Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 September 2005

The Calgary School, &c.

Many Canadians may not even be aware of its existence, but there is such a thing as the Calgary School, which a certain obscure south central Upper Canadian political scientist undertakes to analyze in today's issue of Comment. As for the recent debate on Comment's pages on agrarianism, I already had my say on this topic some months ago.

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29 September 2005

A favourable review

Chris Smith of Bethany University reviews Dr. Nancy Calvert-Koyzis, Paul, Monotheism and the People of God: The Significance of Abraham Traditions for Early Judaism and Christianity, in the Review of Biblical Literature. Makes you want to go out and buy a copy for yourself, eh? And don't forget that hard-to-buy-for friend at Christmas.

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'Vladimir Ilyich' Bush?

Is the Bush foreign policy team taking its cues from Lenin's Bolsheviks? So argues a group of conservative political analysts in Russia. Even if they do overstate their case, I would argue that those in the grip of an ideology, whether it aims at global communist revolution or the export of democracy, will tend to think in similar ways and follow similar patterns of action.

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28 September 2005

Turkey and the EU: the ongoing drama

The European Parliament has placed an unanticipated hurdle in the way of Turkey's membership in the European Union, just days before accession talks are to begin next monday. The sticking points? Cyprus, of course. But also recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915, which Turkey has thus far refused to own up to.

Later: This is even more intriguing: Swiss scholars want famous church returned before Turkey joins EU.

Swiss scholars have petitioned the European Parliament to ask that Istanbul's sixth-century Church of Hagia Sophia, now a museum, be restored for Christian worship before Turkey joins the European Union. . . .

"Turkey has long severed its ties with darker aspects of its Ottoman past. It aspires to join the European Union. The time has come to restore Hagia Sophia's spirituality as a place of Christian worship," the Swiss scholars said.

Given that Aghia Sophia was turned into a mosque by the Ottoman Turks way back in 1453, I rather think the statute of limitations has run out on this one. The likelihood of Turkey returning the building is only slightly less than that of the EU making it a condition for that country's membership. The old cliché about an infernal snowball would seem to have some relevance here.

Here is the HagiaSophiaBlog, which is spearheading a petition to "force the European Union to consider" their proposal "that Turkey should not be admitted to the EU before restoring justice to Hagia Sophia."

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Tragedy in Kosovo

Has the western world been turning a blind eye to the destruction of churches in Kosovo? According to this Interfax report, the answer is yes.

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27 September 2005

The Queen's new representative

Today Her Excellency, Mme. Michaëlle Jean, was sworn in as 27th Governor General of Canada in the Senate chamber. In 1952 Vincent Massey became the first Canadian-born governor general, thereby establishing a convention governing future vice-regal appointments — one that would endure to the end of the century. In 1999 a new convention was established whereby all future governors general must be foreign-born female CBC journalists. If Barbara Frum had lived longer, she'd have been a shoo-in.

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Sancte Fyodor, ora pro nobis

Russian nuclear bombers now have their own patron saint, courtesy of the Moscow patriarchate.

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26 September 2005

The 'religious right' in Canada

The National Post continues its series on conservatism in Canada with an essay by Lorne Gunter on Fighting Canada's secularist tide. It seems Christians in Canada are 20 years behind their counterparts south of the border in trying to influence the political process. Might they have something to learn from their American brothers and sisters in the faith? Gunter thinks so. On the other hand, our Westminster parliamentary/cabinet system may not offer an hospitable institutional setting for such activities. Adopting PR might be a place to start in rectifying this. The Globe and Mail is already in favour, though, last I heard, the Post is not.

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Spanish sojourn

The latest Redeemer alumna to report from overseas is future prime minister Yolisa de Jager, who is studying at the University of Salamanca in Spain. May God bless her time there, and may she become as fluent in español as she is in French. And let's hope she gets her visa problems straightened out soon.

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25 September 2005

I wonder . . .

. . . how our Cajun Huguenot has weathered Katrina and Rita?

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Evangelicals in the media

Remember Alan Wolfe's Atlantic Monthly article, "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind," which appeared in the October 2000 issue? Our faculty had a round-table discussion of this essay in August of the following year, and it was much talked about in evangelical circles for a time. Five years later, Christopher Hayes may have produced a similarly provocative article: Student Body Right, which touches on the christian universities dotting the educational landscape of North America. The usual persons are cited here, including Mark Noll and James Davison Hunter. Now Nancy Pearcey merits mention as well, mostly because of her Total Truth, with its treatment of the concept of worldview.

