“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 6

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4 and Episode 5.

In this episode we finally learn the supposed reason for Mennonite drug lord Eli Voss’s rejection of the faith of his community. It was the death of his eight children and wife when he and they were on the way to church one Sunday and a drunk driver hit their wagon and horses killing all of them except for Voss. Because of this, Voss has seen God as a God of terror, not of love and grace. He clearly retains a strong emotional tie to his Mennonite community, but rejects all it believes. He intensely dislikes Pastor Noah Funk’s continuing faith in the goodness of God, and wishes to prove Funk wrong.

The final episode continued to integrate important Mennonite religious symbols into the conclusion of this crime story. One of the images was again gratuitous in my view and did little to advance the story. This was the martyr fire above which Noah Funk was chained.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

Eli Voss, in a speech to the watching crowd, explicitly refers to 16th century Anabaptist martyrs (forerunners of the Mennonites), and claims Noah Funk wishes to join them. Voss makes somewhat bizarre references to Gelassenheit, the Anabaptist doctrine of yieldedness and humility, and justifies killing Funk because Funk intended to destroy the drug ring and take away the technology and other economic benefits the drug trade has brought to the Low German Mennonite community. At the time of the martyr scene Voss believes that Funk’s family is already dead, as he has ordered his nephew, Gerry Epp, to kill them, perhaps to compensate for the death of his own family.

Back in southern Ontario, Anna Funk, fearing that her husband, Noah, is dead, implies to Joey Epp, Gerry Epp’s younger brother, that she will need a husband to help raise her family. She basically makes seductive overtures to him. Joey takes this to heart and kills Gerry Epp to prevent him from murdering the Funk family. Anna sees this intervention as the hand of God protecting them and refuses to run away with Joey.

Back in Mexico, a gunfight arises when the Mexican police arrive with the discredited DEA agent and  Bronco, the suspended and corrupt policeman from Ontario. To prevent Eli Voss from killing the young surviving witness to the murders that opened Episode 1, Noah Funk kills Eli Voss.

This then leads to the extended second religious symbol — that of a baptismal service, in which Noah and Anna Funk’s son, Isaac, is part of the baptismal class.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

For me this was a powerful scene, and reflected the struggle between good and evil that has run through this series. Noah, who has returned to Ontario (I guess the Mexican police don’t care that he killed someone) is ultimately unable to enter the meetinghouse to witness the baptism because of his sense of guilt, and Isaac is clearly ambivalent even as he accepts the baptism from Bishop Bergen who finally showed up in the last 10 minutes of the series.

As a crime drama the series worked reasonably well. The acting was at a high level, given the script with which they had to work. The writing and story line, in my view, was less successful, and relied on too many logical jumps in the plot to be convincing.

And the creators, in order to set this drama apart from other crime dramas, felt compelled to keep emphasizing that the characters were highly traditional Mennonites. This led to numerous gratuitous insertions of symbolic practices loosely based on traditional Mennonites, explicitly reflected in the titles of the episodes. These “symbols” were often an inaccurate mashup of the various Mennonite groups that has never been adequately addressed.

[Since first posting this blog, I’ve listened to the interview of Michael Amo, the creator and producer of “Pure” in a Writers Guild of Canada event. It can be heard at http://www.wgc.ca/files/WTTV046Pure_Amo.mp3. In the interview, at about the 9:00 minute mark, he defends the mashup of Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites as a way of not implicating any one group of drug dealing. He called it the “right thing to do ethically.” I’m not sure why this was ethical, since the inspiration for the series was a Fifth Estate program and  a Saturday Night magazine article on the Mennonite Mob in Mexico.]

If one subtracted the “Mennonite” angle, the high level of violence in “Pure”was quite clichéd. A tortured protagonist with the best of intentions ultimately triumphs over evil through “redemptive violence.” Clint Eastwood made a career out of this approach.

The difference, of course, is that the protagonists were pacifist Mennonites who reject violence, and don’t believe that killing a human being can ever be redemptive. The tension of the series arises from Noah Funk’s ongoing internal conflict on this issue, into which the rest of his family is pulled.

The sad, and most objectionable, part about this series is that the creators presented a distorted Mennonite theology, and pasted it on to a traditional Old Order Mennonite community that has no hint of this kind of crime or violence in its 125 year history. There are something over 10,000 people in Canada that might be described as Old Order Mennonite and use horses and buggies for transportation. This feels like extremely unwarranted exploitation.

This is not to claim that crime in unknown in traditional Mennonite communities — both Old Order Mennonite and Low German Mennonite have “marred images” in their histories. These have included child abuse and drug trafficking. But neither of these communities would ever condone what was portrayed in this series.

