Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

31 October 2008

The Byzantine musical scale

For those still attempting to master the intricacies of Byzantine chant and musical notation, I have now come up with a surefire method of learning the scale. Most westerners are acquainted with the western (solfège) scale:

Do re mi fa so la ti do

Fewer of us are as familiar with the Byzantine musical scale, which my father was taught as a child:

Πα βου γα δι κε ζω νη πα
(Pa vou gha thee ke zo ni pa)

Now there is a song to help us learn this:

The Byzantine Musical Scale Song

(To the tune of Do Re Mi, by Richard Rodgers,
lyrics by David T. Koyzis,
with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein II)

Πα, a name I call my dad,
βου, a Gallic word for “you,”
γα, the sound a baby makes,
δι is you and only you,
κε, conjoining words in Greek,
ζω, where animals are caged,
νη, arthritis makes it weak.
That will bring us back to
Πα - κε - γα - βου
Πα . . .

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Digging up history

Three potentially significant archaeological finds have been announced virtually simultaneously: Find of Ancient City Could Alter Notions of Biblical David; First-Temple era water tunnel found in J'lem; and King Solomon's Copper Mines?

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22 October 2008

Neoclassical architecture

Paul M. Weyrich, of the Free Congress Foundation, is a fan, not only of rail transportation, but also of neoclassical architecture, as evidenced here: A Celebration of Railroads and Architecture. I am completely in agreement with him in his advocacy of train travel, which I am convinced needs to be favoured over air travel for short and intermediate distances. I am more ambivalent over his sweeping claim, following Prince Charles, that "classical architecture is a tribute to God Almighty."

Union Station, Washington (1907)
Union Station, Washington, DC


I have been to Washington's Union Station at least twice, most recently in July of last year. It was designed by architect Daniel Burnham, well known for his contribution to the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and his Plan of Chicago in 1909. I am pleased that this magnificent structure was successfully preserved and restored. Furthermore, I am happy to admit that all architecture is in some fashion a manifestation of God's creative intent that his image-bearing creatures should shape their environments in distinctive ways.

Yet architectural fashions also reflect the religious worldviews of the architects themselves, as well as of the larger culture that nurtures them. One looks in vain for Weyrich to recognize that neoclassicism in art and architecture was motivated by an effort more to recover the vaunted glories of pagan Greece and Rome than to honour God. Weyrich's conservatism could stand to be a bit more nuanced here.

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21 October 2008

The abortion debate

Here in Canada abortion appears to be on the radar screen of no major political party or politician. After Brian Mulroney's failed attempt to enact a law regulating abortion more than a decade and a half ago, it was dropped from the national agenda, a political hot potato that no one wanted to touch. We Canadians are largely a quiescent lot, unwilling to rock the boat on the most divisive of issues, seemingly content to allow our élites to act on our behalf.

Our cousins to the south have no such qualms about raising and tackling difficult issues. This was exhibited in the third presidential debate last week between John McCain and Barack Obama, where Bob Schieffer brought up the issue. Although views on abortion once crossed party lines some three decades ago, they no longer do. The Republican Party platform is now definitively on the pro-life side, even if not all Republicans necessarily agree with this position. Similarly, the Democratic Party is now solidly on the pro-choice side, with dissidents increasingly relegated to the margins of, if not completely excluded from, the party. Democrats who were once pro-life have gradually been brow-beaten into going along with their party's mainstream.

In the wake of the debate, it would be difficult to imagine two more contrasting responses by fellow Christians than these: At Long Last: Obama, Abortion, and the Courts, by Fr. Neuhaus; and A New Conversation on Abortion, by Jim Wallis.

First, Neuhaus. My perceptions of how the two candidates comported themselves are at such variance with Neuhaus' that I find myself wondering whether we were watching the same debate. I thought Obama came across as cool and composed — even presidential — while McCain looked distinctly ill-at-ease with a smirk pasted across his face. Admittedly, this is only to focus on the images projected by the two gentlemen, which leaves McCain at a disadvantage.