When all is said and done, could it be possible that the net effect of all these christian universities is to make their graduates into good Republican Party activists? That, at least, seems to be Hayes' conclusion.

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Conservatism in Canada

Yesterday the National Post began a series on the state of conservatism in Canada, beginning with this article by Robert Fulford: The values battle. (Would-be readers of the other articles will have to pay for them.) How does the Post define conservatism? In two words: less government — which appeals to Americans but has always been a tough sell in this country. Working with this definition, it turns out that Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was not much of a conservative, despite his party label.

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24 September 2005

Education, economics and (yes, once again) agrarianism

In this week's edition of Comment, three articles are on offer. First, Aaron Belz asks: What is to be done. . . about schooling? The author argues that the modern classroom can be a deadening environment, with energetic young people subjected to an artificial regimen more likely to kill than to encourage the joy of learning. What to do? Belz offers a five-fold strategy for reform. Remarkably, he neglects to mention an alternative gaining in popularity with especially christian parents: homeschooling.

Next, the formidable Mr. James Brink gives us his ideas on economics: Squares or Triangles? Cutting up the Market. Brink points out that the dominant neoclassical model of economics is based on a faulty anthropology — one unable to account for the relational character of the human person. With Gordon Bigelow, he argues for a "post-autistic economics" that refrains from reducing flesh and blood human beings to self-interested rational calculators.

Finally, if I had read Peter Scholtens' Agrarianism is misguided: another reply before I had written my book, I might have seen fit to include agrarianism (as distinct from the more modest affirmation of the agricultural calling) among the ideologies I treated. Scholtens critiques the notion that the agrarian way of life is any less subject to sin than other human pursuits. Following the biblical logic of Augustine and Calvin, Scholtens writes:

Farming is no more blessed than any other vocation, and the farming community is no more hallowed than any other community. The agrarian community is not a model society for mankind, for it is infected by the same evil that all other communities are infected with. Like every other vocation, farming must seek redemption outside itself.

Is that the end of the dialogue? Probably not, but Scholtens has definitely raised the bar. Any future respondent will have to meet the challenge of defending Wendell Berry's agrarian vision in such a way as to avoid the gnostic deprecation of one part of God's good creation while exalting (idolizing?) another.

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Website online

Redeemer's political science department has an upgraded website online.

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Turkey's embarrassing situation

This cannot help Turkey's bid to join the European Union: Ban on genocide talks earns rebuke from EU. To his credit, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül has denounced the court decision, admitting that his country has put itself in a difficult position: "There is no one better than us when it comes to harming ourselves." The conference on the Armenian genocide will evidently be held elsewhere today to circumvent the ban. Now if only Gül can be persuaded to budge on Cyprus.

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22 September 2005

Visitors welcomed

Yesterday Redeemer University College was pleased to welcome visiting faculty and students of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, some of whom sat in on my Ancient and Mediaeval Political Theory class, in which we discussed books II and III of Plato's Republic. Our guests assured me that there is indeed a course in political philosophy taught there and that their website is simply out of date. That's good to hear. We hope and pray that they enjoyed their stay with us.

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21 September 2005

The future legacy of the current pope

Pope John Paul II is remembered for having played a large role in bringing down communism, though he did not live quite long enough to witness the 25th anniversary of Solidarity, which his own efforts did so much to encourage in his homeland. If the initial months of Pope Benedict XVI's papacy are any indication, he could be remembered for three contributions: (1) building bridges to fellow Christians not in communion with Rome, especially the Orthodox, (2) insisting on the protection of religious freedom, and (3) breaking the hold of post-christian secularism in Europe and elsewhere. If he succeeds in any one of these, he will have earned his place in history.

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19 September 2005

Don't leave home without it

If you were stranded on a desert island and could take with you only one book, which would it be? To help readers decide, I've added to my sidebar a review of Political Visions and Illusions, which appeared last month in the Fiji Post.

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Another Catholic rite?

After reading Kevin R. Yurkus' thorough taxonomy of the 24 distinct churches in communion with Rome, I find myself wondering whether there could ever be such a thing as a Genevan-rite Catholic church. Just curious.

