Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 August 2008

Persecution in India

Rod Dreher is alerting us to events in India that are being largely ignored by the western media: Anti-Christian pogroms in Orissa.

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29 August 2008

Canada's revolution

How could a devout Roman Catholic who attended mass several times a week have been responsible for bringing to this country a "culture of individualism, self-centredness, and of the hedonistic, nihilistic 'now!'"? Russ Kuykendall ponders this question in The Trudeau revolution.

As for the impact of the late prime minister's faith on his politics, you might wish to (re)read this: Trudeau's Catholic influences.

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Architectural integrity

Yesterday we visited the revamped Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and were left wondering whether we're the only ones who think it looks like a giant object from outer space crashed into the building. Architect Daniel Libeskind would have done better to respect the integrity of the original structure as designed in 1914 by Frank Darling and John A. Pearson, who would undoubtedly not have approved of this addition to their handiwork.

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Empowering Party Conventions

The Center for Public Justice is running an election series in the run-up to the US presidential election. The latest in the series is by yours truly: Empowering Party Conventions.

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25 August 2008

August snippets

  • Senator Joe Biden has a shot at becoming Vice President of the United States, an office that, in the immortal words of former occupant John Nance Garner, is "not worth a bucket of warm spit" (though rumour has it that his original reference was to another bodily fluid). Biden is a Roman Catholic with Pennsylvania roots, though he has run afoul of his own church's hierarchy over his voting record on abortion. Whether this will put off Catholic voters remains to be seen.

  • Given that those who have seen it judge it an outstanding film, Jules Dassin's Celui qui doit mourir ("He who must die", 1957) desperately needs to be put out on DVD. It is a cinematic version of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Greek Passion, a moving and disturbing book about a passion play being planned by a Greek-speaking village in Asia Minor just before the Catastrophe of 1922. It would fit very well into a university course in the Bible and film.

  • Bob Atchison, who lovingly maintains the Alexander Palace website, has also posted a site devoted to the hauntingly beautiful Deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. The alert reader will recognize this image from the sidebar of this blog.

  • Speaking of which, the Orthodox journal, Road to Emmaus, carries in its archives a fascinating account of Life On The Golden Horn: Memories of Greek Constantinople, 1948 to 1963.

  • This same periodical devotes at least three articles to Grand Duchess Olga, the daughter of Tsar Aleksandr III and younger sister of Nicholas II: To Be And Not To Seem: My Mother-In-Law, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna; The Bones of Contention: Olga Nikolaievna Kulikovsky-Romanoff on the Alleged Remains of the Russian Royal Family; and 1919: A Refugee Christmas. Grand Duchess Olga lived out her later years in Toronto, where she died in 1960 in relative poverty. Her namesake granddaughter lives here in Hamilton.

  • I doubt I am the only one to notice the tension, if not outright contradiction, between these two articles posted back-to-back on the First Things website: Law & Unlaw, by Ian H. Henderson; and Meeting God As An American, by Fr. Neuhaus. The former's emphasis on divinely given Torah as the basis for human laws would seem to be in conflict with the latter extolling the "very honorable philosophical pedigree" of the contractarian position.

  • In the wake of Jim Wallis and company's controversial claim to have influenced the Democratic Party platform on abortion, Ben Domenech has published a hard-hitting response to the latter: Slow Dancing with Death: Barack Obama’s Democrats Embrace Abortion Extremism. One more thing is worth noting: it seems Wallis' assertion that, even with a Republican in the White House, there has been no change in the US abortion rate may not be altogether accurate if this report is to be believed.

  • The American Political Science Association (APSA), of which I've been a member for 25 years, plans to hold its 2009 annual meeting in Toronto. However, some professors are opposed to this location: Academics fear speaking freely in Canada. Makes me proud to be Canadian.

  • At the weekend Nancy and I saw Mamma Mia!, an entirely frivolous movie that we enjoyed for its humorous use of all those old ABBA songs but that nevertheless does not merit a review here.
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    23 August 2008

    Authority and power, I

    Authority and power are not the same thing, a statement that comes close to being a truism. Nevertheless, so many people still manage to confuse these concepts, even when they profess to understand that they are different. This is due to a general tendency to assume that power manifests itself primarily as coercive force. Thomas Hobbes famously reduced right to might, assuming that the only source of effective political authority is the sovereign's monopoly over coercive force. Few nowadays would go along with this, believing that the exercise of power must be authorized in some fashion, either by a higher authority or by the democratically-expressed will of the citizens.

    Nevertheless, when challenged to define authority and to set out its parameters, many observers still manage to identify it with some capacity at its disposal. When I first began researching my book on authority, I was quite surprised at the sheer number of people who do this. One example will suffice for now, and I will post more later.