I am also wary of Neuhaus' description of the "two nations" (shades of Lord Durham!) uneasily co-existing in the United States today, which is a little overwrought. I think Jim Skillen is closer to the mark in discussing the two exodus stories that divide Americans. Nevertheless, I share Neuhaus' concern over Obama being put in a position to change the composition of the US Supreme Court in the direction of greater judicial activism. I have little sympathy with Colin Powell's "difficulty with two more conservative appointments to the Supreme Court" as his reason for endorsing Obama, "conservative" in this case referring to someone unwilling to legislate from the bench.

Now to Wallis. It seems to me that his above-cited piece definitely reflects his pragmatist rather than prophetic side. Wallis appears to believe that, in the interest of bipartisanship, the issue of the justice of abortion can be set aside, as long as both parties can be brought to agree on the need to reduce the number of abortions. As noted before, Wallis portrays himself as an agent of reconciliation on this issue, although he admits ultimately to being pro-choice. The notion that innocent life might deserve legal protection he describes as a mere posture.

In the comments to a recent post, "gerard" asks: "Hasn't [Wallis] a point that every step into the right direction is one to appreciate?" Certainly, provided we have correctly discerned which direction is really being taken. Politics has been famously described as the art of the possible. It may be necessary to settle for less than one would like out of the political process. I have little sympathy with those pro-lifers who would sooner bring down the entire political order than tolerate a single abortion.

That said, Wallis' effort to play the political game, if I may be permitted that metaphor, lacks the sort of savvy needed to assess where his own political party is actually headed. Despite his claim to have influenced the Democratic Party's platform (see p. 45.18-31), its policy statement on abortion appears to have hardened in its support for Roe vs. Wade ("strongly and unequivocally"), dropping the old language of wanting to make abortion "rare," consenting only to expand the number of choices available to pregnant women who might decide against abortion. Such language not only makes no dent in the party's pro-choice position; it is entirely consistent with it. In short, there is good reason to think that Wallis and company allowed themselves to be used for partisan purposes while gaining nothing of significance in the exchange. In this respect, his claim to have moved the party in a better direction rings hollow.

What would real progress on abortion look like? I disagree on prudential grounds with those who would begin and end their efforts by working to ban it altogether. However, an expressed commitment to a supposed right to abortion is not even a place to start. In the real world we may have to accept some regulation that falls short of full protection of the unborn from conception onwards, while doing everything within our power to nurture a public consensus in favour of legally defending life in the womb. I suspect that Wallis' functional pacifism prevents him acknowledging the need for the law, with its coercive sanctions, to speak to this, which further suggests a defective understanding of justice.

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17 October 2008

Canada's future: minority government

As usual, the most recent issue of Inroads is well worth reading, especially Henry Milner's article, Dr. Dion, or How I learned to stop worrying and love Minority Government. (Scroll down to p. 34 or p. 19 in the pdf file.) Although his essay was quickly dated by Harper's election call, it is worth reading due to his persuasive argument that we are in for a series of minority governments due to a changed federal political climate that began nearly two decades ago. Here's Milner:
To put it simply, we no longer have minority
governments; we have Minority Government.
Minority governments are no longer an aberration.
They have become standard fare, the
result of an important change in Canada’s
political makeup that has not received the
attention it deserves. . . .

The rise of the Bloc Québécois fundamentally
transformed Canadian federal politics
by making minority government the norm.
However, that transformation was masked
by another dramatic event: the disintegration
of the Progressive Conservatives. With the
resulting split of the centre-right vote between
Reform and what remained of the Conservatives,
the Liberals under Jean Chrétien were
able to win three successive majorities. But
when the centre-right reunited, the mask was
stripped away and the new reality became – or
should have become – apparent. With two
major parties, and with the Bloc entrenched
in roughly half of Quebec’s seats, Minority
Government replaced Majority Government
as the normal state of affairs.

