Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

31 January 2008

Climate change

I am old enough to remember reading this article when it was first published in Newsweek: The Cooling World. More than a generation later, it is evident that the apocalyptic projections therein were not borne out. Yet the author of this next article argues that average global temperatures did indeed drop between 1998 and 2005: Global Cooling? So who's right in all this? Is the earth heating up or cooling down?

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Singing God's psalms

Around the time of my trip to Australia two years ago, I learned of the existence of this musical group founded by Matthew Jacoby: Sons of Korah, who specialize in singing the biblical Psalms. Here they are performing Psalm 125:

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30 January 2008

Church 'shopping'

I am entirely with Anthony Sacramone in his struggle with the extreme fissiparous character of North American protestantism: My Church, My Strip Mall. The necessity of having to wade through the competing fragments of the church catholic is certainly not something to be celebrated or defended.

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Antipodean Anglican angst

The Anglican Diocese of Sydney in Australia has a rather unique character within the larger Anglican communion in so far as it is almost wholly low-church and evangelical. Its archbishop, Peter Jensen, typically eschews the external trappings of his office, even the clerical collar. Jensen has been vocal in the current controversies dividing the communion, openly supporting the conservative side. Oddly enough, however, on liturgical matters he and his diocese appear to be much less conservative. And this has brought criticism from no less than Peter Philips, Director of the Tallis Scholars, some of whose exquisite recordings grace our own CD library: Archbishop of Sydney 'vandalising' Anglican culture. Jensen apparently has not responded to Philips' charge.

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28 January 2008

'Traditional urbanism' and neighbourhoods

As an alumnus of the University of Notre Dame, I receive gratis Notre Dame Magazine, a glossy periodical that is usually not near the top of my "to read" pile. Nevertheless, the winter 2007-08 issue carries an article by John Nagy, The Once and Future Neighborhood, that is definitely worth reading. It features the ideas of Philip Bess, professor at the Notre Dame School of Architecture, who is described as a "traditional urbanist." Bess's academic interests frequently take him and his students to Cooperstown, New York, once an ordinary village, but now reshaped by the presence of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bess makes urbanism relatable by talking about pizza, an analogy he borrows from the influential European architect and urban designer Leon Krier. A traditional neighborhood, Bess explains, is to a traditional city what a slice of pizza is to the whole pie, "because a slice of pizza has on it all the ingredients of the entire city." Residents can walk to schools, parks, the family doctor and the grocery store, their church and, ideally, their work: in short, the places that supply their lives with health and meaning.

Suburban development leaves us with separate piles of ingredients. Homes for the poor are in one pile; homes for the well-off somewhere else. Clusters of office buildings, public services and retail stores surrounded by oceanic parking lots crop up along congested connector roads paved at taxpayers' expense. We drive everywhere because we have no choice. As Bess says, "you can't just have a pizza; you've got to go get each little ingredient by itself."

We tagged this form of suburbia "sprawl" in the 1960s while our cities and towns hemorrhaged into never-ending subdivisions. In 1982, developed land in the United States covered 72.9 million acres. By 2003, federal data show, new construction left an Iowa-sized footprint of 35.2 million more acres -- a rate nearly double that of the growth of the population.

The problem at its deepest level is one of human nature. But it's also a byproduct of the postwar economic boom and faulty public policy. You may know the story: Public health concerns about industry set a precedent for single-use zoning codes that extend to everything, including housing by income level. Cheap, government-backed mortgages, nothing short of miraculous to a generation that had grown up in depression and war, favored new construction over renovation. Interstate highways promised swift commutes and an escape from polluted, crime-ridden cities and their failing schools. Developers, their crews and their corporate financiers benefitted from building plentifully and at low cost. They still do.

The impact on Americans and our communities, even idyllic and isolated ones like Cooperstown, has been palpable. We've lost apartments above stores and backyard coach houses -- the kind of affordable housing that doesn't come in menacing, publicly funded, cinder-block rectangles. Our streets have emptied of pedestrians as cars have become appendages rather than conveniences. In some areas, teachers, nurses and police officers can't afford to live in the communities they serve. Property taxes spike to cover the rising costs of infrastructure and basic services in far-flung areas. Children and the elderly who can't drive themselves to parks and shops have lost independence. Obesity has become a public health crisis.

While finding solutions is not a simple matter, Professor Bess does offer Ten Principles of Good Neighborhood Design. A good neighbourhood:

Has a discernible center: for example, a public square or main street bordered by civic buildings, shops and/or residences

Has a more or less discernible edge where it ends and another neighborhood or natural feature begins

Is pedestrian friendly, accommodating cars as well as those who want or need to walk

Consists of a variety of dwelling types: for example, single-family homes, apartments above stores and coach houses, which together encourage a healthy economic diversity

Has stores and offices located at and/or near its centers with enough variety of retail goods to meet weekly household needs

Has an elementary school and parks to which most young children can walk

Has small blocks with a network of through-streets (as opposed to feeder roads and cul-de-sacs), generous sidewalks and broad planter strips for trees

Places its buildings close to the street to create a stronger sense of place

Utilizes its streets for parking, rather than building lots and garages visible from the street

Reserves prominent sites for community monuments and civic buildings for education, religion, culture, sport and government, that front on public squares or terminate the ends of streets.

