The photographs of four calm, dignified faces at prayer set a distinctive tone for the new exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Its uniqueness is amplified by its ambitious billing as an “insider’s look” at the experience of God, a guide for “users.” Religion is not primarily about texts or objects behind glass, the show suggests; it takes practice. Canadian Christians will come to the show with their own familiar set of practices—prayer, worship, initiation, and service—and find their distinctive habits set alongside those of their increasingly diverse neighbours. While this can be challenging, the exhibit is a very valuable encounter as it reminds us of our Lord’s command to love, and thus to mission.
First, love. One of the show’s eleven themes looks at the importance of sacred places. To convey this, one wall features a transcribed email and phone correspondence in which a Muslim girl relates her pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) to her sister. Her repeated invitation for her sibling to do likewise reminds us that such a journey of faith cannot be merely observed from a distance. Anyone acquainted with the effects of earnest piety within families will knowingly smile, or wince, at how the pilgrim suggests her sister follow suit in spite of other pressing concerns. Nevertheless, it personally conveys the concern that compels faith to make an invitation to others, which Christians can be increasingly hesitant to do in a time of cultural pluralism. Of course, such an example is particularly valuable in that it challenges our own practice of faith while informing us of the distinctive forms that another religion takes.
Next, mission. As a Christian visitor I was skeptical of the show’s claim to be an “insider’s look.” After all, Jesus taught that a certain perception was only possible through the waters of baptism: “no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again.” While the true insider’s look may be untranslatable, though, the exhibit’s portrayals show great care and creativity in mediating the practices of faith to outsiders. This challenges the Christian to ask if her own witness strives to so public and thorough. This question is particularly sharp for the denomination that names itself after baptism, that Christian rite of passage our Lord commanded us to go and perform. Such performance was allied to teaching in the great commission, of course, reminding us to make it winsome and accessible to our neighbours.
There is an opportunity to do just that before leaving the exhibit. In one display, visitors are invited to offer their own hopes and fears on the afterlife through video or text. This takes on added urgency given the many misconceptions people have about what Christianity teaches on this theme. Unfortunately, the gallery itself repeats a common one with an uncharacteristically reductive statement that “for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the soul is freed from the body to inhabit an eternal world.” To sharpen the effect of this (mis)representation, an affecting exhibit video of Mélanie, an Atheist, relays her disbelief that the soul and body are too closely linked in human personhood to be divided, leading her to the conclusion that they must expire together. It left me wondering if there is an “insider” somewhere, baptized body and soul in the hope of resurrection, ready to witness for more.
God(s): A User’s Guide runs December 2, 2011 to September 3, 2012 at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (Gatineau, QC).