“Argo,” the Oscars, and the Canadians

Do you pay attention to Canadians?  Should you?

If you are Canadian, do you pay attention to yourself?  Should you?

Let me start with a recollection, as a preamble to my comments about the film, “Argo.”  Years ago, I taught American history to high school missionary kids and Africans in Kenya.  Most of my students were Americans, but I always had a sizeable mass of non-Americans in class.

I remember that some Canadian students tended to make snarky comments about Americans.  According to the tenor of the snark, we Americans had an over-inflated sense of ourselves, we overlooked our faults, and we claimed more for ourselves than we should.

At the time I figured that their reaction was based on two factors:  1) a few of their fellow American classmates probably got obnoxious with their patriotism from time to time, and 2) it’s hard to be a minority, even if you are simply a Canadian trying to convince Americans that they should pay attention to your nation.

I did not think that my American history class contributed to either of these problems.  My course was merely a verdant setting for anti-American snarkiness to flower.  After all, I never subscribed to the philosophy that American history ought to be taught merely as a celebration of glorious advances and triumphs.  In addition to the praiseworthy parts of American history, I taught the flaws and problems:  times and places where racism, greed, sexism and unchristian behavior shaped American history.  I was fair and balanced.

Now, I am not so sure.

Humans have an amazing capacity for self-deception, particularly if it makes us look better.  And because of this capacity for self-deception, we can’t be so confident, on our own, that we have figured out when we aren’t deceiving ourselves.

I was reminded of the dynamics between my Canadian and American students when I watched “Argo.”  And I was reminded even more of the problem of self-serving deceptions when, acting like the suspicious historian that I am, I looked into the history of the event a bit more after I had seen the film.

“Argo” retells the story of six Americans who were caught in Iran in 1979 when Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy and held fifty-two Americans hostage for more than a year.  These six Americans, however, managed to make their way to the Canadian embassy and (SPOILER ALERT – in case you have not seen the film or you don’t know how history turned out) after several weeks in hiding were smuggled out of the country by the CIA.

Ben Affleck is one cool CIA operative

It’s a compelling story.  Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who has to figure out how to get the six Americans out.  We see him working through several ideas and coming up with a crazy idea that gets approved, only because nothing else is better.  We see him creating a fake film company so he can lead the six Americans out of Iran posing as a Canadian film crew.  We see him flying to Teheran himself and driving the Americans through crowded streets with angry protesters.  We see him finally get the six through the checkpoints at the airport and on the jet to wing it home.  And we see him hugging his estranged wife in the end on her porch, while an American flag flutters in a light breeze them.

A fun movie.  Good guys win.  Bad guys lose.

And the Canadians?  Well, the ambassador and his wife sure were nice to host the Americans at their house.  Just the sort of thing we Americans would expect from our friendly neighbors to the north.

If the film weren’t portraying itself as history, I wouldn’t have a problem with this.

But we have this:  according to Ken Taylor, who was the (real) Canadian ambassador who hid the six Americans, 85% to 90% of the ideas and consummation of the plan was due to the Canadians.

Is Taylor exaggerating?  A bit sensitive, perhaps?  After all, it is possible that he is  1) feeling a bit bothered by a few Americans who get kind of obnoxious with their patriotism,  or  2) finding it hard to live in a world in which Americans don’t pay much attention to Canadians.  Is that why he said this?


Probably not.

Well, no, actually I don’t think so.

I trust Taylor’s analysis.  This is the clincher for me:  Taylor came up with the 85% to 90% number in reaction to comments made by Jimmy Carter, who said that “90 per cent of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian.”   So is Carter misrepresenting the situation?  I don’t see why he would be.  The Iran hostage crisis was the most damaging and painful event in his presidency.  He has every incentive to play up and exaggerate the role the U.S. played in this one bright spot of that traumatic ordeal.  Why would he misrepresent the event in a way that downplays the government he led?  I’m buying the analysis given by Taylor and Carter.

And can you cast a Canadian in a cool role?

Ben Affleck could have made essentially the same film, only with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service as the heroes rather than the CIA.  He could have cast himself as Ken Taylor and done all those things that Tony Mendez did.  But he did not.

Here is my question:  would “Argo” have sold as well as it did if the story was about

Canadians saving six Americans, even if it were the same thrilling story of danger and escape?  Would Americans have enjoyed the movie?

Would it have won an Academy Award for Best Picture?

