God visits Toronto

(Christian Courier review, Feb. 9, 2015)

God visits Toronto

DoveBathurst-220x300A divine visitation in Toronto? Would it be detectible? Welcomed? After all, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John1:10). Patricia Westerhof’s debut novel, The Dove in Bathurst Station, winner of the 2014 Word Guild’s Best Contemporary Novel Award, probes the complexity of discerning God’s presence.

Marta Elzinga is seeking a sign. A high school guidance counsellor, she is ironically unable to counsel herself through her own challenges, both past and present: the suicide of old boyfriend, the irresponsibility of her husband, depression about her career and her future. Complicating everything is her heritage of faith. Her father, a Christian Reformed pastor, has always placed his choices in God’s hands. But Marta’s faith is tenuous, plagued by doubt. She believes most major changes in life happen randomly. In the face of such arbitrariness, she is immobilized, admitting to her sister, “I don’t have a plan, you know that. I never have plans.” She longs for divine intervention.

And God shows up. Maybe. Marta witnesses two incongruous events in succession. A wild mink, running free at Toronto Island Airport, stops for an instant to look directly at her in a peculiarly intense way. Then, even more outlandishly, a pigeon boards the subway at Bathurst Station, imperturbably riding along beside her until it chooses to exit “like royalty” at Christie. Marta later identifies it, more correctly, as a rock dove. She accepts the signs as prophetic, “telling her something, inviting her to something,” but her vacillation still stymies her. Should she leave Matt? Apply for a better job? Confront her past, the fear about her culpability in Aaron’s suicide? The visitations comfort Marta, but only to a point:

Her sure belief that God was telling her something had not wavered – but telling her what? Simply that God was involved in her life, that God was with her? If so, his presence didn’t seem to be improving things much. That was probably a blasphemous thought.

Restless, Marta takes up a dubious “hobby,” exploring the subterranean geography of Toronto. Urban spelunking is illegal, but she likes it. She is soothed by the terrain below the metropolis, “laid out in untangled lines,” so different from her knotty life on the surface. The trips beneath the city become a physical first step to another kind of exploration, one she has been resisting – a spiritual journey. Her reluctance echoes that of the biblical Martha who also struggled to step away from the familiar and choose the “one thing needful.”

Gaining momentum from her underground adventures, Marta joins a church study group on Julian of Norwich. Venturing out even further, she flies to Alberta to seek closure about Aaron’s death. There she learns at last what the mink and the dove have been telling her.

In careful writing that rewards careful reading, Westerhof tackles those vexing theological questions – Is God here? Does he have a plan for me? How does God’s will intersect with my responsibility? Blunt doctrine, cut from the fusty pages of 16th century documents, is pasted into real life — in Nazi-occupied Holland, insular prairie communities, Toronto. Her characters are flawed and irresolute, believably frustrating, but they are delineated fairly, with clear compassion, and so we care about them.

Westerhof’s adroit use of spelunking as a motif for spiritual pilgrimage reminded me of Annie Dillard’s masterful essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” likewise structured around an extended metaphor. In the perilous, ill-equipped 19th century expeditions to reach the Poles, Dillard finds an apt illustration for our pitifully inadequate efforts to meet God. She chides, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

The Dove in Bathurst Station takes God as seriously as Dillard urges. In the dark tunnels, in the visitations of a mink and a dove, Marta is drawn out by “the waking God” to a place of no return. She can’t go back to her life as it was. Her future is unpredictable, but glimpses of grace and possibility light the way.

Westerhof’s novel deserves the commendation it has received. A few passages might be considered mildly graphic, but they are certainly not gratuitous. I look forward to her next book.





“Bifurcation of the mind”

(facebook-iconChristian Courier column, Jan. 26, 2015)

Facebook takes up an hour of my day, sometimes more. When my sister was visiting over the holidays, I was away from my computer a lot. I missed my Facebook time! This sparked some internal debate.

I like the contact with my family and friends, sharing their lives, seeing their photos. And playing Scrabble with them!

But my people-pleasing nature compels me to LIKE almost everything posted by everybody. After all, what if I inadvertently like one niece’s posts more often than another’s? Courtesy obliges me to interact and post comments. Birthdays, anniversaries, babies — it all requires time-consuming attention.

Knowing what others are doing can be a pitfall. A friend of mine discovered on Facebook that her sisters-in-law had enjoyed a shopping excursion without her. She was hurt that they hadn’t invited her. Plus, at any one time any number of Facebook friends are vacationing, dining out or attending sports events. The carnival atmosphere generated by a newsfeed full of “fun” can arouse envy in those who don’t have such opportunities — Facebook as a periscope to discontentment.

For those who are not net-savvy, Facebook usurps conversation. There is almost no news my mom can share about our family, our church or our community that I haven’t already seen on Facebook. This is frustrating for her. Social media marginalizes non-participants.

Let’s talk about family photos. I’m the worst offender, sharing dozens of pics of my grandchildren. But the endless parade of handsome portraits on Facebook – graduations, weddings, anniversaries, engagements – can exacerbate loneliness in those whose relationships are thin.

Facebook photos are deceptive, anyway, vetted for public consumption. Most of us share only those pictures in which we are satisfied with how we look. My double chin does not get posted to Facebook!

Facebook is a place where I can encourage others. I can reach out to the hurting and offer companionship to those who need friendship.

Some truth here. I’ve received and sent heartfelt messages of concern and condolence. When I say I will pray for a friend, I do. But much communication on Facebook is blatantly superficial. It’s comfortably undemanding to LIKE someone’s post about depression; an entirely different matter to schedule a weekly coffee with a fraying soul.

Facebook is an inexhaustible source of information, a learning place. The more friends, the more content to browse.

Many of my Facebook friends post links that are thoughtful and worth reading. Gifted photographer friends share images whose beauty inspires joy. But many posts are mere click-bait. And for every Christian quotation that builds up my faith, there is a polarizing headline that reduces Christianity to mere jargon.

I conclude some things

Facebook’s titanic influence is shaping culture. Think of the exploitation of social media by ISIS. Or the current controversy at Dalhousie University where male members of a dentistry class created a Facebook page to engage in sexually explicit conversations and fantasies, some violent, about their female classmates and professors. A formal complaint has resulted in the suspension of 13 students while this is investigated. On the economic side, Frontline’s Generation Like, a PBS documentary series, details how Facebook has birthed a new currency of LIKES, and how the consumer is now simultaneously a marketer, an explosive new phenomenon.

I’m not about to give up Facebook, but I want to be alert to its potential to shrink my world. Peggy Noonan, columnist with The Wall Street Journal, writes, “A lot of people seem here, but not here. They’re pecking away on a piece of plastic; they’ve withdrawn from the immediate reality around them and set up temporary camp in a reality that exists in their heads. It involves their own music, their own conversation, whether written or oral.”

Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, suggests that Facebook causes a “bifurcation of the mind.” While we exist in reality, we are also constantly half-living to the third person view of our reality — our Facebook audience, each of us starring as the hero in a mini-universe of our own design.

This gives me pause. My life belongs to Jesus. I want to live for him, however stumblingly. In seeking to be socially “connected,” I must guard against being subsumed by a torrent of bite-sized distractions. I must fight the temptation to fashion a Cathy-avatar styled for Facebook consumption. I must heed Paul’s advice, still applicable today: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God” (Rom. 12: 1,2. The Message).