An Interview with the unforgettable Dorothy Cummings McLean

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photoPolitics, glamour, romance, terrorists, and a couple of Catholics trying to live their lives in a world that’s gone crazy? Dorothy Cummings McLean’s first novel, Ceremony of Innocence, has it all. This action packed novel takes place in Germany, 2008, and engages the politics of the day while hopping in and out of night clubs with the young and beautiful “Butterfly set.” It meets sweeping theological themes outside of the realm of abstract theology and grounds them in the all too real concerns of an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times – ours. The story is told in the voice of a foreign journalist: a conflicted Catholic with a handsome, younger, live-in (ex)boyfriend, and gorgeous hair. 

Ceremony of Innocence is not your average Christian Novel so it makes sense that when I got the chance to interview its author it wasn’t your average interview. I met Dorothy Cummings McLean – TST alumni and the author of Seraphic Singles – at the AGO where she was planning on spending the day. McLean was born in Toronto not far from the Art Gallery and her identity as a Canadian runs through her novel. We had breakfast at Karine’s (a place any downtown Torontonian should know) and chatted over massive plates of eggs and fruit like old friends. McLean is a captivating conversationalist which isn’t surprising given the dialogue in her book.

During the interview we covered everything from:

1) Influential authors: Graham Greene, Gordan Korman, and how we are taught to write by what we read.

2) Life overseas: culture shock and the unique perspective of a foreigner. Dorothy Cummings McLean is currently living in Scotland but also lived in Germany as a student. interestingly she relies heavily on this experience, even consulting her journals from her time in Germany, while setting the scene in Ceremony of Innocence.

3) The political shifts that have lead to wide spread cultural disenfranchisement the world over: “as if the certainties of their existence has been swept away.”

4) Her first book, Seraphic Singles, and how it has recently been translated into Polish. She will be leading workshops around singleness in Polish in the upcoming months.

5) Scottish Country dancing and the danger of flying into framed pictures of John Paul II if the reels get a little too enthusiastic.

to my favourite:

6) The fact that “even German’s cry when they have to read Rahner in German”

McLean’s action packed novel deals with some very controversial themes but her main hope – “Super old-fashioned and cranky” (her words not mine) as it may sound – is that her readers will come away with a deep sense of sin. For McLean, “remorse comes before the return of the soul to a state of grace,” and this reality permeates the pages of her novel. McLean unapologetically faces big issues head on which makes Ceremony of Innocence definitely worth reading.

The Case of the Returning Sign or Is it finally over?

It was another stormy morning: dark and stormy. It was the kind of morning that makes you wish you could stay in bed. Alas, discount theological books will not sell themselves. Independent Christian book sellers are few and far between now-a-days and this one is worth the hassle of bare feet on a cold floor. I shuffled into work fighting the chill and the oppressive gloom. Wednesdays should be brighter than this. I got to the store later than usual. Something wasn’t right. There was activity within. A strange hum – not unlike a vacuum – indicated that just beyond the door some THING, some friend or foe, was up to something. After a quick (and whispered) pep talk I cautiously I turned the key in the door. My mind was racing. Would I catch the sweet patron of Crux who had restored our sign? Would it be a thief? A frat boy? A phantom? I slowly twisted the door handle. The door was opened just a crack. It was open just enough for me to discern the shape of a person. The person was vacuuming. What dastardly thief cleans up after themselves? Clearly this was no ordinary run of the mill biblio-napping! This was a mastermind! It must have been the infamous book bandit: Cynthia May Kasten. She’d finally found me! I knew she eventually would. She always did. Her insatiable appetite for sound theological writings means that we are never far apart. Just this past January she had had her way with the Anglican Book Centre. She showed up one night and the next day the whole store was gone. Such a tragedy! The loss is still felt among the small independent Christian Book Retailer community. If only her brilliance would be used for good! If only she had turned over a new leaf! What joy would fill my heart if it had been she who restored our sign! Bolstered by this new hope I threw open the door to Crux and switched on the light. Triumphantly, grinning from ear to ear, I turned to her only to find that it was not Cynthia May Kasten at all. It was Cindy Hayley. It was the owner. She had come in early to make sure her beloved store was in ship shape.

“Good Morning Cindy” I said, as I hung up my hat and trench coat. “gloomy day we’re having.”

“It’s just a rainy day, I wouldn’t call it gloomy! Without the rain there would be no flowers.” She was like a breath of the spring Toronto kept forgetting to have.