An Episcopalian Who May Not Be Your First Choice as a Banquet Speaker

Episcopalians are generally a pretty respectable lot.  Well-educated.  Self-disciplined.  Reasonable.  Dignified.  Prudent.   There is often a certain gravitas to them.

So, if you seated James Madison on one side of the table…….

Consider, for instance, the following list of Episcopalians:  George Washington, James Madison, T.S. Eliot, Eleanor Roosevelt, Buzz Aldrin, Sandra Day O’Conner, Colin Powell, Batman.

Not a single one of them would embarrass you at a dinner party.  If you needed somebody to lend dignity to a national event by saying a few words at the opening ceremony, any in this group would make you proud.   Install any one of them as president of a university, and the U.S. News and World Report rankings of the institution would automatically jump up ten places, even if it was already ranked at number five.

And then there is William Wadé Harris.

Sure, this African Christian started down the path of respectable Episcopalianism.  In Liberia in the 1890s, Harris served as a catechist and teacher for the Episcopalian mission near Cape Palmas.  Working for the missionary machinery that brought education, Christianity, bureaucratic government, scientific farming and modest clothing styles to Africa, Harris was an unimpeachable product of, in the terminology of the day, “the civilizing mission.”

At least that is what it could look like for a while, from the outside.  It became harder to see Harris as a respectable Episcopalian, or any kind of Episcopalian, for that matter, in 1910.

Harris was in jail that year.  He had been convicted of treason after raising the British Union Jack on the beach and yelling at the Americo-Liberians (black immigrants from the United States who dominated Liberia) to get out of his country.  But there is more.  While in jail, as Harris explained later, the angel Gabriel visited him in a trance.  The angel descended three times and felt like ice on his head.  According to Harris, Gabriel anointed him as a prophet like Elijah, Daniel, Ezekiel and John, and instructed him to burn fetishes and preach Christ, who was about to usher in the peace of a thousand years, as spoken of in the book of Revelation.

I’m pretty sure that this sort of thing never happened to George Washington.

…..next to Prophet Harris, what would the two talk about? The Book of Common Prayer?

And I can’t see Eleanor Roosevelt casting out evil spirits, miraculously healing the sick, adopting polygamy, or cursing dockworkers who worked on Sunday.  All these actions were attributed to Harris, though.  He sometimes engaged African medicine men in showdowns of supernatural power.  Some say he raised the dead to life.

So one does not know what would happen at dinner parties if Harris were invited.

Catholic and Methodist missionaries, who were almost as respectable as Episcopalians, did not know quite what to make of him, either.  His evangelistic tours through West Africa after 1910 brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the faith, new Christians who followed his instructions to build churches and wait for white missionaries to arrive with Bibles.  The missionaries, of course, were pleased to see their churches overflow with converts.  But they were not sure if Harris’ baptisms were conducted properly.  They did not approve of polygamy.

This, of course, raised intellectual and theological challenges to the missionaries of his day.  But Harris also raises challenges to westerners today.  Some secular anthropologists like Lionel Tiger often assume that a certain kind of functional coherence exists in traditional religions.  They assume people of other cultures are content with their religious faith and values.  Yet traditional African religions, like religions in the West, are not as tidy as assumed.  Nor are their adherents necessarily content with them.  Many west Africans felt conflicted about the power for good and evil that they experienced in their traditional religions.  William Wadé Harris proclaimed that his African audiences could encounter a spiritual power – the power of Christ – that would release them from the power of their fetishes.  Hundreds of thousands jumped at this chance.

There is a challenge here to American evangelicals, as well.  It is easy, as an American Christian, to view African Christians as if they are American evangelicals with livelier music.  Harris, however, just might make some American Christians uncomfortable if he were to speak in their Sunday School.  Just what are we to do with polygamy and evil spirits, anyway?

We need to keep this in mind:  Christianity that has been transmitted to African soil often bears fruit that may look and taste different from what you’ve plopped on your plate at the Sunday potluck.  Variations of world Christianity can raise issues that many American evangelicals have not considered.  That is just one reason why western Christians don’t have all the answer to issues facing Africa.  As far as I know, the seminaries where we send our ministers don’t offer courses on African fetishes.

Nor do African Christians have all the answers, either.  The challenge, then, is to utilize our resources to collaborate and learn from one another.   The process will probably raise uncomfortable questions, but that happens in the Christian faith.  It can even happen to Episcopalians.