The creators of “Pure” did not reflect any understanding of how accountability or submission to the shared Ordnung (rules) in traditional Mennonite faith communities function. A minister like Noah Funk would not have made the decisions he did in isolation; he would have felt internally compelled to consult more widely with other leaders. And no Mennonite community has only one leader, as seemed the case for these “Edenthalers.” The individualism of modern society does not function in the same way in these communities.

Let us hope that season 1 of “Pure” is the final season.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.


14 thoughts on ““Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 6

  1. “a drunk driver hit their wagon and horses killing all of them”

    This plot reveal shows why they had to work in the inaccurate “horse and buggy” transportation mode right from the start and they achieved this by the deliberate mixing of styles of the different Mennonite orders + Amish.

    There is some merit to the defense that they also did the deliberate hybridisation so as not to single out one particular group of Mennonites as being “the bad guys”.

    If they had clearly accurately identified just the one Mennonite order (as per the CBC Fifth Estate documentary report) , is it possible that could lead to criminal proceedings under Criminal Code of Canada item 319 “Public incitement of hatred” because the “identifiable group” has been identifed by being accurately portrayed?

    This also raises the more general question of real world accuracy in works of fiction. As the base element is a work of fiction, how accurate and close to the real world reality does depiction have to or need to be. For all those offended and upset (and understandadbly so) by the false representations within a work of fiction, there is the artistic defense that it is “just a work of fiction” and is not “documentary reality/truth”. (This leads ultimately to the fundamental question “Is fiction / Are fictional works permissible” or should they be banned as being ungodly, sinful etc etc, with the ultimate extreme of burn all novels and paintings, destroy all statues etc)

    Deliberate misrepresentation of core values either in documentaries or fictional works is of course wrong and should always be constructively criticized.

    Messenger1963 raises a couple of points:

    “does not explain his murderous shift.”

    What is completely lacking in the storytelling is how Eli Voss went from distraught father to working with the Drug Cartel bosses to deliver the drug shipments to Canada. Once he had become enmeshed into this operation, the switch from pacifist to “murder as necessary” (in order to survive and keep the operation going) is understandable (though obviously not to be commended).

    Also totally lacking in the storytelling is how he persuaded and/or forced his nephew Gerry Epp to become the Ontario mob boss and then get all the people from the community to working for him at the reception/processing center. This aspect does negatively and unrealistically portray members of the Mennonite community as being easily manipulated despite their strong moral stance arising from their faith.

    “This is an unworthy depiction of a Mennonite preacher’s wife.”

    She was the office operations manager for the local drug distribution, had the blood of the two dead “Road Demon” bikers indirectly on her hands, so another act of deception to protect her children and herself from going up in flames from the planned arson by Gerry Epp was certainly not beyond credibility for this already deepy compromised character who can in no way be seen a a depiction of a “typical” Mennonite preacher’s wife.

    As for law enforcement, police, and magistrates, letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verses 3 and 4:

    For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

    For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

    As somebody once pointed out to me, “beareth not the sword in vain” indicates that those appointed to rule over and enforce the laws have a lethal weapon and sometimes it is necessary, as a last resort, for them as part of their duty in that role, to use that lethal weapon in a lethal manner, otherwise it would be “bearing the sword in vain”.


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  4. Sam-

    I have not had the opportunity to watch a single episode of “Pure” It sounds like that I would not enjoy it in my understanding of the Mennonite faith is or was. If the definition of “mashup” is a “mishmash” of ideas trying to explain a central concept then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. However, your mention of “why Mennonites don’t go the authorities when a criminal ac has ben committed within the community, invokes the idea that within the Catholic Church, the Fathers or Bishops of that diocese didn’t feel a need to involve the police when immoral acts were being committed against helpless young boys is simply outrageous to me today as a Catholic. How could someone come up with a rationalization of this condition can be corrected by prayer and meditation is simply ridiculous. Sorry to expound on this but when these “aspects” came known to me, I almost left my faith and my Church. I felt betrayed and sinful in front of God, Abba.

