I published my first (and thus far only) book at age 48. I can't imagine writing a book at 19, yet that's precisely what Alex and Brett Harris have done in writing Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. Alex and Brett are twin brothers who were homeschooled by christian parents teaching them a strong sense of personal responsibility. The wider culture looks at adolescence largely as a time to goof off before assuming adult responsibilities, while these young men came to understand it as a time precisely to take on those responsibilities and develop their gifts.
The brothers' efforts resonate with me strongly for two reasons. First, our daughter will be entering adolescence in a few years, and we want her to have good examples amongst her peers with which to identify. And, second, for just over two decades I have taught young people around the age of Alex and Brett. Those Redeemer students who gravitate towards political science tend to be much like these two brothers in other ways as well, with a strong ethos of hard work and service to God and neighbour. If this has given me a slightly skewed view of late adolescents, so be it. It's a beautiful view, and it makes my job a source of joy and deep satisfaction for which I praise God.
Among other things, Alex and Brett maintain a website, called The Rebelution, that is worth checking out. While you're at it, listen to their recent NPR interview.
This coming sunday, 1 June, I will be preaching at both the 9.30 and 11.00 services at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, located at the corner of Locke and Charlton Streets here in Hamilton. The scripture passage is Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; and 8:14-19. The sermon is titled Noah's Place in the Redemptive Story. All are more than welcome to attend.
Young people typically experiment with their own identities, trying on different personae and worldviews to see how well they make sense of the new experiences they are confronting on a daily basis. The university undergraduate years see this sort of quest occurring at a high level of intensity, hopefully under the guidance of older mentors capable of bringing some order to this search. My own undergraduate years were a time of tremendous intellectual and spiritual growth.
To begin with, though I entered university a music major, intending to focus on vocal performance and composition, two related events pushed me towards a focussed study of politics: Watergate and the Cyprus crisis of 1974, the latter of which made refugees of my close relatives. Though the church of my youth (for all its considerable virtues) had given me little guidance on how to relate my faith in Jesus Christ to the great political events of the day, assuming that concern for politics might deflect one from the ostensibly higher calling of evangelizing the lost, I was becoming aware that there was a long tradition of Christian reflection on social and political life. Indeed there was more than one such tradition. The first of these was a variant of the Anabaptist vision, which was the initial influence on me around 19 years of age.
Accordingly, I flirted with the brand of Anabaptism associated with the Sojourners community, whose flagship periodical was then known as the Post-American. This is because, first, it resonated strongly with my burgeoning commitment to social justice, especially as manifested in public efforts to alleviate poverty. Second, at 19 I considered myself a pacifist and was briefly persuaded that Christians ought not to fight in wars — for any reason.
Founded by Jim Wallis and others, Sojourners grew out of the student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Vietnam was the issue of the day, and many young people were disillusioned by the foreign and defence policies of the US government. The Christians among them were especially cynical about the role of churches in supporting these policies. Seeing evangelist Billy Graham fraternizing with the discredited President Richard Nixon in the White House was a continuing irritant. As a youthful baby-boomer with a developing social conscience, Sojourners touched a chord with me.
Nevertheless, it didn't take me long to run up against the limitations of their approach. In particular it seemed unable to envision a positive role for the state as a truly political community called by God to do public justice in his world. The ultimate solution to the power of sin on earth was to be found in the church as an alternative community, while earthly communities such as state and government belonged only to the order of providence. This order of providence was, to be sure, under God’s control, but it could never be a suitable venue for living the Christian life in an actively obedient way.
The Sojourners community had been influenced by the writings of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who would later come to influence the theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas. (Both of them were at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, while I was a graduate student there.) Yoder in turn had been a student of Karl Barth at Basel.
Yoder is perhaps best known for his book, The Politics of Jesus, which I read and reviewed for a course I was taking in the autumn of 1975. My undertaking of this project turned out to be a watershed experience for me, as it planted doubts in my mind as to the validity of his approach. Here are two typical passages from Yoder’s book:
God can in his own way, in his sovereign permissive providence, “use” idolatrous Assyria (Isa. 10) or Rome. This takes place, however, without his declaring that such action which he thus uses is morally good or that participation in it is incumbent upon his covenant people (1st ed., p. 199).
God is not said to create or institute or ordain the powers that be, but only to order them, to put them in order, sovereignly to tell them where they belong, what is their place. It is not as if there was a time when there was no government and then God made government through a new creative intervention; there has been hierarchy and authority and power since human society existed. Its exercise has involved domination, disrespect for human dignity, and real or potential violence ever since sin has existed. Nor is it that in his ordering of it he specifically, morally approves of what government does. The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills, the librarian does not create nor approve of the book he catalogs and shelves. Likewise God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are. What the text says is that he orders them, brings them into line, that by his permissive government he lines them up with his purpose (p. 203).
