair Bruce, historical expert for the series, said in an interview with The Telegraph, that the executives wanted to keep religion out of it; “Everyone panics when you try to do anything religious on the telly.” 

Still, religious traditions and morality played a role in the lives of the characters. Values, such as decency, kindness, loyalty, kinship, and concern for others, called forth the best from characters as they struggled to overcome their pettiness. And Christian rituals, even when undertaken out of a sense of tradition rather than faith, marked life’s rites of passage.  Baptism celebrated birth, Christian burial accompanied death, and wedding ceremonies united lovers.  Prayer too made an occasional appearance. With an honesty and poignancy that echoes the reality of prayer, Lady Mary knelt to pray for Matthew (whom she eventually marries after much plot wrangling). “Dear Lord, I don’t pretend to have much credit with you. I’m not even sure that you’re there. But if you are, and if I’ve ever done anything good, I beg you to keep him safe.”

In Downton Abbey’s final season, characters embraced the winds of change; even Carson began to come around, wistfully admitting, “The world is a different place from the way it was.”  But it was Violet, the Dowager Countess, who once again hit the nail on the head. “It makes me smile, the way we drink every year to what the future may bring.”  

While the future is uncertain, change is inevitable.  Downton Abbey wrapped that theme up beautifully in the form of good entertainment.  

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A political gospel, a political pope, and a candidate

The international media was recently abuzz with “a feud” between Pope Francis and Donald Trump.  Of the media’s making, the attention grabbing headlines made for some entertainment while at the same time shining a spotlight on Christianity and politics in the United States.

Building walls - "this is not the gospel"
On board the papal plane flying home from his trip to Mexico, reporters asked Francis about Trump’s plans to deport illegal immigrants and build a wall along the American-Mexican border.  Francis’ reply drew the ire of Trump and his supporters;  “A person who thinks only about building walls – wherever they may be – and not building bridges, is not Christian.  This is not the Gospel.”  Francis went onto give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

Trump described himself as a “good Christian”, and called the Pope’s comments “disgraceful.”  He carried on, rather like a petulant child threatening retribution after his parents have scolded him. When ISIS attacks the Vatican, the Pope will be sorry, said Trump. Then the Pope will wish he had listened to him and prayed for him to become President.  

Trump must have forgotten that the Vatican doesn’t need a saviour; it already has one.

Online comment boards lit up with the usual amount of indignation and ignorance.  When the ignorance wasn’t alarming, it was hilarious, such as this comment that compared the theological knowledge of the two men. “The pope didn’t mean to offend. He is just not as eloquent as Trump when discussing religion.”  

Unlike in Canada, religion continues to play a significant role in American elections. Trump and other presidential hopefuls are courting the religious vote.  To win the Pope’s endorsement would be a coup d’état. Unfortunately for the candidates, Francis has no intention of telling American Catholics how to mark their ballots. However, he has no problem talking about socio-political issues that affect the common good and do harm.

This annoys the Trump camp for which walls are more desirable than bridges. It wants a Christianity that advances protectionism and makes no demands.  It is much less keen on a Gospel that “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” 

Francis is consistent in his messages

While the Pope’s comment about what it means to be a Christian clearly hit a nerve, it was not surprising.  Francis has never been easy on Christians, particularly clerics, who pay lip service to the Gospel but fail to walk the talk.

And his comment on building walls instead of bridges is in keeping with his consistent and unequivocal support for migrants and refugees. In 2013, just after his election as pontiff, Francis visited the island of Lampedusa to commemorate the thousands of migrants who died crossing the sea from North Africa to Europe.  During his visit to Mexico, he celebrated Mass in the border town of Ciudad Juárez.  These symbolic actions underscore his clarion call for compassion for migrants, who are not merely numbers and statistics of a global phenomenon but individuals with names, stories and families.  Governments are not to treat migrants as “pawns on the chessboard of humanity.” 

