Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

31 October 2004

Prayers requested

I do not usually get choked up in church, but this morning I did. We sang the beautiful eucharistic hymn, Gift of Finest Wheat (click here for the music), which is easily one of my favourites. Besides communicating so movingly the gift of Christ for our nourishment, it carries associations in my mind with the church where I first heard it and hence with two wonderful people who were part of it, Chuck and Jean Terpstra. My intial contact with this hymn was in December 1986 at South Bend Christian Reformed Church, just days before I flew up to Hamilton to interview for the position at Redeemer which I currently occupy. The haunting tune stayed with me throughout the interview process and on the planes between Chicago and Toronto.

Chuck was pastor of South Bend CRC at the time. It was my home church while I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, and he and his wife became cherished friends. After his retirement some years ago, he and Jean moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where three of their children live. They were among those who travelled to Chicago for Nancy's and my wedding back in 1996. Up until recently he was a faithful reader of this blog.

Yesterday afternoon I spoke with Chuck and Jean by phone after having heard from a mutual friend. Chuck is quite ill and sounded weaker than I could ever have imagined. Hence my heavy heart this morning on hearing the song.

There is nothing more to be said except that I would deeply appreciate your prayers for the Terpstras at this time.

Kyrie eleison.

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30 October 2004

More than one human species?

The discovery of the skeletal remains of Homo Floresiensis is still sending shock waves through the scientific world. The fact that the remains are only 18,000 years old -- a mere yesterday by comparison with other proto-human remains -- has raised the tantalizing possibility that We May Not Be the Only Humans on Earth:

experts have not ruled out the possibility of her descendants, or other unknown human species, still hiding in the impenetrable forests and cave systems of South-East Asia. Mythical tales abound in the region of a race of little people that dwell on the islands of Indonesia. Dutch explorers who colonised Flores 100 years ago were told colourful stories of a human-like creature local inhabitants called 'ebu gogo'. The tales described how they could be heard 'murmuring' to one another, and how, parrot-fashion, they repeated back words spoken to them. Dr Henry Gee, senior editor of scientific journal Nature, said scientists who made the discovery were now having to think again about these stories' source. . . . Scientists are now looking to see if DNA samples can be extracted from the remains, which should shed new light on the creatures.

So what if another human species were discovered on Flores or one of the other islands in the East Indies? What would be the political and ethical implications of such a find? Would these three-foot hominids be issued passports and voting cards by the Indonesian government? If they did not possess every human capacity as we understand it, would we look on them as subhuman?

It is not so very long ago that existing variations of our own species were classified as though they were distinct and separate species, with light-skinned Europeans -- the ones doing the classifying, of course -- being thought a higher form of humanity than darker-coloured Asians and Africans. Laws were enacted in, e.g., South Africa and the American South, to prevent interbreeding. Of course, we now know that existing human genetic variations are very small indeed, with racial identity being literally only skin deep. Theories of racial superiority have been thoroughly discredited and find no support whatever in the mainstream of the media and the academy.

Yet if living communities of "hobbits" (as they are being christened) were found and if DNA testing demonstrated them to be a distinct human species incapable of breeding with Homo sapiens, would such theories make a come-back? Would Christians undertake to evangelize them and to build (very much smaller) church buildings for them? Or would they conclude that they "lacked a soul" or were not created in the imago Dei?

Of course, we can't know how such questions would be addressed in advance. But one thing does trouble me about the way such creatures tend to be portrayed in the absence of visual evidence. Note from Peter Schouten's illustration below that Homo floresiensis is dark-skinned and somewhat resembles an Australian aboriginee. Am I the only one to find it revealing that, when someone of European (Dutch no less!) origin undertakes a visual reconstruction of an apparently extinct human species, the latter ends up looking more like an African or Australasian than a European? No blond-haired, blue-eyed hobbits, it seems. It occurs to me to wonder whether this might indicate the persistence of earlier racial attitudes.

Incidentally there is already a Wikkipedia article on Homo floresiensis. And here are the reports from the journal, Nature.

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29 October 2004

A right to sight?

The World Health Organization and a number of other bodies have launched a campaign to combat preventable blindness known as Vision 2020 - The Right to Sight. As someone who is severely myopic (a condition I sincerely hope does not extend into other areas of life) and has glaucoma on at least one side of the family, I can affirm the importance of being able to see. It is definitely not something to be taken for granted.

However, I question the appropriateness of the expression, "right to sight." As I've written before, there is a persistent tendency in our society to subsume too much under the rubric of rights. Rights are treated as a panacea for every societal ill, and now it seems they are being thrown at medical maladies as well. Aside from the fact that overextending a definition tends to cheapen it and weaken its meaning, too freely using the word rights could tend to diminish our capacity for gratitude. If we go through life believing we deserve whatever blessings God has chosen to grant us, we are far less likely to thank him for what we have -- since we're entitled to them anyway -- and to cultivate instead an attitude of grievance for the things we do not have.

So rather than "the right to sight," what about "restoring the gift of sight" as an appropriate slogan for the WHO's campaign?

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Bad news for Bush

Could these developments sink the Bush presidency: "FBI probes Halliburton oil contract," and "War costs 100,000 Iraqi lives"?

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28 October 2004

Distant cousins?

Could this species of miniature human, Homo floresiensis, have co-existed with Homo sapiens as recently as 12,000 years ago -- and possibly even 500 years ago -- in the Indonesian island of Flores?


Artwork: Peter Schouten

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27 October 2004

Analysis of Canadian federal election

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza undertakes to assess the results of the most recent federal election here in Canada: "Unsettling Canada."

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26 October 2004

A samba tribute

Here is my homage to Antonio Carlos Jobim's music. I wrote it a dozen years ago and it's called The Grass Isn't Any Greener (Copyright © 1992 by David T. Koyzis).