    In his 1980 book, Authority, Richard Sennett argues that authority is an interpretive process which undertakes to give meaning to the conditions of power, "to give the conditions of control and influence a meaning by defining an image of strength." This image of strength is very much a subjective one resident in the minds both of those wielding authority and of those under it. For Sennett then authority is reducible to a kind of psychological power that some exercise over others who are psychologically dependent on it. One of Sennett's case studies will serve to illustrate his approach.

    Pierre Monteux and Arturo Toscanini conducted a number of orchestras in Europe and North America during their long careers. Though both enjoyed the same official position relative to these orchestras, each had a quite different personal style. Toscanini inspired terror in his players, going so far as to scream, stamp his feet and even throw his baton at them. He kept the orchestra in line largely through provoking fear of his anger.

    Pierre Monteux (1875-1964)
    By contrast, Monteux had a quieter way of relating to his ensemble, conveying a more relaxed sense of self-mastery and a calm assurance of being in control, a style which Sennett obviously prefers to Toscanini's. Each conductor asserted his authority, albeit in different ways. The phrases Sennett uses to describe this "authority" are telling: "relaxed, complete control of himself," "ease at being in control," "easy assurance," "inspiring terror," "aura," "strength," "superior judgment" and so forth. All of these have to do with the mental states of the people involved. What is missing is any reference to the concrete office of conductor without which an orchestra could not produce a pleasing sound.

    To be sure, a conductor who is unable for whatever reason to relate successfully to his players and to command their confidence will fill the office inadequately despite his formally occupying it. This will inevitably have an impact on, among other things, the quality of the music the group as a whole is able to produce under his direction. He may acquire a reputation for being difficult to work under, and his players may put forth only a cursory effort in his behalf.

    Yet at most the psychological ability to command the confidence of those under oneself must be seen as a form of power ancillary to authority, and not as the basis of authority itself. Sennett seems to have missed this. Having a commanding presence may indeed contribute to the smooth functioning of authority, yet by itself it can hardly confer that authority. The fact of the first violinist having such a presence cannot ipso facto make of her a conductor. At some point, after the departure of the current conductor, the orchestra’s board might decide to recognize her gifts and confer the baton upon her. She may end up performing more skilfully than her immediate predecessor, but her authority to do so will not have come until the board has made its authorizing decision.

    Authority may be accompanied by any number of capacities ancillary to its exercise, including a commanding presence and the abilities to listen, to make sound judgements, and to persuade others of the merits of one's position. All of these enrich and enhance authority. Yet authority cannot be reduced to them. Authority is better understood as rooted in office — which is in turn rooted in the reality of our creation in God's image, as manifested in the differentiated responsibilities we bear throughout the range of life's activities.

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    22 August 2008

    Global Anglican Future

    Global Anglican Future Conference, 2008
    What is the world's largest evangelical denomination? If the recent Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) represents the majority of adherents, it may well be the Anglican Communion. Indeed I have just finished reading The Way, The Truth and the Life: Theological Resources for a Pilgrimage to a Global Anglican Future and find it to be an inspiring document. According to GAFCON's Theological Resource Team, the Anglican Church is a confessional church subject to the authority of Scripture and bound by the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies as confessional and liturgical standards.

    Here are some especially striking excerpts from the GAFCON document:

    [O]ur place under the alien dominion of darkness is no innocent victimhood. Victims and oppression certainly exist in the world, but a victim culture exists too, and its unhealthy nature has been well-documented. The risk, for the person who portrays himself simply in the role of victim, is that he feels justified in manipulating others, including God, while distorting the truth about his own fallenness. By contrast, an accurate account of human subjection to alien dominion must include mention of our own sin. A purely therapeutic view of the human problem is false, because it underplays the wonders of Jesus’ actions for us: he saved us by his sacrificial, propitiatory death while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). . . .

    [I]n this obedience that Matthew 28:18 calls for, there can be no competing loyalty. This follows from the scope and the timing of the gift of authority to Jesus. The ascended Christ reigns now in this present age, despite its continuing rebellion, and over all. Thus competing authorities are even now, in reality, subject to Christ. No aspect of human life can claim to be independent of the reign of Christ: all, whether political, economic or artistic, is under Him. . . .

    By his enabling, Christians are to read the Scriptures as disciples eager to learn, concerned to have our thinking and behaviour corrected, so that our lives might conform more truly to the ultimate reality of God’s character and purposes. In short, Christians sit humbly under the Spirit-inspired Scriptures, desiring to live holy lives as Christ’s disciples. . . .

    Imagine if the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church were to catch the spirit of this document. Two declining denominations would be well positioned to follow their African and Asian counterparts into spectacular growth. Rather than making themselves redundant by reflecting the agenda and priorities of the surrounding culture, they would offer the gospel to a sinful world in need of its life-giving and transforming message. May God grant it!

