Peter Stockland: The argument, past the headline, is that the universal God-to-man truths and the stunning originality of the narrative, in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, resonate through time and culture. Frank Ocean has that ironic line in Bad Religion where the Muslim taxi driver says, “Bo Bo, you need prayer,” and the singer says, “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” And, in a way, if that’s all a religion does, it is a bad religion. But if it brings us to our knees and then up off them, if it elevates us, makes us want to see with sacramental imagination beyond the mere horizon of our humanness, then God is working in it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Howard Voss-Altman: Just for the record, the subtext of popular comic books is Jewish anxiety. Superman, Batman and most of the Marvel comics were created by Jews, and reflected a Jewish sensibility for justice, physical power (when we had little) and anxiety about acceptance and assimilation. There are many wonderful books today that review the history of comic books and Jewish cultural acceptance.
As for movies that really capture a Jewish essence, I would recommend Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. Both directed by non-Jews with a great appreciation for Jewish themes and uniqueness.
Guy Nicholson: To use it as an example one last time, The Ten Commandments was released in 1956, when North America was a more Christian (and presumably more biblically literate) place than it is now. Is it realistic to expect wide-ranging religious literacy in a society that is now both much more secular and much more religiously diverse?
Howard Voss-Altman: It’s not realistic to expect greater literacy of any kind, given the wide variety of media distractions available. But I continue to believe that religion is a distinctly countercultural experience and that, as we become ever more isolated in our smartphone world, there will always be a need (and a desire) for sacred communities of meaning. Let’s remember, though: Religious communities offer something different. When we try to be like every other cultural or market offering, we lose the very quality that people actually want from religious life: the serious study of life’s most important questions.
Lorna Dueck: Yes, it is realistic, because the stakes are so high. Following the Iraq war, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote her book, The Mighty and the Almighty, arguing that, in today’s world, it is equivalent to malpractice for foreign-policy experts not to understand how religious tradition affects politics and foreign policy. Medical training at Harvard includes religion courses; I’m not sure whether we’ve got this in Canada yet. As we become so diverse, we need to understand how religion can motivate our neighbours or our families.
Religious literacy rocks family dynamics big time. Permit me a reach into history here, for an example from this very newspaper. Former Globe owner Robert Jaffray Sr. intended for his fortune and newspaper to be run by his son, Robert Jr. Against his father’s wishes, Robert Jr. chose, instead, to study the Bible at the New York Missionary Training Institute to prepare to evangelize China. In 1897, he ignored the threat of a lost inheritance and pioneered for biblical literacy in China and beyond; he was out to save souls. He never returned to business in Canada, dying in 1945 of illness and malnutrition in a prisoner-of-war camp in the Dutch East Indies. I’ve not been able to discover whether the family ever reconciled, but a huge spiritual family grew from his vision for understanding the Bible. Today, the Jaffray Centre for Global Initiatives is at Calgary’s Ambrose University, a seminary in Hong Kong still trains students in the Bible, and hundreds of Asian churches exist because his entrepreneurial instincts were affected by biblical literacy. Not an easy road but, as we learn from the Bible, suffering is a cornerstone of the Christian story.
Guy Nicholson: Our time is up. Thank you, everyone, for your time and insights.
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