Looking out for the underdog is a Biblical imperative

The Pope is not making up stuff about being Christian to irritate the Trump camp. The Christian obligation to support the underdog is a Biblical imperative that goes back to the ancient Israelites, who were to exercise compassion for the widow, the orphan and the alien. It weaves its way into the tradition of “the corporal works of mercy” based on the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. 

Francis is reminding all of us that building walls, “wherever they may be”, reinforces unjust economic and social structures.  These things imprison millions of people around the globe.  Building bridges, on the other hand, helps individuals live with dignity.

So while some in the Trump camp want the Pope to shut up and butt out, there is an inherently political element to the Gospel.  Despite the confident assertion of evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. (a Trump supporter) that “Jesus never intended to give instruction to political leaders on how to run a country”, the Gospel does challenge the attitudes and policies of  “good Christian” leaders. 

Religion is not a tool for garnering votes to secure personal power or stroke one’s ego. Nor is faith a matter of expediency, but of discipleship.  Sometimes, the demands of discipleship are inconvenient and irritating.

Commercials express our longings

(I'm rather late posting this column about Super Bowl commercials, but the meaning holds.)

The Super Bowl is the biggest night in the year for advertisers, and with many companies producing teasers and releasing the commercials online before game day the commercials create a buzz that is hard to ignore.  Since most Super Bowl commercials are not broadcast in Canada during the game, I watched them ahead of time online.

Super Bowl has become an annual cultural institution, particularly in the United States where it has a distinct holiday feel. The commercials help to create the festive atmosphere. They draw viewers in. They entertain. They make us laugh, groan, or shake our heads in befuddlement. They get us talking. 

The Hyundai “First Date” commercial was pretty sweet.  The Heinz “Weiner Stampede” was clever and funny.  “Avos in Space”, advertising Mexican avocados, was so weird that it came close to poisoning one of my favorite foods.  And, the “Monkey Puppy Baby” Mountain Dew commercial was just plain creepy.  

"We're lookin' for love in all the wrong places"

But whatever the content or its appeal, the purpose of the Super Bowl commercials, like other commercials, is to imprint a product on our mind and harness our purchasing power. The commercials market to our desires.  They would have us believe that we can calm our restlessness with things, and that consumption is the font of happiness.

So as “we’re lookin’ for love in all the wrong places/ lookin’ for love in too many faces”, we get caught up in the culture’s subliminal messages. A tummy full of beer and fast food will satisfy our hunger.  A shiny new vehicle will satisfy our longing for status, love, power or adventure. Investing our money will guarantee security.  Drive the right vehicle, grow your net worth, eat, drink and be merry.

I’m not knocking the importance of all of the above. It’s common sense that we need some material security if we are to support our selves and our families, and at the same time, look to the needs of others.  But, possessions and wealth are insufficient on their own in calming our restless hearts. The Beatles had it right; “money can’t buy me love”.

Apart from the commercials mentioned above, one stood out for me because it hinted at a different sort of longing. 

The Colgate “Every Drop Counts” commercial addressed North American water consumption. According to Colgate, when we leave the tap running while brushing our teeth, we use “more water than many people around the world have in a week”.   

While this commercial might sway us in favour of Colgate toothpaste, it is more likely to make us think about the ways we use and waste water.  The commercial stokes our sense of social justice and touches our concern for the environment.  It challenges us to change our habits, and, in theological speak, “to be in solidarity” with the poor.

"Our hearts are restless"

Maybe it was the influence of all those Super Bowl beer commercials that made me think about Saint Augustine, the patron saint of brewers, because after previewing the commercials, I found myself returning, as I frequently do, to his experience and words.

Augustine, who lived from 354-430 BCE, was immersed in the culture of the Roman Empire. And while he pursued its amusements with intensity, not even the distraction of the Roman Empire’s bread and circuses, or the intellectual machinations of his brilliant mind could satisfy his hunger for meaning.  Reflecting on his life, he wrote “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you.”

The Super Bowl experience is its own form of bread and circuses, with its commercials playing a part in distracting us from the realities of the day.  Sometimes we need to be distracted, but let’s not forget that “man does not live on bread alone.” There are some things that money can’t buy.  