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A favourite film and a familiar location

At the weekend my wife and I saw for the umpteenth time My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I don't think it's possible to see that film too many times. There's something in it for everyone, including Michael Constantine telling one and all that every English word has a Greek root (I didn't know my father was a consultant for the film!), a slightly daft γιαγιά (grandmother), an unlikely cross-cultural romance, and familiar shooting locations in Chicago and Toronto. One such location I easily recognized the first time I saw the film. It's the church where Ian was baptized and where he and Toula were subsequently married.


Holy Trinity ROCOR


In real life it's Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, and it's located on Henry Street in Toronto. If you walk north on Spadina Avenue towards College Street, you will see this church at the end of Cecil Street to your right. I used to walk that way every day in 1978 and '79, when I was living near Queen and Spadina. The building caught my eye, and one sunday I decided to satisfy my curiosity by dropping in during the celebration of the liturgy. Aware that I was a stranger, I did not remain very long, hovering close to the door. But I recall the all-male choir blending perfectly as it sang in what I assume was Old Church Slavonic. Of course, there were no pews or instruments, only the haunting beauty of men's voices joined in praising the Lord. I am told that the building was once a synagogue. Incidentally, the congregation itself is part of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which broke with the Moscow Patriarchate at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution but is on the verge of re-establishing communion. Next time you see the film, look for this church.

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17 September 2005

A field guide to our fellow believers

For the uninitiated but interested, Crisis magazine has provided an invaluable guide to those Christians in communion with Rome but following non-Latin rites: The Other Catholics: A Short Guide to the Eastern Catholic Churches.

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Weekend reading

If you're looking for something to fill your spare time this weekend, here are some recommendations. The most recent Comment articles are certainly worth your while. Dr. Vincent "Abraham" Bacote addresses the question: What is to be done in Theology?, and suggests four areas needing work: the doctrines of creation, the church, the Spirit, and race and ethnicity. Aunt Wilma sets her nephew straight with respect to Wendell Berry's agrarian vision. Writes Ms. van der Leek: "Berry's concern is with long-term sustainability of the earth so that it can continue to feed cities, not kill them." Then we turn south of the border to the Center for Public Justice's regular Capital Commentary. This week Stephen Lazarus, whose very name suggests resurrection hope, writes on First Amendment Amnesia as the US Senate begins to consider the nomination of John Roberts as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

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16 September 2005

Turkey and the EU: still no breakthrough

The European Union is still deadlocked over how to respond to Turkey's prospective accession. According to this BBC report, "Turkey is angered at the latest developments and says it has already met all the conditions for membership." Really? Ankara shouldn't be too surprised if some Europeans consider the illegal occupation of the territory of a current EU member state something more than an embarrassing situation. The wonder is that not all do so.

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Breaking the provincial education monopoly

Don't let the name fool you. Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy is a nascent Catholic post-secondary university located way up in Barry's Bay, near Algonquin Park. We wish this new institution well as it attempts to educate its students in the classical liberal arts "with a special emphasis on the Tradition of the Catholic Church." One observation and one question are in order. First, I note an absence of courses in politics. One hopes these will be added as the institution grows. Second, is the Michael O'Brien listed as adjunct faculty the same Michael O'Brien who authored the Father Elijah books? Combermere's proximity to Barry's Bay makes this seem likely.

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Sayonara, Mr. Joustra

Recent Redeemer alumnus Rob Joustra reports from Japan, and we look forward to rousing accounts of his adventures there. May God keep watch over him and his friends during their sojourn. In the meantime, we'll miss them over here.

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14 September 2005

Pharmacists to violate Charter guarantee?

Could the Ontario College of Pharmacists seriously be thinking of adopting a code of ethics that would have personal "autonomy" trumping religious freedom? It seems so. On the face of it, this would appear to violate section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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13 September 2005

Renewing Canada's foreign and defence policies

Russ Kuykendall asks: What would Pearson do?, the reference, of course, being to the late Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 and sought to see Canada live up to its international obligations, including those to its much larger neighbour to the south. Might hope for the future be found in a Community of Democracies functioning as either a caucus within the United Nations or independently? Kuykendall thinks so, and I'm inclined to agree that it's worth taking a look at. Incidentally, Kuykendall's proposal appears to be compatible with one made two years ago by James W. Skillen in Iraq, Terrorism, and the New American Security Strategy, as well as in his recent book, With or Against the World? America's Role Among the Nations.