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Primary- and secondary-level disagreements: the case of abortion

My friend Marianne Scholte (whom I know from our grad student days at Notre Dame) asks:

Why is it that one's policy stance on abortion is an article of faith, but one's policies toward war, poverty, health care, the environment are matters on which persons of "good faith" can honorably disagree? How is this Reformed or even consistent for that matter?

As a matter of fact, I am not one of those who believe that abortion is the only or principal issue that should determine one's vote. Nor would I call it exactly an article of faith. However, I think there is a fundamental difference between abortion and the other issues Marianne lists above. The difference is precisely between the two words whether and how. With respect to poverty, health care and the environment (let's leave out war for the moment), one does not generally hear debates over whether poverty should be addressed in some fashion, or whether we should try to solve the health care crisis or whether to protect the environment. Disagreements take place on the secondary level of how such goods should be sought and secured through the ordinary political process.

With respect to poverty three possible positions might be articulated: (1) leaving the market to operate as freely as possible is the best way to help the poor; (2) collaborative efforts between governments and the private sector will help to alleviate poverty; and (3) government should undertake to redistribute wealth directly from haves to have-nots in order to equalize its possession. Although one might legitimately disagree with the advocates of one or more of these positions, one is unlikely to hear one's opponent arguing that poverty is a good, or even a necessary evil, whose continuation must be in some way legally facilitated. Similarly, although I am generally sceptical of the Acton Institute's market approach to protecting the environment as rooted in an inadequate understanding of the nature of the commons and of government's normative task to protect the commons, it would be unfair to accuse its members and supporters of opposing the protection of the environment as such.

Abortion is different. The current debate in the larger society is not about how best to protect the unborn. It is about whether we should protect the unborn at all. I think Christians can legitimately disagree about the former, but not the latter, given the numerous scriptural commands to protect the vulnerable.

For example, back in 1991 many Christians in Canada opposed the Mulroney government's Bill C-43 on the grounds that it did not go far enough in legally protecting the unborn. They worked to oppose the bill, and they were successful. The result? There is now a complete legal vacuum on the issue in this country and no protections whatever. I think those Christians were misguided to oppose the bill. I believe they acted in good faith, but I think they misunderstood what was possible to achieve in the current political climate and took a position that ended up further perpetrating an injustice. My disagreement with them is a secondary-level one.

Similarly, those acknowledging the reality of the current abortion licence might legitimately put their efforts into reducing the number of abortions through practical means rather than into changing the law, judging that the latter is unlikely to occur any time soon. Again, one's agreement or disagreement with this approach is a secondary-level matter, in my view.

That said, I believe there are other issues of a similarly grave nature that might legitimately prompt someone to vote for a candidate who is openly pro-choice on the abortion issue. If, for example, an incumbent presidential candidate, who is otherwise pro-life, claims to be above the law and to be exempt from international conventions proscribing torture, among other things, then that strikes me as being one of those first-level issues on which there should be unity among believing Christians -- and, one hopes, right-thinking nonbelievers as well. One can legitimately disagree on the implications of the assumption of emergency powers -- something the current US president has for all practical purposes invoked. But to assert that an emergency trumps the rule of law is a highly dangerous one. In my view the rule of law is far more important for the doing of public justice than even the mechanics of democracy. Any threat to this principle is a first-order threat to the functioning of the constitution as a whole.

Now when I argue that there are limits to what Christians can legitimately favour and oppose in the political realm, I must immediately make two things clear.

First, I am doing no more than others who would argue that, say, chattel slavery or racial segregation are out of bounds. No one sensibly argues that any and all points of view are legitimate, particularly for members of their own faith community. Everyone draws boundaries somewhere.

Second, even admitting this first point, we must nevertheless accept as fellow citizens those with whom we disagree at a primary level. We must further be prepared to accommodate their policy preferences within the political realm to some degree, lest we risk the breakdown of political order. This is simply in recognition that politics is the art of the possible, entailing the peaceful conciliation of diversity, as Bernard Crick famously puts it. We might wish for more -- much more -- but we will likely have to settle for a good deal less. If the policies pursued end up being bad ones and we were among the minority able to foresee this at the time they were adopted, we will nevertheless have no choice but to live with their consequences when they come, along with our fellow citizens. That's simply part and parcel of living in the real world of flesh and blood political communities in a sinful world.

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25 October 2004

Gloria in excelsis

This is for Mr. Joustra, our resident Latin-rite Calvinist, who loves the Gloria in excelsis Deo and ends his email posts with the final verses of this ancient doxological hymn. There is a much longer Greek version used in the Orthodox Church which is chanted on Palm Sunday evening. Here also is something on the history of what is sometimes referred to as the Greater Doxology. Mr. Joustra should perhaps come to St. John the Evangelist, where the Gloria is sung in English every sunday.

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PR round the corner?

Voters in British Columbia will have the opportunity next May to vote on a move from the current first-past-the-post electoral system to a form of proportional representation known as the single transferable vote. Not everyone is happy with this. The Greens would like to adopt a mixed-member-proportional system, which is what I myself would tend to favour. If the measure wins, we shall see how the parties in that province go about adapting our hallowed constitutional principle of responsible government to a situation in which no single party wins an absolute majority of seats in the legislature. If the experiment is a success, the rest of the country could follow suit.

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24 October 2004

Neo-Calvinism and piety, revisited

On thursday evening I was privileged to be present at the home of my colleague, Dr. Craig Bartholomew, for a regular gathering of our students known as the Kuyper café. One of my protégés, the efficient Mr. Rob Joustra, gave a talk on the subject of neo-Calvinism and piety, on which some of us, including me, have written before. I will not recount the content of his presentation, as I will allow him to do so if he is so inclined. Suffice it to say, however, that this grows out of a perception that those who have become taken with the neo-Calvinist vision are often neglectful of personal piety. Is this lack something intrinsic to Abraham Kuyper himself or is it a distortion of the Kuyperian worldview emphasis? I doubt that the former is true, since Kuyper himself was a deeply pious man.