“Any news about the sign?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” She asked, visibly confused by my question.

“It’s mysterious reappearance” I offered as a means of clarification. “The sign that was missing – that we found in the maintenance office – it has been returned.  I even think it got a fresh coat of paint! Who could have done this? What good Samaritan has restored our sign?”

“Oh? It was…”

“Was it Dr. Heather? Could it have been our very own do-gooding Bonnie and Clyde: The Mugfords? Was it Helen? Alain? Sheila? Or perhaps Trinity College is trying to convince us to move over into their space as part of the Wycliffe/Trinity rivalry? Was it Tom Power? His office is conveniently located for such activity! Was it Brian Walsh? He has always questioned the wording of our sign – discount theological books or discount theological books – double meanings abound! Could it have been the Professors Taylor? They seem capable of something that lovely! Or was it… Ed! Hi!”

Ed joined us carrying not one but two boxes of delicious girl guide cookies.

“A co-worker’s daughter is in Guides so I thought I would bring a couple boxes over. Have you seen the sign? What do you think?”

“Oh. It was you.”

The case of the returning sign or does magic exist?

It was a dark and stormy morning. Humidity clung to my skin like the condensation on an undergrad’s iced mocha frappucino. There was something in that dense air. Some thing hovered and scratched at the back of my mind. What could it be? Did I leave the toaster oven on? Did I lock the front door? Had I forgotten some little thing that would change the course of the rest of my life? Bravely, I put these collossally important thoughts out of mind and went to work. Crux Books always looks beautiful in the morning. Watching it come alive is magical. The lights, the music, the bubbling Crux Books Blend coffee saturating the air with its sharp yet comforting odour. I am sure you know the smell I am talking about — the distinctive scent of freshly ground and percolating coffee. Delicious.

That is when it happened. The knock on the door (it is admittedly strange that there was a knock seeing as the store was open for business and rain generally serves as a deterrant against standing outside any longer than is absolutely necessary). When I went to see who it was I was amazed to find that there was no one there. A curious turn of events indeed. Naturally my detective senses were tingling. Was there a fiend trying to coax me out of doors to crack the safe? Or worse! Was there a dastardly villain plotting to make off with our entire Brian Walsh collection?! I decided I had to risk it. Whatever the cost, whether it was a trap or an earnest cry for help, someone had knocked and it was my duty to look into it.

darkandstormy

I stepped around the corner – holding my blazer closed – shivering against the wind and rain. Soldier’s tower was outlined against an angry, cloudy, petulant mass of sky. That tower stood there menacing looking down on me like an angry vestry/church council member. You know; defiantly, judgingly, full of strength, and with slightly gothic overtones.

 

 

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When I was finally able to tear my eyes away from the glistening roman numerals on her clock face. I saw it. It made no sense. How did it get there? What brave soul ventured up a ladder on a day like that to restore her to her rightful place? What angel had returned her to her former glory?

The Crux Books Sign was back!

 

stay tuned to see who dun it

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Unity and Disunity: Talking with Ephraim Radner

There is something intimidating about having to climb up on a step, steady oneself against a wall, and perform impressive feats of acrobatics to buzz into an office. It may be fitting when the buzzer marks the entrance to the offices of contemporary theological giants like Chris Seitz, Terry Donaldson, and Ephraim Radner but it is not particularly encouraging. Not that I am complaining – heaven forbid – I was given the incomparable opportunity of interviewing the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner for the Crux books blog about his most recent publication: A Brutal Unity. How lucky can a girl get?

eradner_thumbnailA Brutal Unity is a smart book that isn’t an overly difficult read. It connects theology with ground level practice making it worthwhile for anyone with any connection to any church, whether they have pretensions to Academia or not. The main thrust of A Brutal Unity is a reframing of the way we look at Christian Unity. It posits that Christian Unity should be viewed not as consensus but as something else:

… oneness of mind is received through having the “mind of Christ,” which is the one who gave up the form of God for that of a slave and emptied himself into death. Paul’s words do not constitute a denial of God, but point instead to a suffering of the contradiction between obedience in unity with the world that is filled with “tribulation” and seemingly mastered by one who is not God (cf. John 16:11,33). And it gives rise to the exalted life of God’s redemption. (P. 446)