Milner's prediction was borne out three days ago, with the re-election of the Conservatives to minority government status. Where he struck out was in his expectation that there would be no federal election until 2009:

But to judge from the way they cover the
current Parliament, our correspondents and
pundits see a minority government rather than
Minority Government, expecting the parties
to act as they did when minority governments
were short-lived exceptions. They take for
granted that this minority government will be
short-lived, and they interpret party behaviour
in that context. But the logic has changed.
Leaders and, especially, ordinary MPs know
that provoking an election will most likely not
result in the sought-after majority government.
Instead, there will be yet another minority
Parliament: overall party strength will have
changed little, but a bunch of incumbents will
have lost their seats.

Our leaders certainly should have known this, but it seems Milner erred in putting too much faith in their ability to recognize reality. If Minority Government is indeed here to stay, it may be time for our parties to abandon the pretence that majority status awaits them at the next election and to enter instead into co-operative alliances with other parties for purposes of governing. Otherwise we will have elections every two years, a pattern we should not wish to see settle into permanence.

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16 October 2008

John versus Barack: one more time

Last evening's presidential debate can be seen in full here. After watching this, turn here to find out how closely the candidates' remarks approach reality: FactChecking Debate No. 3.

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Churches and mental illness

As someone who has suffered bouts of depression, I find this very sad indeed: Church Pastors Dismiss Mental Illness. This only underscores the need for theological seminaries to educate prospective pastors about this affliction, which they will almost certainly have to address in their parishioners, if not in themselves. Moreover, someone needs to confront head-on the widespread but defective notion that the spiritual is a kind of add-on to the biological or psychological that functions independently of it. Not so. Spiritual has to do with the ultimate direction of our whole lives, including the biological, psychological, economic and political.

(Hat tip to Jonathan Weverink)

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15 October 2008

October snippets

  • Janet Ajzenstat weighs in on the life of the eminent constitutional scholar, Gérald Beaudoin, who died last month at age 79. Her reflections on his legacy confirm to me once again that basic constitutional reform is probably incompatible with mass participatory democracy. Given the near universal acceptance of the latter, at least in the west, my own suspicion is that the formation of new constitutional federations, or, more modestly, the reform of old ones, may now belong to the past. I cite our own Charlottetown Accord, as well as two failed attempts at establishing a European constitution, as evidence.

  • I discovered last week, to my consternation, that Faith Alive's recently published Singing the New Testament has set my text, Christ Who Is in the Form of God, to Sir Charles Hubert Parry's rousing tune, JERUSALEM, to which it is spectacularly ill suited. By contrast, the Mennonites were kind enough to follow my advice and use Orlando Gibbon's SONG 34 for this text. Perhaps Calvin was too hard on the anabaptists after all.

  • At the weekend family came up to celebrate Thanksgiving with us, bringing along a copy of my hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, at one time the major daily in the American middle west. Unfortunately, under its current owner, it has become so dumbed down that it now resembles USA Today (known affectionately as "McPaper"), carrying little news of substance and lots and lots of advertising. Even our own Hamilton Spectator is now superior to the Trib. Col. Robert McComick and Mike Royko must be turning in their graves.

  • Though I've not yet seen it, I am reading good things about Fireproof, a low-budget film produced by a Baptist church, of all things. Prison Fellowship's Mark Earley quite likes it. Zenit interviews director Alex Kendrick on this unusual project.

  • Another Conservative minority government? I will not feign surprise at this entirely expected result. Stephen Harper failed to win his hoped for majority, though he increased his party's share of seats in the Commons, as did the New Democrats and the Bloc québécois. Only the Liberals, Canada's "natural governing party," lost ground. As Stéphane Dion's days as party leader are numbered, he will likely earn the distinction of being the only Liberal leader in well over a century never to have become prime minister.