Yet if there was a dark side to Kuyper's legacy, I wonder whether it might be located in his teaching of a doctrine known as presumptive regeneration, defined by the Synod of Utrecht of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland in 1905? This doctrine means that baptized children of believers are presumed to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unless and until their lives indicate otherwise. Might this lead to a certain complacency among such children as they grow into adolescence and adulthood? I think the possibility cannot be entirely excluded.

Remarkably, as my youth was spent in a Baptist church somewhat influenced by American revivalism, I was taught almost precisely the opposite doctrine: that one is not a Christian at all unless one accepts Jesus Christ as "personal saviour." (I was never quite sure what the adjective personal was intended to add to the equation.) Only then is one saved. The difficulties with this are fairly evident for anyone taking the witness of scripture seriously. First, my own decision, rather than the work of Christ, becomes the effectual moment of salvation. Second, that decision takes on an almost binding character, ignoring the possibility of someone welcoming the good news and then falling away (Matthew 13:20-21), thereby proving that he was not saved at all. And third, it cannot account for those who grow into the faith without being able to pinpoint an exact moment of conversion, which was my own experience. For many, if not most of us, conversion is a daily dying to self and putting on Christ. In the church where I spent my youth, piety became pietism, an overemphasis on personal piety at the expense of much of the rest of life for which we were created.

So what is the truth of the matter? Should children of the covenant be treated as unregenerate until their lives show the fruits of repentance? I doubt I would go that far, yet it certainly is incumbent on those of us who are parents to nurture in our children the marks of true piety, namely, a deep love for God and the desire to serve him with our whole lives.

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Dictionary anyone?

I wish I knew more languages than I do. My book has been quoted in a Lithuanian website, and I'd love to know in what context. Unfortunately Google has no translation function for that language.

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22 October 2004

Antônio Carlos Jobim

Theresa's musical education continues. These days we're listening to the music of Brazil, particularly that of the great Antônio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994). Possibly more than any other person, "Tom" Jobim embodied the sound of his native country in the latter part of the 20th century. He became well known in North America during the early 1960s, when his Girl From Ipanema hit the popular music charts. Brazil's music had come north before, its chief export being the colourful Carmen Miranda, whose sultry voice and fruit-laden headpieces had made her a household name during the 1940s and early '50s. But Jobim's music was different. Most of his compositions employed the rhythmic idiom of the samba, a dance developed by the slaves imported from the African continent. But in Tom's hands the samba became the Bossa Nova, the "New Thing," with its sophisticated, bebop-inspired chord progressions and cool, restrained beat. It was singularly suited to the optimism of the early '60s, when Brazil's future looked bright and a new planned capital city was bringing hopeful citizens to the heretofore uncharted hinterlands.



Antônio Carlos Jobim


Although Tom's first big hit eventually became something of a cliché -- a tribute to its staying power -- more great music poured out of his imagination, including Wave, Corcovado (known in English as Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars), Desafinado, and many others. So gifted was he as a melodist, that he could turn a single note (One Note Samba) or two notes (Aguas de Marco) repeated any number of times -- seemingly guaranteed to produce a hopelessly weak tune -- into a compelling piece of music and a virtual classic.

The influence of his unique style can be seen in the music of other popular and jazz composers, such as the late Vince Guaraldi, best known for scoring Charlie Brown's Christmas and the other animated television specials based on Charles M. Schultz's famous Peanuts comic strip. Jobim's songs were themselves picked up by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Sergio Mendes.



A good place to start for anyone interested in Jobim's music is Verve's Jazz Masters 13 recording put out by PolyGram Records in 1994, titled simply, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

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21 October 2004

Brave new Europe

Will this sign be posted at the entrance to the European Commission: "Confessional Catholics need not apply"? It will if the socialist, greens and others in the European Parliament have their way. Giorgio Salina, vice president of the Convention of Christians for Europe, worries over the implications of the Buttiglione case for the public witness of the continent's beleaguered Christians.

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How to vote responsibly

As the US presidential election nears, Christians in that country are receiving guidance from a number of quarters as to how they should cast their votes and on what basis. Zenit reports that the American bishops are urging Catholics to take into account the church's stance on life issues:
There is no element of the common good that could justify voting for a candidate who also endorses, without restriction or limitation, the deliberate killing of the innocent, abortion, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, human cloning or same-sex marriage.

Two documents have been written to aid the faithful in exercising their chief political responsibility.

On the Orthodox side, Fr. Johannes L. Jacobse argues that the Democratic Party has so aligned itself with the cultural left, which is definitely antichristian, that Christians are virtually forced to side with the Republicans.

Until the captivity to the cultural left is broken, the only place for a faithful Christian in the Democratic Party is as the outsider. It requires moral courage and clarity of mind to avoid the wrong compromises -- and supporting candidates who champion the moral precepts of the cultural left is a wrong compromise.

On the confessional protestant side, historian Mark Noll writes in The Christian Century, "None of the above: Why I won't be voting for president." Writes Noll:

Seven issues seem to me to be paramount at the national level: race, the value of life, taxes, trade, medicine, religious freedom and the international rule of law. In my mind, each of these issues has a strong moral dimension. My position on each is related to how I understand the traditional Christian faith that grounds my existence. Yet neither of the major parties is making a serious effort to consider this particular combination of concerns or even anything remotely resembling it.

Charles Colson does not like this one bit. Why?

[Noll's] position is dead wrong and damaging to democracy. It’s the utopian notion which assumes divine perfection in fallen humans. His assumption that we can support only candidates who have perfect scores according to our reading of the Bible makes me wonder how he votes at all. And if that’s the standard, all of us should stop voting.

Ever since Nancy Pearcey departed Colson's Wilberforce Forum -- apparently over who would receive primary credit for their collaborative authorial efforts for which she was almost wholly responsible -- Colson has turned his Breakpoint commentaries into an overtly partisan voice for George W. Bush and the Republican Party.

