30 August 2006
28 August 2006
Many years ago I purchased a vinyl recording of Barbra Streisand singing a number of pieces conventionally styled as classical. This is when I first came into contact with Gabriel Fauré's Pavane, which she sang as a vocalise. The idea behind it is fairly simple: mostly parallel thirds, which are the basis of conventional western harmonization. Yet there is something about this piece that vindicates that otherwise overused word, haunting. Here it is performed by Hiromi Okada at the piano.
One evening back in 1978, at the end of my undergraduate education in Minnesota, I went with a good friend and his family to a theatre in St. Paul where, for nearly four years, a storyteller and a group of musicians had performed a live radio show with something of a down home feel. Broadcast over Minnesota Public Radio, it had become a regional fixture, drawing listening audiences from around the state. On the stage that evening was a man in his mid-thirties, one Garrison Keillor, who delighted those present with his stories of the fictional Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men good-looking and all the children above-average."
A few years later, A Prairie Home Companion began to be syndicated across the United States, and Keillor became a household name. I cannot claim to have been a regular listener to the programme, but if I had nothing better to do on a saturday evening, I would tune it in for some light, homespun entertainment with gentle humour and a human touch. This was during my graduate student days in South Bend, Indiana.
Although it is still on the air, I've not listened to it in nearly two decades. However, at the weekend my wife and I decided to see Robert Altman's new cinematic version of A Prairie Home Companion at the Westdale Theatre near McMaster University. Because it's been so long since I last heard PHC on the radio, I cannot say how well the movie captures the current atmosphere of its namesake. That said, we could not unequivocally say that we liked what we saw. The film seemed to be something of a bizarre combination of the original PHC and an Ingmar Bergman film, with Nikos Kazantzakis providing the unsatisfying ending. Death was an overriding theme — something that seemed out of character with the PHC I remember from the 1970s and '80s. Oddly enough, Lake Wobegon was not even mentioned. There was no storytelling, only music with various morbid themes, including murder and suicide. There were some pleasant surprises, such as the discovery that Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep can sing. All in all, however, it is a shame to see Keillor, whom I recall to speak with such affection for the ordinary Lutheran and Catholic folk of his fictional hometown, peddling even a tongue-in-cheek nihilistic vision. Perhaps those Norwegian bachelor farmers can set him straight.
25 August 2006
Three years ago, when the Kofi Annan Plan to unify Cyprus was still alive and a year before the island state's entry into the European Union, a competition was held to come up with a new national anthem. I decided to submit a song, but it lost out to a mediocre (to put it charitably) tune boasting basic harmonization errors. In any event, when the Annan Plan died, so did the quest for an anthem. When I initially learned of the competition, I had considered entering this. I should have done so. I think it would have been a winner.
I have just received word from the globetrotting Yolisa de Jager, easily my most peripatetic protégée. She is studying at the University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica. I trust she will be updating her blog accordingly to fill us in on her experiences there. Let's hope she posts photographs as well.
It's official: Astronomers strip Pluto of planetary status. I guess Gustav Holst was right after all.
23 August 2006
Thanks to Michael Van Pelt for pointing me to this wonderful address delivered by Brian Stewart two years ago at Knox College in Toronto: On the Front Lines. This encouraging word to the christian community is all the more remarkable for coming from a veteran CBC journalist.
22 August 2006
Monday afternoon I was privileged to spend some time at the palatial offices of the Work Research Foundation here in Hamilton, meeting with Michael Van Pelt and looking in on two of my protégés who work there. Here is a visual record of the event.
the central courtyard
21 August 2006
Brian Janaszek has written a response to my article on Jacques Ellul that merits a further response. Janaszek argues that neocalvinists do not take seriously enough the critiques of Ellul and Ivan Illich of institutions. He further charges that neocalvinists are guilty of triumphalism. I will not try to speak for all neocalvinists on this latter point. I know that some have indeed entertained what might be called postmillennial enthusiasms in assuming that the christian way will score a decisive victory in the present age.
But this is not what my critique of Ellul is all about. I make no claim that well-meaning Christians will inevitably succeed in reforming all the institutions in which they find themselves. Like every human effort, there will be successes and failures. Moreover the successes will always be tainted by the effects of sin, while the failures will never entirely efface the creational goodness that God in his mercy upholds through his common grace. Janaszek writes that
technology can bring about good, as can a government, or a school, but we cannot expect that these things will be completely turned back to God until this world passes away. To expect anything else would be an attempt to immanentize the eschaton. And while technology has in some ways made our lives better, this is a doubled-edged sword, as such progress often reduces the quality of our lives in other, less obvious ways.
Off hand I cannot think of a neocalvinist who would disagree with this. Kuyper and Dooyeweerd would certainly affirm this augustinian insight. In a fallen world it could hardly be otherwise.