What then is the political task of the Christian? Can the believing Christian, faithful to the gospel and obedient to the will of God, ever become a civil magistrate, seeking to do justice within the context of political community? Here is Yoder's answer, which comes in the midst of a discussion of the relationship between the 12th and 13th chapters of Romans:
There is a most specific dialectical interplay around the concepts of vengeance and wrath. Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath. Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God. It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another. This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians (p. 199, emphasis mine).
This, it seemed to me, failed to do justice to St. Paul's reference in Romans 13 to political authority as precisely God's servant. In the course of writing my review, I discovered that the Greek word the Apostle uses for servant, viz., διάκονος, is the same one used for a deacon in the church community. Romans 12:19 was thus not a prohibition against taking up the office of civil magistrate; it was rather a warning not to take personal vengeance.
This suggested to me that political authority, normatively speaking, is in principle more than an inadvertent doer of God’s will, along the lines of the Persian King Cyrus, but is called, like David and Solomon and their successors, to respond actively to God’s summons to do justice. A king now converted to faith in Christ does not cease to be a king; rather he now rules justly according to God's commands. He exercises the responsibilities of his office as an active doer of God's will. After making this discovery, I could no longer call myself an Anabaptist in any meaningful sense and began to look increasingly to the Reformed tradition in which I had been raised.
Because at least this particular strain of Anabaptism lacks a normative conception of political authority within God's world, it is difficult to find good reason for mounting a trenchant critique of the various secular ideologies that have infused its exercise over the past two to three centuries. If politics falls at best within the realm of God's providential sovereignty, and if one should focus one's redemptive efforts only on building up the institutional church, then the need for discerning the spirits (which was the title I had originally chosen for my first book) within the political realm becomes less significant.
This does not mean that Anabaptists will then become enthusiasts for, say, liberalism or socialism. Instead, following Yoder, Hendrik Berkhof, and ultimately Barth himself, there is a tendency to lump state authorities as such together with various spiritual forces into the catch-all category of "principalities and powers." There is, in other words, a tendency to conflate creational structure with spiritual direction. The net result is a tendency to truncate the full scope of Christ's redemption, which now involves breaking the sovereignty of the powers but not reclaiming them as such by reorienting their foundational religious direction.
On saturday Redeemer University College celebrated its Twenty-Third Convocation for the Conferring of Degrees. This is always a poignant occasion for us faculty, who have taught these young people for four or five years. We grow to love them and then we have to let them go, something I myself have never found easy to do. Over the years I have made it a practice to add our political science graduates to an ever-expanding alumni email list. Sadly, however, one person will be conspicuously absent from my list.
Three out of the past five years have seen political science majors receive the Faculty Award. This year's recipient was Craig Vanderveen (above left), a double major in business and political science who died last June in a tragic automobile accident in Manitoba. He is still greatly missed by the people whose lives he touched during his all too brief time on earth. We look forward to continuing our relationships with him in glorified form at the resurrection.
I personally find this a scary story, given that I myself contracted this superbug after my appendectomy last year: C. diff blamed for deaths in Oakville. I am thankful to God to have survived this most unpleasant experience!
For my fellow russophiles, this website will provide endless hours of enjoyment: Alexander Palace Time Machine. Now don't forget to eat and sleep.
At the urging of a friend, I have recently been exploring icons of the Prodigal Son. This one I find particularly moving, as it nicely communicates the tender affection between father and son. Note that Jesus is portrayed as the loving and forgiving father, while in this more typical Orthodox rendition the father is an old man with white hair. This is a story that never fails to move me, along with the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers (Genesis 45), on which I will be preaching 17 August at the Church of St. John the Evangelist here in Hamilton.
Quite coincidentally my wife gave me for my birthday two DVDs, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, unaware that both represent similar cinematic experiments more than half a century apart.
It was the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein who pioneered the use of montage, a technique juxtaposing different camera shots of a single event and of related events to create an overall impression of the action. The use of this technique requires editing of sometimes very brief scenes into a thematic whole, something that has become so standard in film-making that we can hardly imagine it could be otherwise. (Apparently it also facilitated the work of Soviet-era censors!) Here is an example from Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevsky:
Yet what if a director were to shoot a film in one continuous take from beginning to end, without editing? Up until recently this was not possible, as conventional film reels contained only eight minutes of film. In 1948 Hitchcock attempted the next best thing in shooting Rope and thus sought to replicate something of the flavour of the theatre on the silver screen — or perhaps I should take back the "silver" part, because it was Hitch's first colour film.