Finally, there's Jim Wallis's Sojourners which has spearheaded a petition averring that God is Not a Republican. Or a Democrat. In contrast to Jacobse and Colson, Wallis argues:

there are two issues in this election year that most tug at my heart, worry my Christian conscience, and compel me to faithful citizenship and discipleship. The first is poverty, the second is war. And in both the issue is our confession of Christ.


So for whom does the believing American Christian vote? I wish I could summon up the certainty of Fr. Jacobse and Colson. In my youth I was much closer to Wallis's approach than I am now. Yet he seems unable to recognize how "strengthening marriage and family" is related to the amelioration of poverty. (See my own "Neocalvinism and social justice" for an attempt to account for this relationship.) In my heart of hearts, I am probably closer to Noll's frustrated musings. If there were a christian democratic party that incorporated the concerns expressed in Skillen's recent book, In Pursuit of Justice, I myself would gladly vote for it. But alas there is not in either the US or Canada. This is not a matter of wishing for utopia, as Colson sees it. It's a question of desiring to vote for a party that does not in some fashion offend my sensibilities as a Christian and prick my conscience for having supported it.

In the real world, however, Christians and their unbelieving fellow citizens alike tend to vote strategically. Given the reality of the first-past-the-post electoral system, in which most votes are wasted, citizens find themselves voting against candidates rather than for them. Unfortunately, I fear this is often the best that can be done under the circumstances. Americans who cast their vote for Kerry will do so, not necessarily because they approve his stance on life issues, but because they believe Bush has badly botched their country's foreign and defence policies. Those opting for Bush will do so, not because they are enthusiasts for his policies, but because they distrust Kerry to do a better job. Remarkably, few offering advice to Christians make mention of strategic voting. Perhaps we need some advice as to how this second-best approach to voting can be done responsibly. Short of this, many Christians will ignore advice better suited to those living under another type of electoral system.

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20 October 2004

Tributes to Derrida

Charles Colson sees Derrida's legacy as wholly negative, even going so far as to draw a connection between deconstruction and judicial activism: "Gone but still with us." However, Calvin College's James K.A. Smith, in Books & Culture, writes with more appreciation and genuine sadness at his passing.

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Now what?

"Turkish Cypriot Government Resigns."

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19 October 2004

Website upgraded

I have given my Genevan Psalter website a bit of a facelift. Check it out.

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What? Compromise in the Commons?

This is great: "Foes agree to throne speech changes." Because Prime Minister Martin's government is a minority government, he has been forced to accept an opposition motion to amend the Speech from the Throne. For once Walter Bagehot's famous fusion of powers has been attenuated, which is all for the better. From the CBC report:

This is believed to be the first time in history that a Canadian government has altered the content of its throne speech to accommodate the views of the opposition. The amendment was unanimously passed Monday after its wording was watered down in negotiations between government and opposition House leaders last week. The new wording includes promises to widen the Liberals' agenda to include:

- Considering tax cuts for low- and middle-income families as the state of the economy permits.
- Allowing a House of Commons vote on Canadian involvement in the U.S. missile defence system.
- Studying ways of reforming the federal electoral system.
- Looking into creating an independent budget office
- Ensuring any surplus racked up in the employment insurance program is used to help workers.

The issues will now go to opposition-dominated committees for debate.

To which I say, let's have minority governments more often. If it forces a single-party government, whose power is otherwise artificially boosted by the electoral system, to listen to the other parties, then it can only enhance the deliberative character of parliament.

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Anglican split put off or hastened?

The worldwide Anglican communion has sharply criticized the US Episcopal Church for its decision to consecrate Gene Robinson as bishop last year. Here in Canada Bishop Michael Ingham continues to insist that his diocese will not change its ways. Sad to say, Anglicans have never figured out how to rein in rogue bishops, who sometimes behave as absolute monarchs over their turfs. However much one might love the Anglican liturgy, there is good reason to prefer a presbyterian polity.

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18 October 2004

Warfare and the just use of force

Below is my most recent "Principalities & Powers" column for Christian Courier, dated 11 October:
The mainstream of Christianity, including the Reformed tradition, has adhered to something called the just war position. Originating in Augustine’s reflections a millennium and a half ago, and further elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius and others, this position begins with the assumption that the doing of justice, to which everyone is called, may necessitate the measured use of force under certain circumstances. Criteria must be brought to bear to determine the justice of a proposed military action, including: (1) The cause must be justified; (2) the intention must be right; (3) the war must be waged by a competent authority; (4) the war must have a reasonable probability of success; and (5) it must be fought only as a last resort. These are known as ad bellum principles in that they determine whether a country should go to war in the first place.

In bello principles, that is, those principles governing the conduct of war itself, are as follows: (1) Non-combatants, neutrals and third parties must not be harmed; (2) existing laws and treaties must be honoured; (3) the means must be proportionate to the goals; (4) the enemy must know the terms on which peace can be achieved; (5) the goal must be the return of the aggressor to a rightful place among nations.

In recent decades many Christians appear largely to have abandoned the just war tradition, either because they see it as incapable of addressing the dilemmas of a nuclear age or because their understanding of justice has shifted away from an acknowledgement of its retributive character. Along with this has come a reluctance to contemplate the use of force in its defence.

However, many of us who accept the continuing validity of the just war tradition are nevertheless reluctant to plunge into warfare too quickly for other reasons. Indeed the use of force in warfare presents difficulties not present in a domestic police action. A police force by its very nature is responsible for supporting a domestic legal system and maintaining civil peace. It is part of a structure of authority consisting of legislatures, executives, bureaucratic departments, regulatory agencies and courts. Clear lines of authority and accountability exist and the use of force is hemmed in by them.

However, in a state of war two or more duly constituted military forces battle, not actual criminals, but each other. To be sure, one side may have a greater claim to justice than the other. But due to the precarious nature of the international arena, there is no certainty that the “right side” will win, especially if the other side is more powerful. Moreover, because each side is fighting in accordance with its own laws and the policies of its own government, there is perhaps a sense in which some measure of right, or justice, is found in both. Yet they clash and one may well suffer defeat.

