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Spring 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 1 · pp. 116–18 

Book Review

Northern Lights: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Writing in Canada

ed. Byron Rempel-Burkholder and Dora Dueck. Mississauga, ON: John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2008. 260 pages.

Reviewed by Margaret Loewen Reimer

This anthology brings together brief selections from forty-six people under the theme of “Contemporary Christian writing in Canada.” Contributions range from poetry, story and autobiographical reflection to social commentary, nature writing, and sermon. The writers represent the whole spectrum of Christian traditions, from Orthodox and Roman Catholic to Evangelical (including Aboriginal), Pentecostal, and Mennonite. In short, this a highly eclectic compilation. Much of the writing is wonderful, some more mundane. About half of the works had been previously published.

Editors Byron Rempel-Burkholder and Dora Dueck, both Mennonite writers and editors from Winnipeg, conceived this collection as an “experiment in identity,” a search for a “Canadian spiritual identity” (1). If Canadians have distinct geographical and literary landscapes, do we also have a spiritual landscape? they wondered. And who are our spiritual writers, and leaders? Looking to literary figures, religious leaders, public figures, and activists, the editors set to work collecting writings that “reflected the many faces of being Christian in Canada” without defining what that means. “Our aim was not to analyze, define, or argue about Christian identity in Canada. Rather, we wanted to explore, express, and showcase it” (2).

On the one hand, the wide-open, non-judgmental feel of the anthology is refreshing. It allows a wide variety of Christians to have their say, assuming that some common identity might emerge from the variety of perceptions, experiences, and imaginative creations found on these pages. This inclusiveness reminds me of my experience as a Mennonite editor within the Canadian Church Press, an organization that brought together publications from across the denominations and regions in Canada, reinforcing our common cause as Christians in Canada. We felt privileged to be able to work together in one organization, knowing that beyond Canada the church press divides into separate Evangelical, Mainline, and Catholic associations. But what does this say about our identity? Is this spirit of cooperation a mark of Canadian Christianity or a product of our relatively small numbers? Are Canadian Christians more irenic and tolerant or are we less passionate about our faith? Where are the boundaries in Canada that mark who is Christian and who is not?

These questions mark “the other hand” of my response to this anthology. The book’s lack of overt criteria and definition begs the question of what “Canadian Christian” actually means, or if it means anything. For example, what does the faith of popular singer Bruce Cockburn (who is represented by a rather “non-contemporary” song from 1978) have in common with that of novelist Joy Kogawa or politician Preston Manning? And what makes Sally Ito’s memoir of Hiroshima (“Atomic Birthday”) or Joanne Gerber’s short story about disability (“Breathe”) examples of “Christian writing”? Some of the works included here would fit just as well into the general category of “spirituality,” but perhaps that too is one of the faces of being Christian in Canada. (I noticed that Tom Harpur, Canada’s most popular author on matters spiritual, is absent from this volume. If he is not considered Christian, what does that say about his avid following among Christians in this country?)

Noteworthy in this collection is the inclusion of several outstanding Canadian journalists not often identified as Christian, such as Philip Marchand (Toronto Star film critic), John Bentley Mays (Globe and Mail architecture columnist), John Fraser (former Saturday Night editor and Globe and Mail writer), and Douglas Todd (Vancouver Sun columnist). One could also place the irrepressible Michael Higgins in this group. Their reflections were highlights for me, especially Marchand’s account of his return to the Catholic Church. Other favorites were Trevor Herriot’s moving meditation on hope in a changing world, and Bill Blaikie’s stirring testimony on faith and politics. I wondered at the absence of popular theologians such as John Stackhouse, Gregory Baum, and Douglas John Hall, whose writings are highly accessible and have shaped Canadian religious identity.

Readers will undoubtedly have their own favorites among the many pieces in this book. There is much here to ponder and enjoy. In the end, however, I felt that this heterogeneous collection somewhat strains the boundaries of an anthology, even a “Christian” one. And it left me with little sense of a coherent Christian identity in Canada. But perhaps that is part of the point.

Margaret Loewen Reimer, Ph.D.
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

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