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    18 August 2008

    Sermon posted

    For those unable to make yesterday's worship service at St. John's, I have posted my sermon here: Joseph forgives his brothers.

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    15 August 2008

    Have Democrats softened on abortion?

    Back in the 1980s many of us had good reason to think that the Reaganite Republican Party was co-opting evangelicals and Catholics by giving lip service to the pro-life position. A quarter-century later, are Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and others being used by the Democrats to bring evangelicals on side? Wallis waxes enthusiastic about the party's supposedly changed platform during this election year: A Step Forward on Abortion. But pro-choice Judith Warner is unpersuaded: Walking the Abortion Plank.

    At least the Republicans gave lip service; the Democrats have thrown not even so much as a few crumbs at pro-lifers. Then again, I suppose we have to remind ourselves that Wallis himself, despite his claimed consistent life ethic, is ultimately pro-choice.

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    13 August 2008

    God and caesar

    Robert Kraynak celebrates the life of a great man: Solzhenitsyn and the Battle for the Human Soul. However, in the course of his eulogy, he manages to misinterpret a key gospel teaching (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17 and Luke 20:20-26) concerning the place of government in God's world:

    If we listen carefully to [Solzhenitsyn's] statements, they are based on the Gospel’s distinction between God’s realm and Caesar’s realm and the insistence that each realm has its proper role. Surprisingly, Solzhenitsyn uses the distinction of two realms in order to lower people’s expectations about the role of the state (Caesar’s realm) in people’s lives and to allow the higher, spiritual realm of God and the soul to flourish in conditions of political freedom.

    Although there is no doubt that the commands of God and the demands of human beings come into conflict in the real world (Acts 4:19; 5:29), Jesus could hardly have intended to imply that God and caesar possess two distinct and parallel realms, each with its proper role, since that would contradict the universal sovereignty of God. In fact, the realm of government also belongs to God, as affirmed dramatically in Psalm 82. Leon Morris has it right: "The obligation to God covers all of life; we must serve Caesar in a way that is honoring to God."

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    11 August 2008

    A real Ring of Gyges?

    Think of the temptations ordinary people would face if this technology got into their hands: Scientists closer to developing invisibility cloak.

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    10 August 2008

    Joseph forgives his brothers

    Next sunday, 17 August, at 10 am, I will be preaching at the Church of St. John the Evangelist at the corner of Locke and Charlton here in Hamilton. The lesson is Genesis 45:1-15, and the title is "Joseph forgives his brothers." All are welcome.

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    06 August 2008

    Did you know. . .

    . . . that the St. Charles Air Line is not an airline at all but a very short railway?

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    04 August 2008


    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

    Famed Russian novellist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. He is widely regarded as the worthy successor to such 19th-century literary greats as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Together they carried on a long Russian tradition of men of letters serving as loyal opposition in a polity characterized by autocracy and totalitarianism. Tsar Nicholas I is said to have at once admired and feared the poet Aleksandr Pushkin. Similarly, the Soviet-era leaders so feared Solzhenitsyn that they attempted to suppress his output and exiled him for 20 years.

    His output was prolific, beginning with his groundbreaking novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which chronicles a single day in the life of an inmate in one of Stalin's forced labour camps. This work alone ranks with the likes of The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment as a significant exemplar of the Russian literary tradition.

    I myself have been fascinated by Solzhenitsyn's political tracts, beginning with his 1973 Letter to the Soviet Leaders, through his controversial 1978 Harvard address to his 1990 Rebuilding Russia. In the second work he was sharply critical of western decadence and alienated many in the media who had once lionized him. In the first and third works, he sounded themes that would seem prophetic in retrospect: 1) Russia should discard the discredited Marxist-Leninist ideology that had done so much harm to the country; 2) Russia should cast off the nonslavic republics and allow them to go their own way; 3) it should focus on settling and developing the north and east rather than engaging in overseas adventurism; and 4) it must at all costs avoid a war with China, which cannot be won.

    Despite or perhaps because of his experience living under an atheistic régime, Solzhenitsyn became a Christian during his time in the Gulag. Having seen for himself the consequences of pursuing a political illusion on a mass scale, he embraced faith in Jesus Christ as the only hope for Russia's future. Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1994 and lived there for the remainder of his life. Although he could with some justification be called a Russian nationalist and thus focussed most of his attention on his own country, he was capable of seeing through our own political illusions as well: "The West has finally achieved the rights of man, and even to excess, but man's sense of responsibility to God and society has grown dimmer and dimmer." May Solzhenitsyn's words continue to speak to us in a new century.

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