This does not mean that just war principles are no longer relevant; I strongly believe they are. Yet if many of us are reluctant to resort to warfare too quickly, it is not necessarily because we believe the use of coercive force is intrinsically wrong. It is because its use is precarious at best, particularly for a small state with limited resources. Furthermore, innocents are more likely to suffer the effects of war than they are a domestic police action.

This underscores the need to build and support international institutions towards some form of global order. Though not a substitute for military force, these might serve to prevent some wars or at least to limit their destructive potential.

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16 October 2004

Ancient community under fire

The plight of Assyrian Christians in Iraq continues to worsen as insurgents have now attacked several churches. Nina Shea reminds us that the country's interim constitution provides for the establishment of a safe haven for this embattled community, which would naturally require American protection. Whether this will actually come about cannot be foreseen. However, one is reminded of Woodrow Wilson's ineffectual promise of an independent Armenia at the end of the Great War. Putting something on paper is no substitute for effective action.

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What will we do with our saturday nights?

Is this a national crisis capable of bringing down a minority government? Perhaps we should apply to the IMF for an emergency loan. Or maybe we should just admit that professional athletes are ridiculously overpaid, fire the current players and start over with newer, less espensive ones.

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Today's chuckle

I once wanted to become an atheist but I gave up . . . they have no holidays.

-- Henny Youngman (1906-1998)

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15 October 2004

Religiously Political Conservatism

In the latest Capital Commentary from the Center for Public Justice, James W. Skillen weighs in on the tendency of American Christians to combine their religious faith with the peculiar national brand of political conservatism.

George F. Will, drawing from what he considers "the best political book in years" (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's The Right Nation), writes in a recent column that "the emotions underlying conservatism's long rise [in America] include a visceral individualism with religious roots and anti-statist consequences" (Washington Post, 10/10/04). According to Micklethwait and Wooldridge, religiosity is what "predisposes Americans to see the world in terms of individual virtue" and to be skeptical of government.

This is why American Christians ought to be conservatives, right? And doesn't it also mean that in today's culture Christians should vote for the evangelical and politically conservative George W. Bush rather than for the politically liberal John Kerry, who happens to be Catholic?

Regardless of how you choose to cast your vote on November 2, to presume that religiously political conservatism harmonizes with Christianity is a serious mistake. Nancy Pearcey exposes the error of this presumption in her new, and now best-selling, book, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Political conservatives should read it closely and carefully.

The individualism to which Will refers grows from what Pearcey exposes as the unbiblical modern assumption that individuals are autonomous creators of their social relationships. That belief in autonomous individualism is the root of the social-contract theory of government that Americans have thoroughly absorbed. Too many Bible-believing Christians have mistakenly identified true faith with individual conversion and personal piety often in opposition to both ecclesiastical and governmental institutions.

When evangelical Christians identify their faith only with heart, soul, and church experience, they allow the rest of life--"secular life"--to be located outside the realm of personally authentic religion. This mind-set, writes Pearcey, constitutes the now-familiar "two-story" concept of truth. Christian truth belongs in the upper story of private piety oriented toward salvation beyond this world, while secular, scientific "truth" holds for the lower story of public life.

"Perhaps the greatest tragedy," writes Pearcey, "is that many evangelicals in the eighteenth and nineteenth century failed to recognize what was happening. Having embraced a two-story concept of truth, they assumed that political philosophy was a lower-story 'science' that could be pursued apart from any distinctively Christian perspective."

The mystery, however, is how these pious evangelical Christians, with a two-story concept of truth, came to believe so strongly that a secular, "lower-story," individualistic, contract-theory of government is compatible with Christianity. Pearcey highlights part of the answer, which is that evangelical Christians baptized "visceral individualism" (Will's words) as part of true Christianity.

Another part of the story is that a vast majority of American Christians adopted as part of the true faith that God had superintended the creation of the American republic as a new Israel--God's chosen nation. Soul salvation might be individualistic and oriented toward heaven beyond, but social-contract individualism with anti-statist consequences was baptized into the civil religion of Americanism. In other words, American evangelicals may have locked their individual piety in a private upper story, but they also sacralized lower-story Americanism as the civil-religious truth that fits hand in glove with their piety and trust in Christ's heavenly salvation.

On both counts this two-story view of life distorts biblical Christianity, which is neither individualistic nor civil-religious. It allows for neither a social-contract view of government nor the identification of America as God's chosen nation.

--"James Skillen" President

This commentary whets our appetite for Skillen's next book, With or Against the World?: America's Role Among the Nations (which, contrary to amazon.com's notice, will be released much later than "December 31, 1969"). I read a draft of one of the chapters this past summer, and it promises to be well worth reading. My guess is that this book will bring Skillen more attention than his other books have done thus far, and that it will furthermore occasion some controversy. Yet if it forces American Christians to rethink some of the less healthy ways in which they identify with the national political ethos, it will have done a considerable service.

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Generational shift: rediscovering orthodoxy

Those of us who are educators have a vested interest in the younger generation and its future. We delight in seeking and finding signs of hope in both individuals and the generation as a whole. That's why I find the following article by Colleen Carroll Campbell such an encouragement: "Reporting on the ‘new faithful’ in America."

In his celebrated 1908 book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton recounts the story line of a "romance" he had once thought to write, about a yachtsman who leaves England on a voyage of discovery. Somehow the man ends up back in England and, thinking it a strange land, comes to experience the familiar in fresh ways. His new discovery, which he so relishes, turns out to be his own homeland. Chesterton sees this story as his own. Searching for the new and untried, he ended up embracing the old and tested faith of his ancestors: Christian orthodoxy.