  • This is not good news: Voter turnout drops to record low. How to rectify this? How about PR!

  • Our American counterparts are bracing themselves for this evening's third presidential debate. During the second debate, both Obama and McCain sought to convince their fellow citizens to put them in office by raising expectations as to what each could do for their benefit. It was as if they were running for the position of elected dictator. Given that both are senators, one would expect them at least to mention that little complicating factor in their plans: the Congress of the United States.

  • As a one-time aficionado of Sojourners (more than three decades ago), I remain puzzled at their embrace of two seemingly contradictory positions: (1) a prophetic call to Christians to remember that they belong to Christ first and foremost amidst the idolatries of our day, as exemplified in these posts: American First, Christian Second? and No Conviction; and (2) a pragmatic willingness to soften one's principles for the sake of mobilizing support for a particular political party, as seen here: A Step Forward on Abortion. Someone, perhaps Jim Wallis himself, needs to explain to the rest of us how they manage to pull together these two obviously divergent elements.

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    07 October 2008

    An American empire? Part 1

    As promised earlier, I am posting the first of a two-part series on the American empire. This appeared as a column in the 11 August issue of Christian Courier. The second part will appear next month.

    Is America an empire? The short answer to this is yes. The long answer to this is yes, but . . . .

    Four decades ago, George Parkin Grant saw Canada’s local traditions being swallowed up in the homogenizing forces of technology emanating from the “American empire.” More recently, especially in response to George W. Bush’s foreign and defence policies, a number of observers have been employing the same expression. How accurate is it?

    Definitions of empire vary, and the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “supreme and wide political dominion” is not terribly illuminating. Imperialism usually has connotations of expansion of territory at the expense of one’s neighbours. Economic or cultural imperialism has been used in some circles to signify the overarching influence of a single country or group of countries on especially the world’s poorer regions.

    Uncle Sam
    In the 19th century the United States expanded its territory westwards as its people settled beyond the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. In 1867 it acquired Alaska from Russia and, at the end of the century, annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Nevertheless, American self-perceptions contain a pronounced anti-imperial component, as indicated by former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s implausible statement that “We're not imperialistic. We never have been.”

    Of course, it has been many decades since the United States was in the business of annexing territories outright. Yet no one can deny that its influence in a variety of areas is global in reach. American popular music is heard round the world. American military forces are stationed in many countries, most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. The subprime mortgage crisis in the US is inexorably having its impact elsewhere, including Canada. And English is the world’s lingua franca — the language of commerce, international relations and the academy, propelled in large measure by the phenomenal power of the US.

    The negatives of empire are easy to spot. Territorial empires tend to exploit the periphery to benefit the centre. The residents of the non-metropolitan territories lack the full rights of citizens in the mother country. For example, though my father was born a British subject in colonial Cyprus, he could not vote in British elections unless he were to have moved to the United Kingdom proper. Worst of all, the western colonial empires were based on a general belief in the superiority of the colonizing races over their subject peoples.

    The American empire has been subject to many of these same defects, including a naïve belief in the universal validity of American political institutions. Canadians are only too well aware that US policies are inevitably made in their own interest, often to the detriment of other countries. When harnessed to the overwhelming might of the world’s only superpower, both political realism, with its focus on power for its own sake, and idealism, with its ambition to do good, can run roughshod over the legitimate interests of less powerful nations. The principal victim is justice itself.

    At the end of the Second World War, the European colonial powers, having just defeated an especially vicious form of imperialism at home, began to divest themselves of their colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Britain gave up the jewel in its crown, India. France eventually let Algeria go, but only with great reluctance. The Netherlands vacated Indonesia. And the US even gave up the Philippines.

    Yet empire is by no means dead. There is much to be said for the view that America is an empire, which in most contexts is not meant in a flattering way. Nevertheless, there is another, less negative side to this, which I will take up in part two.

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