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The presidential campaign

No, this is not about the excessively lengthy campaign south of the border, but that exciting and unpredictable presidential race shaping up in the Russian Federation. Here is the list of contenders: Candidates in Russia's presidential election. Conspicuously absent is the name of former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was disqualified from running by Russia's Central Election Commission. One relative unknown remains in the race: the Democratic Party's Andrei Bogdanov (yes, Andrei, not Vladimir, as indicated in the Reuters report). The outcome of the 2 March poll is now as unpredictable as the likelihood of the temperature dipping below freezing during a southern Ontario January.

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24 January 2008

Joustra in the news

My good friend and highly esteemed part-time colleague, Mr. Robert Joustra, BA, MA, has merited mention in The Toronto Star: Summit urged for Toronto church and civic leaders. Congratulations to Mr. Joustra, from whom we can expect to hear more in the coming years.

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Robert Putnam and social capital

Robert Putnam is a well-known Harvard political scientist about whom I have written before. For several years now I have used his Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy in my European politics course at Redeemer. It is an excellent study of the effects of longstanding regional political cultures on political institutions in that country, with broader applicability elsewhere as well.

With a hat tip to bookforum.com, here is an interview with Putnam in The American Interest Online: Bowling with Robert Putnam. Putnam's stock in trade is something called "social capital," a broad concept encompassing virtually anything people do co-operatively, including the formation of political parties and related groups, but also choral societies, garden clubs, private philanthropic foundations and business enterprises, among many other communal formations. Social capital can be good or bad, as Putnam indicates in this article. Hamas and al Qaeda are certainly manifestations of bonding social capital among its membership, but few outside of these terrorist organizations would argue that their influence is particularly beneficent.

Though Putnam's views mostly coincide with those championing what has come to be known as civil society, there is a pronounced difference, as seen in Putnam's expressed desire to establish mandatory national service as a means of fostering "bridging," as opposed to "bonding," social capital. Here he is reminiscent of those championing public education as a means of bringing together children and young people from diverse ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. Contrary to Putnam, whom I otherwise appreciate, I question whether it is the state's normative task actively to build this bridging capital. With the proponents of civil society, I believe it is better to leave this primarily to the nonstate communities themselves, with the state limiting itself to supporting such efforts indirectly.

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20 January 2008

Faith in action, public worship

Faith in Action is an outreach initiative cosponsored by Zondervan, Outreach and World Vision, taking the form of "a 4-week, church-wide campaign that creates in your congregation an outward focus and a heart to serve." This appears to be a worthwhile effort, except for one thing: "Faith in Action culminates in a Sunday where regular services are cancelled and the entire congregation engages in service projects in, and with, the community" (emphasis mine). Here is an explanation from the FAQ page:

It’s a radical, unique idea - canceling a church’s weekend services in order to “turn the church inside out” and serve the community. While your church may have some hesitations, remember that you are not canceling worship, you are just redefining it.

There was a time when such a proposal would have caused scandal in the churches. Even now confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches will be put off by the entire project because of this "radical, unique idea" to replace public worship with what is essentially labour on the sabbath.

Yet even for those Christians with less sabbatarian tendencies, there is something profoundly amiss in the notion that public worship can simply be replaced by another activity. This has everything to do with living the obedient, balanced life of labour, leisure and liturgy before the face of God. Living in such a way entails responding to God's call in every field of human endeavour, recognizing that each has a legitimate claim to our attentions in various places and at different moments. When I am teaching, my primary focus is on my students and on the subject matter of the course. I should not be daydreaming about my wife and daughter. Similarly, when I am with my wife and daughter, I would not be fair to them if I were to allow myself to be distracted by work-related matters.

When we are in church for public worship, we open our hearts to praise God, hear the Word and receive the sacraments. To be sure, we normatively do everything to the glory of God. Indeed the focus of our entire life should be his glory. Yet in the gathering of believers as the institutional church, we properly receive Christ in a special way. We replenish our spiritual resources for the coming week. We hear the story of our redemption in Christ in the reading of and preaching from the scriptures. We are nourished by the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. We open our hearts in adoration and thanksgiving for our salvation.

Serving our neighbour with good works is a form of service to God. But it should never, ever be seen as a substitute for the Lord's Day liturgy. If anything, Faith in Action should find its culmination in a sunday that sees the congregation going out into the community and summoning it to the public worship of God in Christ. Now there's a radical idea.