Campbell claims to have found many such stories among the post-baby-boom generations in the US, raised amid the follies of their parents, who had spent their own youths rebelling against societal conventions and traditional mores. Now it seems that members of so-called generations X and Y (what comes after Z?) are claiming as their own the christian tradition in its several forms, including confessional protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Furthermore, many are going so far as to enter the most demanding of religious orders, such as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Carmelites. All of this flies in the face of the notion, prominent in the media, that each generation must necessarily become more secularized than the previous. Writes Campbell:

The demanding nature of Christian orthodoxy is closely associated with its appeal. Consider the findings of a study conducted by the Glenmary Research Center in 2000. Researchers found that the fastest-growing congregations in America between 1990 and 2000 were socially conservative churches that demanded high commitment from their members. The study also found liberal churches, like the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, hemorrhaging members at the fastest rate.

That study probably came as a shock to leaders of liberal denominations, who believe that adopting the values of popular culture is the best way to fill the pews. In fact, it is the countercultural quality of Christianity – not cultural accommodation – that is attracting today’s young converts. They want a faith that demands something, means something, changes something. And they favor religious leaders who articulate that faith with clarity and live it with sincerity.

Is this development a product of wishful thinking on Campbell's part, as some have charged? It is true that the evidence, recounted in her book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, appears to be mostly anecdotal. Moreover, the trend she isolates is thus far still only a minority phenomenon. Yet there are unmistakable signs of something larger being picked up by the pollsters.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that among young adults, support for legal abortion – which has been steadily dropping since the early 1990’s – hit a new low in 2003, with less than four in 10 young Americans supporting it. That’s down from nearly 50 percent who supported abortion rights a decade earlier. Federal statistics also show a significant increase in the number of teen-agers reporting that they abstain from sex. More than half of all male high school students reported in 2001 that they were virgins. In 1990, only 39 percent said the same.

I sometimes regret having grown up as a baby-boomer -- as a member of a generation which not only reduced narcissism to a fine art, but, in rejecting the old orthodoxies, established a new and more oppressive one based on the overweening self. If it were possible to apologize for my own generation's follies, I would certainly do so. I would not presume to claim that my becoming a teacher is a means of atoning for these follies. But I hope and pray that, with God's help, my own efforts might contribute, if only in small ways, to securing the foundations of the generation standing on the brink of adult responsibilities.

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14 October 2004

Derrida, encore une fois

The assessment of Derrida's legacy continues and will likely continue for some time to come. Here are two more contributions to this. First, The New Criterion's Roger Kimball, who offers the following: "The Meaninglessness of Meaning: Jacques Derrida is dead, but his baneful ideas live on." That telltale word baneful will likely tip off the clever prospective reader that Kimball is by no means an unqualified fan.

However, the second retrospective, by Scott McLemee in the Chronicle of Higher Education, notes the fascinating "theological" turn in Derrida's thought in the 1990s, as recounted by John D. Caputo of Syracuse University. In the last decade and a half of his life, Derrida began to speak of certain things as "undeconstructible," such as justice, democracy, friendship and hospitality. Might this have represented a reaching towards God? Caputo thinks so.

"He meant that, I think, the name of God was important for him," said Mr. Caputo, "even if, by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi, he was an atheist. The name of God was tremendously important for him because it was one of the ways that we could name the unconditional, the undeconstructible."

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Vollenhoven

Dirk Hendrik Theodoor Vollenhoven (1892-1978) was Herman Dooyeweerd's brother-in-law and the other major reformational philosopher associated with the Wijsbegeerte der Wetsidee.


Glenn Friesen

Vollenhoven


I will admit to having had little contact with Vollenhoven's thought over the decades, although my studies at the ICS could have brought me into contact with it if I had studied something other than political theory. In any event, I have added to my sidebar a link to the Vollenhoven Newsletter, the (sporadic?) publication of the D. H. Th. Vollenhoven Foundation in the Netherlands. Here also is a link to Glenn Friesen's Vollenhoven pages, for those interested.

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Voter turnout and electoral systems

Located in the Swedish capital of Stockholm is an organization with an extremely useful website. It's called the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, or International IDEA. Among other things, it maintains statistics related to every parliamentary and (in some cases) presidential election virtually everywhere in the world. Especially noteworthy is this page presenting information on rates of voter turnout on a country-by-country basis. Analysing these on-going results indicate a definite correlation between electoral systems and turnout rates. Countries with a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system generally have lower turnout rates than those employing some form of proportional representation (PR). Now that Canadians are voting in such low numbers -- around 60% of those registered -- perhaps it's time for us to revisit our own electoral system with an eye to reform.

Two recent publications urge such reform: the Law Commission of Canada's final report, Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada, and Steps Toward Making Every Vote Count, edited by Henry Milner. Now it's time to get the politicians on side.

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I now pronounce you man and wives . . .

Is this the next step in the legal deconstruction of marriage? Although the court may ultimately choose not to hear Green's case, there is no longer any logical reason not to decide in his favour.

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12 October 2004

Measuring up

Every so often I like to check this site to see how I am doing. Not surprisingly, there's been little activity since my sabbatical began.

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Sobran on patriotism and nationalism

Joseph Sobran has been around for a long time, at one point writing regularly for The National Review. Although he offers much to disagree with (I won't get into that here and now), his three-year-old reflection on the difference between patriotism and nationalism, written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, strikes me as being largely right. In language that could have been used of more recent developments, Sobran writes:

When it comes to war, the patriot realizes that the rest of the world can’t be turned into America, because his America is something specific and particular — the memories and traditions that can no more be transplanted than the mountains and the prairies. He seeks only contentment at home, and he is quick to compromise with an enemy. He wants his country to be just strong enough to defend itself.

But the nationalist, who identifies America with abstractions like freedom and democracy, may think it’s precisely America’s mission to spread those abstractions around the world — to impose them by force, if necessary. In his mind, those abstractions are universal ideals, and they can never be truly “safe” until they exist, unchallenged, everywhere; the world must be made “safe for democracy” by “a war to end all wars.” We still hear versions of these Wilsonian themes. Any country that refuses to Americanize is “anti-American” — or a “rogue nation.” For the nationalist, war is a welcome opportunity to change the world. This is a recipe for endless war.

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The Crusades: dispelling myths?