Coming soon to a hospital near you: physician-assisted dying

Physician-assisted death is coming soon to a health care institution near you. You won’t need to be terminally ill to access this ‘medical intervention’.  In its Carter decision, the Supreme Court of Canada gave Canadians the ‘right to die’, and provided an answer to the perennial problem of pain and suffering.  

Rejecting the belief that suffering can be redemptive

Carter is about more than the "right to die.” It reflects shifting national values about the nature of human suffering. This shift has a lot to do with the rejection of religion in general, but more specifically with the rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition that shaped our nation.

Some of the values of the tradition conflict with the values Carter expresses. The tradition looks to God’s plan to guide human behavior. Carter relies on personal autonomy and choice.  And whereas, the Judeo-Christian tradition searches for a redemptive value in suffering, Carter rejects suffering.

While people have always struggled with the reality of suffering, throughout history we have recognized and accepted suffering as part of the mystery of being human.  In days past, we were more willing to grapple with suffering and to scrutinize its meaning than we are today. We are much more likely to view suffering in all of its manifestations (summarized in Carter as illness, disability or disease) as an affront to our dignity and a threat to our ‘quality of life’.  

Carter is "an extreme honouring of individual autonomy"

I spoke with Sister Nuala Kenny about the Carter decision and the thorny reality of human suffering. Kenny, of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, is a pediatrician and the founder of the Department of Bioethics at Dalhousie University. She was a member of the Provincial-Territorial Expert Advisory Group on Physician-Assisted Dying, which released its recommendations at the end of November 2015. She is a strong opponent of physician-assisted death.

In Kenny’s view, Carter “goes far beyond the media valorization of the person who is in intractable pain and suffering.”  She zones in on two major problems. 

Carter “is an extreme honouring of individual autonomy, but an autonomy that then requires a reciprocal obligation on the part of others.”   It places an obligation on physicians to respond positively to a patient’s request for death. As a physician, Kenny sees this obligation as a betrayal of the Hippocratic tradition.  We have a “huge obligation to provide support for the physical symptoms, that is compassion in itself, and that allows the person who is terminally ill or dying to deal with the spiritual and emotional and psychological challenges.” As a Catholic, the focus on individual autonomy expresses a lack of trust in God’s plan for the individual and the community.

Carter turns suffering, which is a metaphysical reality, into a medical problem. To explain the “medicalization of suffering”, Kenny points to the reasons that lead people to request physician-assisted death. These reasons include a sense of a loss of dignity and of independence, worries about becoming a burden to others, uncertainty about the future, and fears of isolation and a lack of care.  “Those are issues of human suffering. The medicalization of suffering uses death as a treatment for suffering, because there is no prescription for suffering.”

Sharing in the paschal mystery

In the Christian tradition, when a person suffers, he or she metaphorically shares in the Paschal mystery – the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Kenny points out that for Christians the notion that physician-assisted death is a compassionate and merciful response to suffering “repudiates the suffering of Jesus” and “flies in the face of the mystery of suffering.”  While this may appear ludicrous to non-Christians, for those of us who profess the Christian faith, it should inform our attitude to suffering, and shape our response to the Supreme Court decision.

Within Catholicism, Kenny worries that Catholics have capitulated to the contemporary values of independence, choice and control. We are reluctant to accept the mystery of suffering; we have become so inculturated that our deepest values may be unchristian, she said.  “We don’t even know that it (physician-assisted death) is wrong.”

By June 2016, even if no regulations are in place, physician-assisted death will be legal in Canada. And while the time for debating the pros and cons of physician-assisted death has past, it is not too late to minimize the potential harms of Carter’s overly broad and permissive criteria.

A productive response for those of us who have grievous concerns about physician-assisted death centers around palliative care.  Canadians need quality and accessible palliative/hospice care.  This is holistic care that tends to the complex needs of the suffering body and soul, neither hastening death nor prolonging life.

Physician-assisted death is coming soon to your community. Isn’t it time for optimal palliative/hospice care to do the same?