    Anyway, I don’t think I missed much because I didn’t any episodes of “Pure”

    Thanks for your comments and others



  5. Now that PURE is over, what’s the verdict?
    To my British ears, somewhat trained by decades within Mennonite circles, the often poor quality of the German dialects used became jarring. That Rosie Perez’s character had an Irish name was an odd choice.
    For drug lord Eli Voss to say that he turned from God after a drunk driver killed his wife and 10 children does not explain his murderous shift. Voss would be familiar with the Book of Job, the exploration of suffering through a man who faces a similar tragedy and yet emerges with his complex faith tested but intact.
    Further, when preacher Noah’s wife Anna says it’s wrong to ask the police for protection, this conflicts with Romans 13 and the Schleitheim Confession (an Anabaptist document of 1527), which say the state is to protect. (See Layton Friesen’s article You’re a Pacifist and You Called the Police?)
    An ugly part is when Anna resists fleeing and manipulates enforcer Joey into thinking that if he kills his sub-lord brother Gerry, she’d become his wife. After, she says Joey misunderstood and needs to ask for forgiveness. This is an unworthy depiction of a Mennonite preacher’s wife.
    Preacher Noah points a handgun at Voss, then lowers it, prepared to let Voss shoot him. Only when Voss turns to kill the boy Ezekiel does Noah shoot him. The moral dilemma faced by Noah is addressed by EMC minister Jacob Enns in his book The Gentleman. Killing a child and killing to protect a child are not on par.
    The final scene shows Noah standing in the rain outside the church’s meetingplace while his son is being baptized. (While Noah at times focuses too much on seeing God within each of us, the baptismal service concentrates more aptly on Jesus Christ.) My wife Mary Ann suggests that the rain symbolizes Noah’s need for cleansing—a counterpart to the baptismal service, I propose.
    Noah cries as Anna hugs him, then walks away. What does his walking away mean? That he abandons his faith? This is inconsistent with Noah’s character throughout the series.
    More likely, Noah walks away because he feels unworthy before God. Yet he does not throw away the Bible, leaving it to soak in the rain and mud. He keeps it even as he has much to process.
    Perhaps Noah will yet learn to further apply the grace of Christ to his own life, the grace he offered even a dying Voss. A more fitting ending would be for the bishop to go outside, walk Noah inside, and then kneel beside him in prayer—observed by Anna, his children, and the congregation.
    Terry M. Smith, EMC minister

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks from your comments, Terry. I agree with much of your analysis. The loss of Eli Voss’s family does not adequately explain his criminal behavior. I’m puzzled by the claims that Mennonites don’t go to the police. For certain “sins,” some traditional groups admittedly have tried to handle things internally unless exposed publically, e.g. child abuse. But even this is changing in many cases. But I have never known a Mennonite community to conceal overtly violent crimes like murder or drug dealing.

      I believe you are right that Noah feels unworthy at the end. I’m less sure about Anna; she has become much more manipulative throughout the series.


    • Hey, Terry, though I am no longer at MennoMedia, I see our (digital) paths are still crossing. Cool! I appreciated your response above. I want to push you a bit, however, on your statement that “killing a child and killing to protect a child are not on par.” Please say more. What do you mean by “on par” here? I have not read Enns’ novel* but have read and thought a lot about Christian nonviolence. Personally I do not think that killing in defending another is in keeping with our historic Anabaptist approach to nonresistance, nor–much more importantly–in our call to follow Jesus. I realize that the issues are extremely complex and that we all fall far short of the ideal. (I, for example, participate daily in violent structures that oppress and kill.) But my concern is that it is at just this point in the show that we risk glossing over one of the very most important ways that we as followers of Christ believe and behave very differently than our non-Christian neighbours. “The world” believes that violence can be redemptive. We do not. If there is a future season of Pure, perhaps Noah’s dilemma and his reaction to it can be examined, though I doubt very much that this is the format in which that issue can or will be handled with any depth or nuance!
      *A quick Google search re Enns’ book did lead me to your May 2013 Messenger issue which covered a January 2013 event at SBC entitled “What’s the future of Pacifism?” I see that you were one of four presenters. Can you send or link to what you presented?


      • Thanks, Craig. The phrase “the myth of redemptive violence” is sometimes used to suggest that all “violence” is of the same sort. The word “violence” itself contains the condemnation and begs the question. I distinguish between “violence” (unlawful) and “force” (lawful). A criminal killing a hostage is not the same thing as a person killing a criminal to save a hostage. Both are regrettable, but not entirely of the same nature. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists did not agree on whether force was forbidden in all instances. Hubmaier wrote his pamphlet On The Sword in the same year as the Schleitheim Confession (Sattler’s writing, supported by others) came out. That early Anabaptists disagreed suggests the matter was challenging to address then (as well as now). For my presentation, go to http://www.emconference.ca, go Blog, and look at the writing by Terry Smith. There is my presentation.


  6. Thanks, Sam, for all these reflections. I appreciate that you did not give up on commenting because of disappointment with the show.


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