The Catholic news service Zenit carries a two-part interview with Prof. Thomas Madden of St. Louis University in which he undertakes to shatter popular misconceptions about the Crusades. If Madden is correct in this, then it seems we shall have to revise our understanding of a series of events that were more complex than we generally give them credit for.

However, one might doubt this statement: "The overwhelming majority of the population in the Crusader states was Muslim." Possibly. But if "Bat Ye'or" and Philip Jenkins are correct, the muslim-dominated near east and north Africa may have retained a christian majority well into the late middle ages.

I might add that Orthodox Christians have good reason to dislike the Crusaders, who sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Yet it is worth noting that Pope Innocent III condemned and excommunicated the perpetrators of this atrocity.

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Derrida's legacy

As the intellectual world mourns the passing of Jacques Derrida, we are left with the inevitable task of assessing his legacy. Here is one such effort by Steven Plaut, "The Deconstruction of Jacques Derrida." Yes, it's polemical, and even sarcastic. But is it a fair appraisal? Let the reader decide.

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11 October 2004

Deconstruct this

Derrida est mort.


Suhrkamp Inseln

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

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08 October 2004

Thanksgiving

From our house to yours, we wish everyone God's richest blessings this Thanksgiving weekend.

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Canada's military woes

A resale shop is a wonderful place to buy vinyl phonograph records, old jewellery, vintage bow ties and the like -- but definitely not submarines! Could there be a vote of no confidence in the offing?

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06 October 2004

Oh, look! It's here again



Yes, it's time for the October issue of Comment. What's on line this month? Put this in your pipe and smoke it: "Blessed Be the Ties That Bind", by Jonathan Chaplin ; A Call for the Thought Police, by Vincent Bacote; Citizen Union: Labour Organizations in Civil Society, by Ed Bosveld; Dialoguing with Terrorists and Liberals, a review of Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism, by Barbara Hampton; Life's Big Questions: Why Am I Here, by Shiao Chong; Neocalvinism and Social Justice, by your devoted servant; and, last but not least, Reinventing the Well: Considering Design for Healthy Neighbourhoods, by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma.

I've heard an encouraging rumour that in the new year Comment will return to a printed journal format and will no longer be web-only. If it proves to be true, there will be a lot of happy people out there who find it difficult to curl up in front of the fireplace after dinner with a virtual periodical in their laps.

As for my own article on neo-Calvinism and social justice, I will be interested to see how this is received. I just read a review of my book in the Acton Institute's Journal of Markets & Morality (the new issue of which is not yet on line) in which the reviewer appeared reluctant to accept my conviction that the state has a responsibility to address poverty because Scripture does not explicitly assign it this task. At some point I should probably write something about the proper uses of Scripture in such matters. But for now I will simply affirm my belief that, as part of their divine mandate to do justice, the political authorities do have a limited responsibility to alleviate poverty, in co-operation with other institutions.

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Throne Speech

Yesterday the Speech from the Throne was delivered by Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson in the Senate chamber in Ottawa, setting forth the priorities of Paul Martin's government.


CBC News


Here is CBC's coverage of the speech, including general background information and the text of the speech itself. Here also is information on what happens at the opening of parliament. What is different about this Speech from the Throne is that Martin's government is a minority government. His ability to accomplish much of what the speech promises is dependent on the co-operation of the other parties.

Here are some interesting facts about the Speech from the Throne:

The Governor-General, who delivers the throne speech, is invited to write an introductory portion; the remainder is written by the government of the day.

The Governor-General must deliver the throne speech from the Senate; parliamentary tradition dictates that the monarch or her representative may not enter the House of Commons.

The reigning monarch may deliver the throne speech personally, if he or she is in Canada at the time. This occurred for the first time in 1957, during Queen Elizabeth II’s visit [sic] to Canada.

Perhaps I should add to this last one that the Queen does not technically "visit" Canada; she comes home to a country of which she is queen in her own right.

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05 October 2004

Film music

Sometimes a top notch composer can carry an otherwise mediocre film with a good, solid score. For those interested in the subject, here's a fascinating article by Stephen Whitty, "A film score primer," in The Star-Ledger. My favourite score composer, Bernard Herrmann, died nearly three decades ago. But three great composers of film scores, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein and David Raksin, died within the past three months. (Raksin was probably best known for his haunting theme to the 1944 "noir" classic, Laura, which Whitty doesn't mention.)

My sense of the matter is that, among contemporary film score composers, John Williams is overrated and the remarkable Julian Nott is underutilized.

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Rhapsody in Blue: hearing it anew

Theresa's musical education continues as she develops favourites from among my compact disc and vinyl record collections. While I was out of town nearly two weeks ago Nancy played her a recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue which I hadn't remembered owning.

Now I have any number of versions of this piece. It was the first work of "serious" music I grew to love as an adolescent. Ever afterwards, knowing of my affinity for Gershwin's music, my parents would seize upon the occasion of Christmases and birthdays to give me yet another recording of the beloved American composer's music. Since Gershwin died young at age 39, he did not have the opportunity to write as much as, say, Bach or Rachmaninov. Thus inevitably many of these recordings would include some orchestra's rendition of Rhapsody in Blue, a piece with which I am now thoroughly familiar.

Of course, familiarity with a piece of music can cause one to take it for granted, as well as to miss some of its nuances. But the version Nancy played for Theresa is a somewhat tinny-sounding performance by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra with Gershwin himself at the piano. It was Whiteman who had commissioned the piece in 1923. Thus what Theresa was hearing was very close to the original performance in February of the following year.

I had always assumed that the Rhapsody was an orchestrated single-movement jazz concerto -- or, perhaps more properly, a tone poem. To be sure, it is that, at least in part. But as I listen anew to the cadences, including the wailing of the clarinet, I am now hearing something with definite Jewish roots, which are often disguised in more recent interpretations. Could it be that Gershwin's immortal first orchestral work owes a debt to the klezmer music of the east European Jewish shtetls where his own parents were born and raised? I am now persuaded of this. I am not, of course, a musicologist, but I would love to see someone compare klezmer music theory with Gershwin's compositions and try to determine the extent of this influence. At the very least, those orchestras undertaking in future to perform the Rhapsody should try to draw it out more than the standard performances have done up to now.