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McGuinty has spoken

Reuters reports: Ontario rejects sharia, faith-based arbitration. Jewish groups are not happy, as Premier McGuinty's decision would affect them as well. Says the premier: there must be "one law for all Ontarians." To be sure, there must be one public law. Yet not all law can be reduced to the public law of the state. Were McGuinty to recognize what might be called the pluriformity of laws, he might come to a different and more nuanced decision. Remarkably, the opposition Conservative and New Democratic Parties have chosen not to take issue with the governing Liberals on this matter.

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12 September 2005

People and Russia's future

Moscow News carries an analysis by Otto Latsis of an issue badly needing further discussion and action: Russia Faces Demographic Disaster.

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Wendell Berry and the agrarian vision

Two recent Comment articles address the ideas of the American farmer-writer, Wendell Berry: Life in a Machine The Crisis of Modern Agriculture, by Wilma van der Leek; and The Cultural Mandate and the Spirit of Agrarianism, by our own Richard Greydanus. Ms. van der Leek argues, with Berry, that agriculture needs to be undertaken on a more human scale, based on "sustainable, stable, locally-adapted, land-based economies." While affirming much of this vision, Mr. Greydanus argues, by contrast, that there are blessings to be found in trans-local phenomena, citing the historical examples of empires which built roads and successfully kept the peace within a large geographical area. Could it be, recognizing the cultural mandate given to human beings at their creation, that trans-local political and economic phenomena are indeed already human scale?

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Fr. Schall on Catholic political philosophy

Zenit carries a two-part interview with Fr. James Schall, a professor in the department of government at Georgetown University, on the occasion of the release of his latest book, Roman Catholic Political Philosophy. So what is distinctive about Catholic political philosophy? Schall answers:

Since Catholicism is not a political movement, it frees political things to be political things. It does not encourage them, as so often happens in modernity, to be confused with religion or metaphysics, or become, in effect, substitutes for them. . . . If politics is not limited to what it is, it tends to claim to be itself the highest thing. It finds itself claiming to define and to establish the whole of the human good on its own terms.

This, of course, is hardly limited to politics, but extends to anything in God’s good creation capable of being deified, that is, virtually everything. I’ve not yet seen Schall’s book, so he may rectify this omission in its pages, but one cannot help noting that justice makes no appearance in the interview. Justice is, of course, of more than incidental significance to a normative understanding of politics and its place in God’s world.

By contrast, if this address by Cardinal Renato Martino is any indication, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church released last year is filled with references to justice. One wonders what this says about the distinction Fr. Schall draws between Catholic political philosophy and Catholic social thought.

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Félicitations à leurs altesses royales

Congratulations are due to John den Boer and Laurianne Munezero, who were married 30 July. John is one of my protégés, who recently graduated from Redeemer in political science and who, rumour has it, is now a prince by marriage.

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09 September 2005

Straw on Turkey's EU candidacy

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw believes that Europe needs Turkey. Why?

Mr Straw believes its entry into the union would be a blow to those who say there is a "clash of civilisations" between the Muslim world and the West. "It will prove that a secular democracy which shows respect for Islam can live comfortably in Europe," he said. . . .

"Turkey is a secular nation with a majority Muslim population. By welcoming Turkey we will demonstrate that Western and Islamic cultures can thrive together as partners in the modern world - the alternative is too terrible to contemplate."

This strikes me as a bit rash. It makes little sense to push for the membership of one country — especially one with Turkey's record — in the European Union just to disprove Samuel Huntington's now famous theory. If Straw can think of no better reason than this, then it would seem unwise to move forward on something with possible negative ramifications for scores of millions of people. Surely there are other, less risky ways to test an hypothesis? Presenting a paper at an academic conference comes to mind as a way to begin.

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Declining voter turnout

Russ Kuykendall notes that voter turnout in this country has fallen since 1993 and wonders whether the end of door-to-door enumeration since 1997 has something to do with it. He futher wonders whether we ought to follow Australia and institute compulsory voting. Perhaps there is something to be said for this.

However, there is another possibility, which I addressed here a few years ago: Voter Turnout and Competitive Politics. If an electoral system wastes votes massively and keeps producing the same single-party government time and again, the incentive to vote declines. It is no coincidence that 1993, which saw the decimation of one of our historic parties and the beginning of dominance by another that has yet to end, also saw the start of a decline in voter turnout.

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08 September 2005

A new PhD

Congratulations are due to Dr. Benita Wolters-Fredlund, who successfully defended her dissertation at the University of Toronto yesterday morning. Benita is the daughter of my esteemed friend and colleague, Dr. Al Wolters, and has a sessional appointment at Redeemer this year in music. Δόξα τω Θεώ!