A number of reviewers have labelled this technique a mere gimmick. Yet there are at least two things to be said in its favour. First, this is how we experience life in real time. Second, this is how actors act on the stage. There is more than an incidental relationship between the stage and the screen, with stage plays being constantly adapted for the screen and, rather less often, vice versa. Rope is certainly a good example of the former.
Nevertheless, it's a difficult thing to pull off, even when the technical issues have been surmounted, as in Sokurov's more recent offering. The actors have to be thoroughly rehearsed before they can begin to shoot. The script must be completed (many directors begin filming without a complete script). The actors must come in precisely on cue and cannot make a mistake. The director has to resist the temptation to call "Cut!" in the midst of a less than fully perfect scene. Compared to Sokurov, Hitch had it easy. After the eight minutes were up, the camera man would focus on the dark back of a suit coat and then pull back again, a rather too obvious attempt to cover up a change of reels. Yet even within these eight minutes, Hitch sometimes had to cut to another part of the room, due, one assumes, to an actor's mistake that had to be covered up. So, no, Rope is not a seamless whole.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century. The technical obstacles have been conquered, and it is now possible to shoot a film in one continuous take. The old-fashioned reels are gone. A steadicam can be taken virtually anywhere, and the footage can go in digital format directly to a single disk. No need for editing. But now the whole enterprise becomes precarious indeed, especially if you have your "studio" for only one day. In Sokurov's case, his studio was the famed State Hermitage Museum, once the tsars' Winter Palace, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Museum officials gave him a single day to accomplish this unlikely feat. Had anything gone wrong, the effort would have had to be abandoned, with much time and expense wasted. Yet after three (or four, depending on whose account you read) attempts, Sokurov and his thousands of actors met with success, producing what in my opinion is a minor masterpiece.
Now to the films themselves, beginning with Rope, the story of two young men who murder a former classmate just for the thrill of it. The plot is borrowed from the Leopold and Loeb murder case of 1924. Here Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) strangle David Kentley (Dick Hogan) in the opening scene. This is not a whodunit. The audience knows what has happened. The only real uncertainty is how long it will take their former teacher Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) to figure it out for himself and bring the killers to justice. After murdering their friend, the young men hide the body in a chest in the living room. They then proceed to host a party for the victim's family and fiancée, with a buffet dinner spread on top of the chest. This is supposed to be the perfect murder, committed by ostensibly superior human beings against a supposed inferior.
Made only three years after the end of the nazi régime in Germany, the film has a Nietzschean element running through it. Cadell has taught this worldview to his students and, egged on by Shaw, even makes a tongue-in-cheek speech extolling the benefits of murder to the guests at the party. Yet when Cadell discovers the truth and becomes aware of his own intellectual contribution to the crime, he rather suddenly becomes a liberal believer in equality and human rights, a transformation that not only comes a little too late but lacks plausibility — as if Heinrich Himmler could become John Rawls overnight.
Granger's character comes across as whiny. It is his scarcely concealed anxieties that arouse Stewart's suspicions and give away the truth. Granger would be an attractive and convincing actor in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train three years later, but here he comes across as weak and snivelling — hardly the Nietzschean Übermensch required to pull off the perfect murder. I've not seen or read the play, so this flaw could perhaps be traceable to the original script by Patrick Hamilton.
Now on to Russian Ark. There is no plot as such in this film, which instead takes us on a tour of Russian history from Peter the Great through the horrific siege of Leningrad up to the present. In the opening scene the director wakes up from an apparent accident to find himself in St. Petersburg's Winter Palace surrounded by figures from the early 18th century, including Peter the Great himself, who founded the city. No one can see the director, except for the similarly misplaced Marquis de Custine, who alone is able to interact with the people they meet on this most unusual journey through Russian history.
In addition to meeting Catherine the Great, Nicholas I, Nicholas II and his family, and even Aleksandr Pushkin, we are treated to the magnificent art in the Hermitage's many rooms — most of which is European in origin. Here we see something of a subtext in Sokurov's work: Russia's ongoing, if sometimes fraught, relationship with Europe — or should I say the rest of Europe. The Winter Palace is like an ark bearing the best of European civilization through the turbulent waters of Russia's history. The final scene of the film (unless the film itself is understood to be one long scene) is of the last masquerade ball held in the Winter Palace in 1913, complete with orchestra and dancers, and even Pushkin — or perhaps someone dressed like him. Lovers of Russian history and culture will find this film a treat for the eyes and ears. Nevertheless, it will take some prior knowledge to make sense of Russian Ark. It is worth reading some of that country's history to be able fully to enjoy the experience. This is a film to savour over multiple viewings.