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18 January 2008

Averting more Balkan turmoil

At the end of the Great War, US President Woodrow Wilson was certain he knew how to bring lasting peace to Europe: by advancing the apparently democratic right of national self-determination. Unfortunately he neglected adequately to explain what precisely a nation is and who could be said to possess this right. Two short decades later Europe and much of the rest of the world were at war again.

This unworkable principle is about to be invoked again with the probable recognition by the US and the EU of the independence of the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo. Here, with hat tip to bookforum.com, are two articles alerting us to the folly of such a policy: Gary J. Bass, Independence Daze; and Raju G. C. Thomas, The Case against Kosovo Independence. Thomas paints a chilling scenario for the future:

More broadly, to allow Kosovo’s independence would demonstrate that violent secessionism works. In that case, the world ought to get used to seeing the Kosovo “strategy” applied elsewhere. First, faceless ethnic secessionists attack civilians and police. Not knowing where the enemy is hidden within the civilian population, security forces retaliate indiscriminately. Human rights violations elicit an international outcry and condemnation, followed by intervention and occupation by foreign military forces. And, in the denouement, the state loses control of its province as the secessionists declare independence.

Such fragmentation is a recipe, not for justice for discontented minorities, but for massive injustice as political authorities lose the capacity to enforce the rule of law within their own territorial jurisdictions. There is still time to avoid a potentially dangerous error of judgement. As readers well know, I am no fan of Vladimir "Stalin Lite" Putin. However, in this case the soon-to-be Russian Prime Minister would do well to make clear to the west that Serbia's territorial integrity cannot up for grabs.

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16 January 2008

Protecting "rights", miscarrying justice

Like the bills of rights of many constitutional democracies, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms claims to protect "freedom of conscience and religion" and "freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication." That would seem straightforward enough. However, Canada's human rights tribunals are encroaching on these liberties in the name, ironically, of protecting human rights. Here are a few of the cases:

  • Three complaints have been filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission against Ron Gray and the Christian Heritage Party, accusing them of fomenting hatred of and contempt for homosexuals.

  • A complaint has been made against the journal Catholic Insight on charges similar to those of which Gray and the CHP are accused.

  • Ezra Levant has been brought before the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission for republishing those infamous Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the Western Standard.

  • The Canadian Islamic Congress has complained to two human rights tribunals that Columnist Mark Steyn and that venerable Canadian institution, Macleans, are guilty of publishing an article that "subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt" and is "islamophobic." The article, The future belongs to Islam, is excerpted from Steyn's controversial book, America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.


  • Not surprisingly, while the first two cases were largely ignored by the press, the latter two have been given considerable publicity for reasons not too difficult to figure out. Even Alan Borovoy, general counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is not pleased with this development. Borovoy has said that he and others helped to create the human rights commissions "to deal with discriminatory deeds ... not discriminatory words. Nobody thought it would be used to censure freedom of expression." Canada's opinion moulders were apparently unwilling to come to the defence of Gray and Catholic Insight, perhaps because they were disseminating opinions that are deemed to be out of the mainstream. But of course the real test for freedom of speech is the toleration and protection of unpopular opinions.

    We Canadians have a reputation for being bland and inoffensive. But we risk tyranny when we permit quasi-judicial tribunals, with few if any constitutional constraints, to enforce with coercive power this blandness and inoffensiveness to the detriment of healthy public debate. It is time to limit the jurisdiction of these tribunals or perhaps to abolish them altogether.

    Short of these outcomes, I have another idea. What if Gray, Steyn, Levant, & al., were to file a counter-complaint against the complainants, charging that the latter are attempting to infringe on their human right of free speech under the Charter? Would it go anywhere? If nothing else, it would certainly test the commissions' creativity. It might be worth a try.

    Later: You will have to register to see this, but here is Levant's appearance before the Alberta Human Rights Commission. It's quite a performance.

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    14 January 2008

    PDQ Bach

    I discovered Peter Schickele's inimitable musical humour as a young man, and now my daughter loves it too. We both laugh uproariously at the antics of the fabled PDQ Bach, the last and certainly the least of old Johan's many children. Here are some excerpts from Schickele and company's recent Jekyll & Hyde tour:

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    07 January 2008

    January thaw

    January Thaw, © Theresa D. C. Koyzis
    Theresa D. C. Koyzis

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    04 January 2008

    Polar political illusions

    For some quirky reason this story appeals to me: Soviet icon surprises polar scientists. The accompanying photo is just crying out for a humorous caption. Feel free to leave yours in the Comments.