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Cyprus, Turkey and the EU

Can a prospective member of the European Union gain entry without recognizing another member and closing its seaports and airports to the latter's ships and planes? Turkey thinks it can. Incredibly, with accession talks only weeks away, the EU cannot come to agreement on a response. Yet it seems evident that the very point of entertaining Turkey's membership in the EU is to encourage it to clean up its act. Removing such conditions makes it look as if the EU is desparate for Ankara to join, which it has no reason to be.

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07 September 2005

Gnostic governance and the New Orleans tragedy

Überblogger Joe Carter cites my discussion of idolatry and gnosticism in Political Visions and Illusions to support his warning against finger-pointing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To be sure, one needs to be exceedingly careful in assessing responsibility for what looks likely to be a loss of lives numbering in the thousands. Some are already blaming the US federal government, and, at least in part, this may indeed be motivated by a "gnostic deification of governance," although this is not an expression I myself would use.

It is true, of course, that we do not have it within our power to ensure absolute security against natural or human-made disasters. We will never ultimately succeed in ending violence against women, smoking, shoplifting, volcanoes, earthquakes, the common cold, or a host of other evils that might beset us. Yet when efforts to address a tragedy everyone knew would come sooner or later are so spectacularly mishandled, it is only natural that people in general, and especially those most immediately affected, should ask why. Is it reasonable to expect some co-ordinative rescue effort from our governments (note the plural form here), even if we recognize that they cannot by themselves altogether prevent or resolve such a tragedy? Is this part of their task of doing public justice? I think so, yes. Contrast the efforts of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city's fire and police departments four years ago to the catastrophic ineffectiveness of the municipal government of New Orleans. Lives were lost in both cities, but the crisis was handled more skilfully by the former than by the latter.

My own sense of the matter is that contingency planning for such an eventuality should have been spearheaded by the state of Louisiana, with the co-operation of the other affected governments. Because local government in the United States is such a fractious affair, the state government is simply in a better position to co-ordinate an emergency response for a disaster crossing municipal boundaries. As for the federal government in Washington, DC, it certainly has an interest in ensuring that a seaport crucial to the inflow of the nation's energy resources remain open and functioning, and that, if this should become impossible, alternatives be put in place. Yet in my view Washington should probably be limited to a supportive role. None of this is a matter of seeking salvation in an ultimate sense. It's simply a matter of good planning, which in this case seems not to have been undertaken.

By the way, Carter's quotation of my description of gnosticism is not precisely my own view of this phenomenon; it's my account of Eric Voegelin's description of gnosticism. I think there's much to be said for Voegelin's view, but it's too heavily coloured by his platonic predispositions to be an entirely useful guide to an ancient heresy. In fact, as I indicate in my book (pp. 29-31), due to this platonic influence, even Voegelin has not entirely succeeded in eluding the grasp of gnosticism.

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06 September 2005

A bitter anniversary

Fifty years ago tonight the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul, which had lived there since ancient times, was subject to an orchestrated series of attacks by Turkish mobs, who vandalized Greek-owned homes, stores, schools, churches and cemeteries. The event has been likened to the infamous and better known Kristallnacht, which saw nazi thugs loot Jewish-owned establishments in Germany in 1938. The 1955 attacks led to the mass emigration of ethnic Greeks from Istanbul, where they then numbered close to 100,000 but now number fewer than two thousand, mostly elderly persons. Read the story here: Turkey's Forgotten Islamist Pogrom.


ΕΛΛΑΣ

Patriarch Athenagoras
in the rubble of the
Church of Sts. Constantine and Helen,
September 1955


The events of 6-7 September 1955 spilled over from the Cyprus crisis, which had broken out five months earlier as a guerrilla war and had poisoned relations between the two ethnic communities in the island and elsewhere. What if, as a condition for membership in the European Union, Turkey were made to agree to take back and compensate its Constantinopolitan Greeks, much as Croatia is being encouraged to allow its ethnic Serbs to return to that country after ten years?

Later: Here's an article from Wikipedia on the Istanbul Pogrom.