His arguments are fleshed out by case studies that ground his assertions in the practical, historical life of the church as the body of Jesus Christ. For Radner unity is not about consensus but about the giving up of self. But, enough of my summaries! Let’s see what Professor Radner himself had to say:

I suspect that the best way to start is to outline a little bit about what the book says: would you mind briefly outlining your argument?

bunityThe book itself is about decision making and what it means to come to decisions in the church. Disagreement – disunity – have historically been literally murderous and resulted in incredible offenses. This book is about exploring why the concept of consensus as unity hasn’t worked out. Firstly, it is not what Christian Unity is in the scriptures and indeed consensus as a response is wholly inadequate to deal with the problems of the church. What therefore is adequate? The whole notion of self sacrifice as that upon which unity can be founded comes down to accepting some disagreement as part of unity. This forms the ground, bound up in failures of the Christian church, of a discussion on church unity. The liberal polity and its processes of decision making are necessary and important but utterly inadequate.

I read this book as hopeful, as a fresh way of looking at the church that has the potential to heal some of the violence and incongruities between what the church is called to be and how it plays out on earth, but I have heard some other opinions on the matter. Mainly, that it is a little negative – a little brutal – they say that the church cannot help but be a witness to Christ’s Gospel even in its fragmentation because that very brokenness displays God’s love for his broken people. How would you respond to this Hosea-esque argument?

You’re quite right that some people think [A Brutal Unity] is bleak and depressing and that it misses the mark of what the church is trying to do. One way I would respond to these arguments is that the proof is in the pudding. If it is such a witness to Christ’s love for his people then how come so much of the violence in the history of the church can be traced to disunity? That sort of thinking is problematic in terms of witness. Outside of the church, I have never heard someone articulate that disunity is something to be admired. No one has ever been converted by such a vision: it is always a “despite” rather than a “because of.” Disunity is deeply destructive. Some people think, “Hey – it is 2013 in Canada. We’re not killing anybody now. We are just a nice reflection of the liberal state with its multitude of members,” but that is just a political means of avoiding what the church is claiming. But that is wrong. Division has become benign. Many of the examples I use in A Brutal Unity are from the 21st Century like Burundi or Rwanda (which was virtually in the 21st Century). BUT CANADA we claim! Is our benign acceptance of division blinding us to what we are complicit in? I understand why people would find A Brutal Unity bleak – a lot of that may come down to tone – but I meant it as hopeful, like you said. I meant it as a realistic hope that is grounded in the gospel.

You are clearly engaged with this issue beyond an academic relationship – can you walk us through some of the cumulative experiences that went into, not only the content, but the decision to write this particular book?

I talk about some of them in the book. The African stuff is a clear example of not looking at a distance but being engaged. It was an eye opener for me when Rwanda was happening and Burundi came directly after. That was in 1994. I was in Connecticut. It was an interesting perspective to see these concerns vis a vis the church. I wrote to people: my own denominational leaders, the Vatican, etc. Everyone just kind of looked on. When the extent of the horrors of Rwanda dawned on people – not Burundi’s civil war, mind, but the Rwandan genocide – the world turned and all of a sudden it became the main issue on the world stage. Every one rushed in. It got all this political attention, which was good. Don’t get me wrong it was good it got attention. But, this was not a surprise. The world acted like it came out of nowhere but Burundi in ’72. Look at Rwanda in the ‘50s! it was obviously not to the same extent at that point but what happened in Rwanda was not a surprise. The churches – and this is my point – the churches have nothing to say about it. While it was happening, the Pope was meeting with African Bishops, it came up in passing in their meeting. They mentioned it and then just kind of moved on… So there’s that.
But you are asking me, personally? Within the Anglican Communion thing began to fall apart; the Episcopal church, the happenings in the late 90’s, Gene Robinson as Bishop, etc. all these things are happening and meanwhile they’re still fighting away in Burundi. All these things, all these divisions in the communion, were not separate things. They are not separate things. They are related… and not in a genetic way. The council meeting in 2007? It was a charade. All that happened there is consistent with other things that were happening. Anyway – it all fit.

In typical Radner fashion, he indicated that he had answered the question as fully as possible by throwing his hands up in a gesture of humble admission: “that is just the way it is.”

This book doesn’t stand on its own – there have been a lot of comparisons to your earlier book, The End of the Church – have your views changed between the two books?