Though Europe is today a thoroughly secular place, this may have changed somewhat with the admission of Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, in addition to longtime member Greece. All of these are largely Orthodox Christian countries and may effectively constitute something of a "Byzantine bloc" within the EU. Daniel Jianu reports for Transitions Online: The Politics of Faith.
It is possible that, if pan-Orthodox solidarity becomes a reality, the rest of the EU may view these four countries as fifth columnists for Putin and Medvedev's increasingly belligerent Russia. While such solidarity may make sense from a cultural point of view, the Balkan countries would do well to recall from their own history that reliance on Russian assistance or protection is likely to meet with disappointment.
As for exerting a distinctively christian influence on the EU, it would be wise not to expect too much from this bloc.
Stijn Coninx's Daens is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the development of Catholic social thought and its reception in an industrializing western Europe at the end of the 19th century. The setting is Belgium in 1893. Fr. Adolph Daens (Jan Decleir) is a priest assigned to a parish in Aalst, the bulk of whose members work in dangerous factories for poverty-level wages. Here accidents and deaths are a frequent occurrence, while the owners and managers choose to ignore the plight of their own employees. Caught in a darwinian struggle for survival, the owners decide to implement the "Scottish system," whereby the men are replaced by women and children commanding a lower wage.
Fr. Daens is scandalized by what he sees and undertakes to improve the lot of his poorer parishioners, successfully working for the universal franchise and then standing for election to the Belgian Parliament in 1894. He meets with success, but at the expense of his good standing in the Church, which defrocks him five years later. He is summoned to Rome to meet with Pope Leo XIII, whose encyclical Rerum Novarum was the inspiration behind Daens' efforts. The Pope declines to meet him personally, while a Vatican official hands him a blunt letter with the Pope's signature informing him that his call to the priesthood must come before everything else.
Among his political opponents is Charles Woeste, leader of the mainstream Catholic Party, whose support base is threatened by Daens' upstart Christian People's Party. The Socialists are another threatening presence, urging the oppressed workers to discard their christian faith altogether and join with them in a common struggle. Although Daens opposes socialism, Woeste and the ecclesiastical hierarchy persist in viewing him as a red priest. Tellingly, Nette Scholliers (Antje de Boeck), who organizes a general strike in support of Daens' efforts, falls in love with Socialist organizer Jan De Meeter (Michael Pas), a development that has its political parallel in Daens' (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to forge an alliance with that party.
Three features of this film are worth noting. First, like Belgium itself, the film is bilingual, with conversations amongst the lower class occurring in the Vlaamsche taal while the upper crust speak French. This is an accurate portrayal of Belgian society at that time. Whichever language one grew up speaking at home, French was the language of the élites, despite the fact that native Flemish-speakers outnumbered native francophones. This linguistic duality plays a pivotal role when a parliamentary committee investigating abuses in the factories of Aalst is unable to comprehend the complaints of the workers.
Second, one of the characters in the film is the Belgian King Leopold II (Gérald Marti). Although English-speaking viewers of the film are likely unaware of his significance in the history of that country, Belgian viewers would be all too familiar with the infamous monarch, due to his association with the atrocities committed in the spectacularly-misnamed Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908.
It should finally be noted that the film is based on Louis Paul Boon's novel, Pieter Daens (the name of Adolph's printer brother), which means that the film is two degrees removed from the historical events it recounts. Was Daens perhaps less saintly or Woest and the church hierarchy less vicious than they are portrayed here? Are the characters caricatures of their real-life counterparts? Undoubtedly. This points to one of the flaws in an otherwise excellent film, namely, insufficient development of the main characters. I would have liked to know more of Daens' faith, including his love for Christ and his church, and his growing excitement over reading Rerum Novarum. All the same, a film can hardly do everything in 138 minutes. Daens is worth seeing for what it does do, and it does it very well indeed.
During the final meeting of the semester in my introductory-level courses I always read aloud Matthew 20:20-28, which tells of the outrageous request made by the mother of James and John to Jesus that he give her two sons the highest places of honour in his kingdom. This, of course, elicits protests from the other disciples, while Jesus himself indicates that his kingdom is about, not achieving human greatness, but practising servanthood.
One element of this passage puzzled me until recently. The New International Version renders verses 25-28 as follows:
Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (emphasis mine).