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05 September 2005

A scenic upper-peninsular Michigan drive

On this Labour Day a trip along Brockway Mountain Drive, in the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, would be a beautiful way to pass the time. Take the Brockway Mountain Drive Web Tour and see for yourself. My maternal grandfather, who was born not too far from there, took two of my sisters, a cousin and me to see it four decades ago. I was back in Copper Country with another sister 16 years ago, but for some reason we managed to miss this sight, which I forgot about until recently. At some point I may write in more detail about this lovely part of the world, nestled between the shores of Lake Superior.


Anam Cara at Spruce Lake, Michigan

Brockway Mountain Drive

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Dinosaur species and six-year-old humour

Like many children nowadays, our Theresa grew up watching Barney and Friends on video and television. Given that preschoolers are the targeted demographic of this programme, Theresa hasn't watched it for some time. However, yesterday she tried, with only partial success, to identify which species of dinosaur three of the characters might be. She postulated that Barney is a tyrannosaurus rex, which is confirmed here. She couldn't quite manage to identify BJ and Baby Bop, although BJ is generally said to be a protoceratops. Baby Bop is variously identified as a protoceratops or a triceratops (even though she is ostensibly sister to BJ).

By the way, what was the ugliest dinosaur of all?

Answer: The eyesaur.

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04 September 2005

Prayer request

Please pray for little Dylan Alexander Glasbergen, who was born last week 10 weeks premature at McMaster University Medical Centre here in Hamilton. Because our Theresa was also a "premie", Nancy and I well understand what his parents, Rodney (who studied political science at Redeemer) and Kirsten, are going through. Κύριε ελέησον!

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03 September 2005

A denominational anniversary

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the United Church of Canada, which in 1925 brought together the Methodist, Congregational and most of the Presbyterian churches into a single denomination. Since then it has followed a social and religious agenda making it virtually indistinguishable from the attitudes of the larger secular society. Why then is it gradually fading? Sociologist Rodney Stark offers an assessment, as recounted in this report:

Stark says when a faith group like the United Church proclaims that it is just one path among many that a spiritual seeker might choose to wander down, it's shooting itself in the foot. It's akin to the makers of one product saying in their advertisements: "Go ahead and buy our competitor's model. It's just as good."

Perhaps this explains why Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, could so easily assert that "there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him." Though he took heat at the time for affirming this, he would hardly have reason to remain a Catholic if he didn't believe it to be true. Ironically, the United Church, by failing to distinguish itself from any other organization, much less from other churches, appears bent on making itself redundant.

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01 September 2005

Cinematic teachers

Perhaps no one will be surprised to know that I'm a sucker for films about teachers and students. Among the films in this genre I have seen over the decades are Goodbye, Mr. Chips (the 1969 musical version), Dead Poets Society (1989), Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), and the magnificent television series, To Serve Them All My Days (1980), based on R. F. Delderfield's novel of the same name. Most such films recount the lives of inspirational teachers and the positive effects they had on their students. Those of us in the teaching profession would like to think that we too fall into this category and that we'll be similarly remembered by our students when we are gone.

Last week I watched The Emperor's Club (2002), which for the first half hour looked to be little more than another film in this genre. (NOTE: There are possible spoilers here.) It looked set to follow something of the plotline of Good Will Hunting (1997), in which an older mentor helps a young and brilliant incorrigible get his act and his life together. One would ordinarily expect that Kevin Kline, a revered teacher of ancient history at an élite boys' preparatory school, would have this impact on Emile Hirsh's character. One might expect Hirsch to go on to make his contribution to society, having Kline to thank for this.

But no, it doesn't quite work out that way. Kline makes a serious error in judgement and ultimately fails in his effort. Hirsch's character remains a narcissistic, deceptive person who, by film's end (and now played by Joel Gretch), is about to launch a political career. Kline is still revered by his colleagues and students, but he has to live with the fact that he misjudged the potential of one of these students to live a virtuous life. The larger society is about to pay for his mistake.

It's not a particularly pleasant way to end a film. But it provides a touch of realism to the paedagogical enterprise, which is as affected by sin as any other human activity. It certainly underscores the fearful responsibility of a teacher. But it also points to the limitations of the teacher himself, whose efforts might not always bear fruit in quite the way to which he aspires.

By the way, why is it that cinematic teachers always lecture in English or history or music? Why not politics? Perhaps someone will one day make a film about Woodrow Wilson's academic career at Princeton.

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Katrina aftermath

Please continue to pray for the people of New Orleans, who are suffering through appalling conditions. Pray for the success of the ongoing efforts to rescue those left behind, as well as to stem epidemics.

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