My views have changed. Particularly around the theology of division and how we understand a good God, who is indeed good, in relation to Christ’s body, the church, as it is. It is about looking at reality and trying to understand what it means. You have to look at theology in history. Actually having to live a certain way through time. It is about what people do instead of why they do it. The first book was about the peculiar reality of the Reformation at least for the Western Church. I still think its key but the issues of unity are more deeply embedded than that. The current book – A Brutal Unity – deals with Jews, heresies, councils of the church, and things that are problematic to understanding unity and have always been so. They are temporally perduring [lasting through time – I had to ask what it meant] because unity is given not in a moment but in Christ’s self giving to the church in every moment witnessed to only in moments. Appearing to us in structured entities not because that is the way it has to be but because that is the way it is.

And finally, what comes next? Do you have a project you’re working on already?

I am working on some things. I’m working on a book about the character of scripture in terms of ontological character of its words. Another – a bigger thing – that I am working on is a book about what it means to be a creature created by God. The second one will engage the content of A Brutal Unity. There a lot of claims on what it means to be a created thing especially around learning – mainly implications from a Christian perspective and I want to explore that a little bit.

And I’m sure – if you are anything like me that you can’t wait to see where that exploration leads.

Crux Capers: The Case of the Missing Sign

It was a dark and stormy night. The wind cracked against the stones of Leonard Hall and rattled the windows in their frames. The rain fell in sheets and threatened to wash us all away. It was the kind of night when bad things happen. The kind of night teenagers prowl and 1920s gangsters make shady deals in a Speakeasy. It was the kind of night that makes you long for the morning.

I walked into the store at the usual time a little shaken from my lack of sleep, a little pale from my lack of breakfast, but mostly relieved that the sun had returned and the storm had retreated to the heavens to threaten us from the clouds.

That’s when I saw her. I could tell right away that something was wrong. Her usually luminous face held a twinge of concern.

“Pam, what’s wrong?” I asked, hanging up my hat and coat.

“It’s our sign.” Choking back tears she added “it’s gone!” I hated to see her like that, tears glistening at the corners of her eyes.

“It can’t be! Who would do such a thing?” I cried “Trinity? Some Frat? George Sumner? Some of the rowdier Wycliffe students?” Accusations abounded. It was clear that we were going to have to get to the bottom of this and fast. The boss would be coming in any minute.

I took action.

Missing SignMy first stop was the scene of the crime – the sign itself – and much to my disappointment there was no evidence of it. A quick check of the perimeter quickly revealed that the damage from the storm would surely have washed away any fingerprints. Things were looking bleak. I set my superior intellect on it and I immediately thought of motives. Who would want to take our sign? Did we have any grudges? Was it jealousy? I stopped thinking and looked around some more. That’s when I saw them. They caught my eye like a red dress at a rodeo. A tiny pile of rusted nails. They were our nails. They were the Crux Books sign nails and they were piled neatly in a corner. What fiend would do such a thing. What cruel mastermind would taunt us with the certainty that our beloved sign was not merely blown down in the storm but STOLEN!

IMG_3158I snapped a quick pic and headed back in.

“I don’t know what to tell you Pam – it doesn’t look good”

“What doesn’t look good?” It wasn’t Pam who answered. It was Cindy. Our much loved, highly regarded, boss had arrived.

“It’s our sign. It’s missing” The look on her face was heart breaking. Those signs don’t come cheap and that one had been with us at Crux Books since before the Spice Girls split up.

“I will figure this out. It is too early to panic.” Always level headed she headed to her office to get to the bottom of this catastrophic caper. It was too late for me. I was lost in the panic and the intrigue of it all.

“Come in here for a minute” she called. I couldn’t tell if there was amusement in her voice or despair. “I found our sign.”

“Where was it? Who did it? I will see that they pay for this injustice! We will persecute them to the full extent of the law! This is a matter beyond campus police this is a matter of national security! This is a matter for someone with a badge and an impressive title! This is a matter for…”

“When Dave came in this morning he found it hanging from one nail so he took it down. He was worried it might hurt someone.”

“A likely story! Where is the sign now?”

“In his office. He doesn’t have keys to the store and he didn’t want it to get stolen.”

“Oh. That was very nice of him. Are we getting a new sign?”

“We will have to but it is not our first priority. Our first priority is making sure we give excellent customer service and offering theological books at discount prices to our loyal customers”

And that is why Crux Books doesn’t have a sign at the moment.IMG_3160