My own critique of Ellul (leaving out Illich, whom I do not know at all well) is that, while he correctly pinpoints the destructive potential of modern technology under the guise of an autonomous Technique, he is wrong to view it as uniquely destructive or as a source of evil in the world. Janaszek again:
Ellul was, much as his contemporary Ivan Illich, distrustful of institutions (schools and governments, for example) as vehicles for the work of Christ. Institutions would simply become corrupt over time (as a result of sin), and while there is also the possibility for reform, the cycle would repeat itself. Illich, more than Ellul, saw this clearly, even at work within the family. Relying on the State, or a school system, to change culture [is] at best wishful thinking, and at worst rather dangerous.
Yet surely we must admit that institutions are not the unique repositories of sin? Sin is located in the human heart's rebellion against God's ways. Disobedience cuts through every human endeavour and relationship, whether these take the form of abstract institutions in a national capital city or of face-to-face friendships within the context of the rural village. Why be distrustful of institutions and not of the next-door neighbour? Why distrust technology and not one's own motives in desiring to fulfil one's life aspirations? To be sure, institutions are capable of being abused, but so is everything for which human beings are responsible before God. Institutions are no more caught up in sin than any other element of human life. If Ellul did indeed recognize this in his voluminous writings, then I will be pleased to have it pointed out to me.
If there is a moment of truth in Ellul's argument, it is perhaps in recognizing that, because of their impact on such large numbers of people, institutions may be more quantitatively destructive than a simple friendship going awry in a small town. Similarly, nuclear energy's destructive potential is greater than that of the simple act of whittling a piece of wood, however much both are caught up in human sin. Yet I believe Ellul is saying much more than this. Hence my critique.
Again here's Janaszek:
For both Ellul and Illich (and this is most visible in Ellul's Presence of the Kingdom, true Christian action was the act of rolling up one's sleeves and doing the dirty work of meeting the needs of your fellow man. For Ellul, this meant working with "troubled" youth and fighting for the preservation of the [French] sea coast. Christian action begins with a supple heart, listening for God's call, and more often than not, when this call comes, the Christian is simply asked to act. Ellul offers no specifics, no policies, no programs (in fact, he says [specifically] such things can be antithetical to real Christian action)--simply the exhortation that the Church (that is, the body of believers) help those that need it. For the Neocalvinist, however, Christian action often takes the form of [policy] and program. Government can be reformed (in the Christian sense) and used for the work of Christ. And (to get back to the point of Ellul's essay) Technique, being a part of the created order, should be molded by Christian hands.
Meeting immediate human needs and formulating policies and programmes are by no means antithetical; each has its proper context. If a friend comes to your door in the middle of the night indicating that he and his family have been flooded out of their house, it's not necessary to call a committee to come up with a general policy for dealing with domestic deluges. On the other hand, in the context of the state, or political community, the lack of carefully researched and worked out policies can be fatal to the public interest. Recent history is littered with failed christian attempts to enter the political arena armed with good intentions and little else. This is not responsible political action.
I am grateful that during his life Ellul was involved in concrete efforts to help his fellow human beings in obedience to the gospel. But as a political scientist looking for policies serviceable to doing justice within the larger institution of the state, I simply do not find Ellul all that useful. Distrust of the state may be warranted in specific circumstances, but as a general principle it will leave us high and dry. This is why I believe that the neocalvinist vision behind the WRF, the Center for Public Justice and other likeminded organizations makes for a far better alternative. It recognizes that there is no substitute for doing one's homework in thinking through, to begin with, the normative task of the state and, subsequently, the policies and programmes serviceable to doing justice in a world caught up in the drama of creation, fall and redemption in Jesus Christ.
17 August 2006
I love virtually everything composed by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), with the single exception of his monotonous Boléro, a piece he never expected — or wished — to reach such heights of popularity. One of my perennial favourites is his Tombeau de Couperin, originally written for piano in six movements. Ravel subsequently orchestrated and rearranged four of its movements, leaving out the Fugue and Toccata. Now guitarist Lee Zimmer has arranged three movements for guitar duo. Zimmer and Eric Brenton perform the opening movement, Prélude, here. Anyone with an affection for the guitar and for Ravel's music will applaud. Ravel himself would likely have approved.
Next day: Zimmer and Brenton have now posted the Minuet and Rigaudon from Ravel's Tombeau. The applause at the end of the Rigaudon suggests that the guitarists have taken the order of the movements from the orchestrated version rather than the piano version.
Centuries from now, when the church is remembering the great deeds of its saints and martyrs of the 21st century, this will rank near the top: United Church considers boycott of bottled water.
14 August 2006
12 August 2006
. . . that, when North American Anglophiles seek to emulate English manners and mores, they rarely take as their model the soccer hooligan?
This week's Comment piece is written by yours truly and is titled, Jacques Ellul: creation, fall and cultural engagement. Take a look.
In the wake of the recent abortive terror plots, tough new airline rules could get tougher, suggests air security boss. If current trends continue, all air travellers will eventually be required to board nude, picking up their clothes again when they arrive at their destination.
Or is that a slippery-slope argument?
10 August 2006
Gideon Strauss claims an affection for this cinematic dance sequence — since removed from Youtube at the request of Warner Brothers. However, this scene by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers has to be seen to be believed. How the dancers could do what they did without broken bones and torn ligaments is a mystery to me.
There is now a new, greatly simplified address for my Genevan Psalter website: http://genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca/. However, the old address still works and will take you to the same place.