Could it really be that Jesus is deprecating authority and thus commanding his followers to refrain from exercising it so they can be servants instead? How can we square this with Peter and Paul's words in I Peter 2:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7 respectively? Might it be an example of semitic hyperbole along the lines of Luke 14:25-27? That was my conclusion.
Recently, however, I had the opportunity to sound out my esteemed friend and (soon to be emeritus) colleague, Al Wolters, about this passage, and especially the Greek word, κατεξουσιάζουσιν (κατεξουσιάζω), which is translated here as "exercise authority." (Thayer's Greek Lexicon agrees with the NIV's translation.) He pointed out that the word is rare, occurring only here and in the parallel passage in Mark 10:35-45. Apart from these, the word hardly occurs at all even outside the New Testament.
The construction of the word, however, may provide a clue to its meaning. The prefix κατα- is added to εξουσιάζω, the latter of which means simply to exercise authority. The use of this prefix, especially when the object of the verb is rendered in the genitive case (αὐτων), may imply that the compound verb has a negative connotation. This is certainly true of the immediately preceding verb, κατακυριεύουσιν (κατακυριεύω), which the NIV translates as "lord it over" and which is followed again by the genitive pronoun αὐτων. Thus it may be that the New Revised Standard Version best translates the passage as follows:
‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (emphasis mine)
Servanthood does not stand in contrast to authority, as some believe. One need not relinquish authority to be a servant. (In fact, I would argue that it is impossible for human beings created in God's image not to have authority.) Those in authority, including kings, emperors, prime ministers, presidents and parliamentarians, are mandated by God to exercise their authority precisely as servants of God and neighbour. If they do not, then they abuse authority.
This is the first instalment in a series I will be posting in the coming weeks and months on the subject of authority, on which I am (all too slowly!) writing a book. Stay tuned for more.
Next: How at age 20 a reading of Romans 13 in the original Greek convinced me that I was not an anabaptist after all.
Fr. Alphonse de Valk, editor of Catholic Insight, weighs in on the recent OHRC decision concerning Christian Horizons: Ontario Panel Accused of Attacking Religious Rights. Here's Pope Benedict XVI on the subject: "human rights must include the right to religious freedom, understood at once (as) individual and communitarian. . . ."
Wheaton College, near Chicago, has been the centre of controversy recently over the departure of a divorced member of the faculty. Timothy Larsen defends the college: Wheaton prof explains divorce policy.
During a recent trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I made the unexpected discovery that cacti are native to the dunes of Michigan and Indiana. I would have been less surprised to learn that there are palm trees in Iqaluit.
This is an exquisite recording that I acquired just over a year ago. It is well worth listening to and savouring. Of course Jews and Christians have been singing the Psalms for two millennia and more. There are various ways to sing them, including chant and metrical psalmody, the latter of which requires versification according to set metres. Gelineau psalmody is unique in that it combines elements of both. Here is my description of Gelineau psalmody from my 1989 Reformed Worship article, Straight from Scripture:
One of the more interesting ways of singing the psalms was developed by Joseph Gelineau of France. Of all the methods of singing the psalms, Gelineau's chant best preserves the Hebrew poetic style, retaining both the parallelism and the metrical structure of the original. Ancient Hebrew meter is somewhat like early English meter (e.g., nursery rhymes) in that it focuses on the number of stresses within a line rather than on the number of syllables. Gelineau psalmody is often sung to the Grail translation, which was produced specifically for this purpose. The following passage (. . . from Psalm 54) is "pointed" to indicate the regular rhythmic stresses in each line:
O Gód, sáve me by your náme; by your pówer, uphóld my caúse. O Gód, heár my práyer; lísten to the wórds of my moúth.
Gelineau psalmody also takes into account the different number of lines within each stanza, something that is not possible with other methods of psalm-chanting.
Gelineau psalms are usually sung responsively. The soloist or choir begins by singing the refrain; then the congregation repeats it. The psalm then proceeds responsively with a soloist or choir chanting the verses and the congregation responding with the refrain. Many Roman Catholics, who have recently begun congregational singing, have found this "responsorial" style of psalm-singing very helpful. A refrain (or antiphon, an older term) is much easier to learn than the whole psalm. Among Protestants who are used to exclusive metrical psalmody, the responsorial style has the advantage of making a clear distinction between psalms and hymns. Rather than simply reading the psalm directly from the Bible or singing a paraphrased version of it metrically, the congregation can sing the actual words from Scripture.
This particular recording is performed by the Cathedral Singers of Chicago, conducted by Richard Proulx. Gelineau psalmody is by now familiar to two generations of Catholics, but not to protestants and Orthodox Christians. It deserves to be better known amongst all the followers of Christ.