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04 October 2004

The sloping roof and the person of Christ

Not far down the street from where we live there is a Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses. The building resembles nearly every other Kingdom Hall I've seen elsewhere in North America. It looks much like a small ranch-style house with a shallow roof. Here is an example of one such building in Springhill, Nova Scotia:



Now contrast this to Chartres Cathedral, shown below, with its soaring spires and steep roof line:


Ken Steiglitz, Princeton University


This raises an interesting question: does ecclesiastical architecture reflect the theology of the builders and worshippers? Might there be a connection between shallow roof lines and a low view of the person of Christ? Might there be a corresponding relationship between steep roof lines and a high view of the person and work of Christ? Just a thought.

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New parliament -- for how long?

As the new Parliament convenes today, all eyes are on the party leaders to see how they co-operate or fail to do so in an unusual minority government situation -- the 10th in Canada's history. Conservative leader Stephen Harper charges that Paul Martin's Liberals are courting early defeat by not being sufficient co-operative. The Hill Times' Angelo Persichilli asks whether Martin has a worked out plan to govern with a minority or whether he will simply respond to the opposition parties whenever they raise a fuss. We shall soon see.

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03 October 2004

Changing of the guard

Farewell to Russ Reeves. And welcome back to the indomitable Richard Greydanus.

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02 October 2004

Who? Me?

Rumours to the contrary notwithstanding, two back-to-back posts about baseball do not a sport fan make.

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Bush or Kerry?

So who won thursday evening's presidential debate? Depends on whom you ask.

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News of the day (Dooyeweerd consultation - IV?)

Last evening the eminent Dr. Craig G. Bartholomew delivered a rousing lecture at Redeemer University College on the occasion of his inauguration as the H. Evan Runner Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Religion and Theology. Titled "For Such a Time as This: The Relevance of the Neo-Calvinist Tradition Today," it elicited a good turnout and enthusiastic response. Earlier there had been a dinner and annual membership meeting, so it was a full evening indeed. It was the first time both my wife and I had attended a Redeemer function together in probably close to six years. It was good to get out for a change.

Among those present were Alan Cameron, Gideon Strauss, the estimable James W. Skillen and Stephen Lazarus, that is, some of the very people present at last week's consultation. The party continues, it seems.

Yesterday morning the winsome Mr. Brian Dijkema began teaching my book to a group of secondary-level homeschoolers. Evidently there was considerable enthusiasm among the 17 adolescents who are part of this. At some point the author may receive an invitation to address the group which he will undoubtedly accept.

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01 October 2004

Bipartisan support for faith-based initiative

The latest Capital Commentary, dated 4 October, is written by the Center for Public Justice's Stephen Lazarus, who was at last weekend's consultation in Baltimore: "The Everlasting Faith-Based Initiative." Senator John F. Kerry has now endorsed the concept, giving it the support of both US presidential candidates. Writes Lazarus:

Kerry's endorsement of faith-based initiatives exposes the misinformation and myths of critics who say equal treatment for faith-based organizations is only a passing fad, or the pet policy of a Republican administration, or a crass attempt to expand or reward a party's political base. At bottom, the faith-based initiative is not the private property of any one political party. Rather, the movement for equal treatment of all faiths in public life exists because government bears inescapable responsibilities to promote the general welfare of its citizens and to protect their free exercise of religion in public life. These responsibilities outlast each administration and continue to the next. Discharging these duties represents a high calling for both candidates, and we should accept no less.

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The all-American sport

For someone who is not a baseball fan, I've been to more professional games than I can count. The earliest was in the old Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox, sometime in the early 1960s. The most recent was probably close to two decades ago, but in between times I attended scores of games in different cities. Usually this was with family members who were fonder of the game than I. To be sure, I will admit to having enjoyed these times, but I generally paid little attention to what was going on down on the field, content instead either to converse with the people I was with or simply to soak up the quintessential American cultural experience.

All the same, it's difficult not to get caught up in something of the romance of the sport. Back in the middle years of the last century, pro baseball was exclusively a northeastern and middle-western sport. A list of the teams in 1932 illustrates this: in the National League were the Chicago Cubs, Pittsburgh Pirates, Brooklyn Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Braves, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds; in the American League, the New York Yankees, the Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, Chicago White Sox and the Boston Red Sox. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis each had two teams, and New York had three. This was before a series of moves in the 1950s and later sent a number of teams south and west. As a result of this and of the creation of new teams, baseball became even more all-American than it had been before, since it was more widely dispersed across the country. It eventually moved north of the border, with the Blue Jays and Expos. There was even a musical play and subsequent movie, Damn Yankees, about the obsessiveness of a Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil to see his favourite team win the World Series.

When I was around 17 years old our family became friends with a Cubs pitcher and his family who lived down the street from us. For the next year or so our two families spent a fair amount of time at the venerable Wrigley Field, sitting down in the section closest to the game with the other players' families while he was out on the field. We even had Ernie Banks and his ex-wife at our house once. As a result of this some of my younger siblings became ardent baseball fans. As for me, I was by then a little too old for all this to have had too great an impact. I hadn't been a fan up to that point and I wasn't all that interested in becoming one, though I was content to attend the games.


Keiichiro

Wrigley Field, Chicago


I can't say I've thought too long and hard about baseball since those days of my youth. But the news that Canada will now have only one baseball team brought some of this back to mind.

One final thought in this rather stream-of-consciousness reflection on a game on which I am not all that keen. My hometown of Chicago is reputed to have the teams with the worst records in baseball. I have in my drawer a t-shirt which is entirely too small for me now but which I sometimes wear when gardening. On the front is emblazoned the proud words: "CHICAGO WHITE SOX, WORLD CHAMPIONS, 1918." I suppose that says it all.

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