As the Caledonia standoff heats up again, Premier Dalton McGuinty's talk of appealing Justice David Marshall's ruling is hardly a victory for the rule of law in this province. On tuesday Marshall ruled that negotiations over the disputed land be halted until the protesters leave the site. In allowing the blockade to continue, the Ontario government and the OPP are in effect tolerating the protesters' implicit threat of violence against anyone attempting to venture beyond the barricades. In other words, they are abandoning their duty to protect the public from illegal uses of coercive power.
As I wrote three months ago, if the land claim has any legitimacy, then the province should negotiate in good faith — but not under threat of violence.
08 August 2006
I would love to have been present at this concert on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam last August featuring violinist Janine Jansen. I especially love Béla Bartók's Romanian Dances. Jansen's visual style may be somewhat overdramatic, but her performance is otherwise compelling.
Given that I am writing a book on authority, I find this story especially interesting for the issues it raises: Female priest has first Mass. Has Eileen DiFranco really received a call to the Catholic priesthood? In his followup analysis, Richard K. Taylor asks: Is church's code just or unjust? Whatever one thinks of the rightness of ordaining women to the presbyterate, I cannot help but conclude that both DiFranco and Taylor misunderstand the nature of the claimed teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which holds that it lacks the authority to ordain women.
Therefore, if DiFranco believes that she has genuinely been called to be a Catholic priest in the face of Rome's assertion otherwise, the burden is on her to demonstrate the authenticity of her call, which must be based on more than subjective feeling. It seems to me that the honest route for her would be to seek ordination in a denomination willing to extend such a call, such as the Episcopal or Presbyterian churches. If she protests that she is not a protestant and cannot bring herself to abandon her Catholic faith, then she needs further to explain why she so willingly holds on to some of her Church's teachings while rejecting others.
07 August 2006
Those who argue that changing the legal definition of marriage will eventually open the floodgates have frequently been scoffed at. Now it seems that "eventually" has come sooner than expected, as Robert George reports here.
04 August 2006
I generally dislike these sorts of quizzes and tend to ignore them when tagged, but I prefer to remain in Gideon Strauss's good graces, so here's my 2 cents worth — and a bit more than was asked:
1. One book that changed your life: H. Evan Runner, Scriptural Religion and Political Task.
2. One book that you’ve read more than once: H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture.
3. One book you’d want on a desert island: Um, Political Visions and Illusions? (My wife knows the author personally.)
4. One book that made you laugh: Does a book of the Bible count? I've always thought Jonah reads like an elaborate practical joke.
5. One book that made you cry: Well, I didn't exactly cry, but this is difficult reading for someone with Greek roots: Marjorie Housepian, The Smyrna Affair, later retitled, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City. Nevertheless, this book brought me even closer to tears: Ruth A. Tucker, Walking Away from Faith: Unravelling the Mystery of Belief & Unbelief.
6. One book that you wish had been written: The Greek Evangelical Church and How it Helped to Bring Peace between Greece and Turkey.
7. One book that you wish had never been written: Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. Also virtually everything by Nietzsche.
8. One book you’re currently reading: Oliver O'Donovan, The Ways of Judgment.
9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: Um, Ed Grootenboer, In Pursuit of Justice? (Hear that, Gideon?) Actually I've been meaning to read Alan Storkey, Jesus and Politics: Confronting the Powers. The title makes me uneasy, and I'm hoping the book's contents will allay my fears.
10. One book you've been meaning to write: A first-person account of our daughter's premature birth and her lengthy hospital stay in the ensuing weeks. Two things hold me back: (1) it's still painful for me to read my journals and email posts from that difficult time; and (2) will Theresa be embarrassed by such a book when she gets older? Perhaps I should write under a pseudonym and change her name.
11. One book you are currently writing: It's provisionally titled, We Answer to Another: Authority, Human Personhood and the Imago Dei. Authority has got a bad rap over the past two or three centuries. My argument is that, far from being antithetical to authority, freedom is simply another kind of authority.
12. Now tag five people: Listed in order from most likely to least likely to respond: Al Wolters, Justin Cooper, George W. Bush, Kim Jong Il, Brian Dijkema.
Oh, can I change my answer to number 9? I really should read Paul, Monotheism and the People of God: The Significance of Abraham Traditions for Early Judaism and Christianity. My wife knows the author better than herself.
02 August 2006
Jordan J. Ballor links to this article by Joel Kotkin: The New Suburbanism. In addition to the substantive analysis in Kotkin's article, the following jumped out at me:
Chicago-area developer David Fanagel . . . calls Naperville, a vibrant community of 138,000 some 30 miles southwest of Chicago, “a slam dunk” for suburban-village development because of its surviving cluster of historic buildings and surrounding expanse of single-family homes. Largely populated by white-collar families, the city has worked assiduously to develop its old downtown, adding new apartments and stores and creating an attractive esplanade called Riverwalk along the winding west branch of the DuPage River adjacent to its center.
Ah, the sweet memory this brings back. The Naperville Riverwalk is where I proposed to my wife just over 11 years ago — next to a tree with seven trunks.