    Lenin of the Antarctic

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    02 January 2008

    Urban transport and urban decay

    Longtime residents of Toronto will recall the controversy over the abortive Spadina Expressway, as recounted in this article in the past weekend's National Post: Expressways Went Nowhere. I myself lived a stone's throw away from Spadina Avenue in 1978-79 and quickly learned that, had things gone differently a few years earlier, that unique neighbourhood, at the edges of Chinatown with a few Jewish textile vendors left over from earlier days, might not have been there at all. Had it succeeded, more would have come, making Toronto similar to comparably-sized American cities, crisscrossed with expressways bisecting urban neighbourhoods and destroying others. Plans for the Spadina ignited grassroots protest that eventually brought a halt to the project:

    In 1971, new Ontario premier William Davis, facing a looming election, stood in the [Ontario] Legislature and announced the expressway would not be completed, declaring: "Cities were built for people and not cars."

    [Adam] Vaughan says the decision had huge ramifications for the city. "Look at the American cities that built these huge expressways," he says. "They carved up their downtown neighbourhoods and those neighbourhoods died. The Spadina would've killed half a dozen neighbourhoods in this city -- the Annex, Cabbagetown, the Beaches. All these now vibrant, viable neighbourhoods would've just withered and died."

    Queen Street, Toronto
    Queen Street, Toronto
    Mid-1980s

    Half a century ago my hometown of Chicago began building the first of the great expressways towards the west of the city's centre, initially named the Congress Expressway, subsequently to be called the Eisenhower Expressway. This massive public works project ostensibly followed one of the recommendations of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. The construction of the Congress necessitated razing the existing structures in its way, including the Garfield Park elevated train line. Among other things, this led to the death of a very fine electric interurban railway line, the Chicago Aurora & Elgin, that had run over the Garfield Park tracks towards the communities of the Fox River Valley. In short, the city's commitment to the expressways spelled a commitment to the automobile as a primary mode of transportation, at the expense of mass rail transit.

    It may not be incidental that, at the very moment American cities were being paved over with expressways, these same cities began their inexorable decline. I have friends who grew up in the Englewood and the once heavily Dutch-American Roseland neighbourhoods on the south side of Chicago. These neighbourhoods are now given over to gangs and crack houses, and are no longer safe to live in. Whether the expressways were the cause is difficult to say, but they certainly did not help, as they made it easier for one-time residents to move to the suburbs and commute, taking their tax base with them. The city was effectively remade for the convenience of the suburbs.

    Is Toronto a model of how to do things right? Not entirely. To be sure, when I lived there between 1978 and 1980, I could happily live without a car, relying on the subways, buses and streetcars — and, of course, my own feet — to get me where I wanted to go. Toronto had much less crime than Chicago and still does, though there is more now than when I lived there. Yet I am happy that the Spadina Expressway failed. The city would have been a different place if it had not, and I doubt it would have been for the better.

    Still I could wish for more focus on mass transit for the entire Golden Horseshoe region. Especially if one lives outside Toronto in one of the "905" cities, it is next to impossible to get along without a motorized vehicle. Ontario's Liberal government has promised more funds to upgrade mass transit in this urban belt around Lake Ontario. We shall see what comes of this.

    Here in Hamilton we have recently observed the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Lincoln Alexander Parkway (the "Linc"), which runs across Hamilton Mountain. Just six weeks ago the Red Hill Valley Parkway opened to connect the Linc to the Queen Elizabeth Way to the east of Hamilton. No neighbourhoods were destroyed to build the Linc, as the right of way was already vacant and apparently reserved for it for quite a number of years beforehand. The Red Hill, by contrast, was built through the Red Hill Creek Valley and thus came under fire from environmentalists. Given our admitted dependence on the automobile in Hamilton, both thoroughfares make sense. Yet I wish alternatives could have been found to enable people to travel without the ubiquitous and polluting internal combustion engine. This would require the expansion of GO train and bus service in and out of Hamilton, as well as more frequent buses from the inaptly-named Hamilton Street Railway. I am under no illusion that such measures would build Jerusalem in Ontario's green and pleasant land. Yet it might make for a more livable urban environment, from which we would all benefit.

    By the way, a colleague of mine has alerted me to an apparent urban success story south of the equator: Curitiba. I may come back to the subject and post something more specific about this Brazilian city.

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    01 January 2008


    St. Basil the Great

    Today is the feast day of St. Basil the Great, who lived from approximately 330 to 379 and was bishop of Caesarea. In the Orthodox tradition he is grouped with Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzus) and St. John Chrysostom as the Three Holy Hierarchs, and with Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa as one of the Cappadocian Fathers.

    Among other things he is known for his battles against the Arian heresy and his defence of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, in use during Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, is named for him, in recognition of his activities "in formularizing liturgical prayers and promoting church-song."

    Amongst the Greeks, St. Basil brings gifts to children on 1 January, in a tradition mirroring that of St. Nicholas in the west. In fact, a Google image search of Άγιος Βασίλης brings up surprisingly familiar images.

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