Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

28 April 2009

Late April snippets

  • The reverberations from Notre Dame's decision to award Barack Obama an honourary degree continue, as Mary Ann Glendon, one time US Ambassador to the Vatican, has written a public letter to Fr. John Jenkins declining the university's award to her of the Laetare Medal.

  • In my Canadian government course I always ask my students when Canada became independent. It's a trick question really, and one that does not admit of a simple answer. The truth of the matter is that there were a number of stages along Canada's path to nationhood, the most recent of which was patriation of the constitution in 1982. Yet my friend and colleague, Janet Ajzenstat believes that, as each British North American territory received responsible government, it ceased to be a dependency and effectively became self-governing, i.e., independent. This occurred as early as 1848 in Nova Scotia and the united Province of Canada. There is undoubtedly some validity to Ajzenstat's argument, though when Britain committed Canada to war in 1899 and 1914, Her/His Majesty's Canadian subjects may not have felt particularly independent.

  • It is a mark of our times that someone could cause controversy by claiming that the sky is blue when, of course, everyone knows that the very concept of blue is a social construction. Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean found this out to her own disadvantage. The Mixolydian Knight wonders whether one of her First Amendment rights is not at stake: Religious freedom at risk? I suppose a case could be made for it, except that the American founders probably never intended it to apply to beauty contests.

  • Did American interrogators really torture suspected terrorists? Russell E. Saltzman is appalled by the Red Cross reports on the subject, which suggest that, yes, they did indeed: The Mental Murder of Torture. Saltzman:

    By any standard, the treatment reported amounted to torture—strenuous enough, brutal enough, as to require medical personnel in attendance as the suspects were subjected to it. . . . Most people should be able to figure it out: If a doctor is needed during questioning, the means used in the questioning is morally suspect. The use of medical personnel reminds us of how susceptible medicine is to the contortions of nationalism, ideology, national security, even popular demand, and how difficult it may be for people of ordinary moral impulse to resist pressure from superiors.

    If perpetrators are brought to trial, one suspects that we will hear what we heard sixty years ago at Nürnberg: "I was following orders."

  • Columbia University's Mark C. Taylor argues that we should End the University as We Know It. While he may be guilty of a certain degree of rhetorical overkill, I heartily approve of his emphasis on what might be called interdisciplinary renewal within the university:

    There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises. It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

    It seems we need more institutions like Redeemer University College and fewer like . . . well, I won't name names.

  • Comment has recently posted on its website Susan Boyle and YouTube: A Symposium. Scroll down to the bottom to read my own contribution.

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    25 April 2009

    Smetana's inspiration?

    While we're on the subject of Czech musicians, Bedřich Smetana is well known at home and abroad as the composer of Má vlast (My Fatherland), the most famous movement of which has to be Vltava, or Die Moldau, as it is better known elsewhere. This movement is often recorded and performed alone, which is how I remember hearing it as a child, when it became one of my favourites. In general, I'm not a fan of the romantic era, but Smetana's piece deserves a place in anyone's repertoire. Here it is performed by the legendary Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.



    The Vltava flows through the Czech capital Prague, easily the most beautiful city in Europe. I was privileged to visit this remarkable place in 1976 and thus saw for myself the river celebrated in Smetana's piece. From Prague it flows into the Elbe and eventually into the Baltic Sea.

    According to a humorous Czech television advertisement, Smetana may have been inspired to write Vltava by the bubbles in a glass of the country's most famous beer, Pilsner Urquell. If only Canadian beer commercials featured such fine music!

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    24 April 2009

    Janáček and Dvořák

    Last week, while driving to and from Grand Rapids, Michigan, I listened to a CD containing the music of the great Czech composer, Leoš Janáček. My favourite of his pieces is easily the rousing Sinfonietta, the first movement of which I linked to on the first day of the year. This time I listened to his Lachian Dances, which he published shortly before his death in 1928 but began working on as early as 1888. Though I've heard them many times over the past three decades, it was only during my recent automobile trip that it finally dawned on me that they are obviously inspired by Antonín Dvořák's better known Slavonic Dances. I was surprised that I hadn't before noticed this.

    While I appreciate the Lachian Dances, they are not amongst Janáček's better compositions, in my opinion, and they certainly cannot compare with Dvořák's Slavonic Dances. Listen and decide for yourself. Immediately below is the second movement of the former, titled Pozehnany ("Blessed"), followed by Slavonic Dance number 5, my personal favourite:



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    American Babylon

    Philip Marchand reviews the final instalment in an extensive corpus: Richard John Neuhaus’s last sermon.

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    Prosecuting torture?

    It is difficult to imagine two articles more opposed to each other than these: Prosecuting Bush: On Second Thought...., by Ben Johnson (no, not that Ben Johnson), and Steve Chapman's Waking up to torture truths. Did the Bush administration sanction torture of prisoners in violation of both domestic and international law? If so, why should those responsible be exempt from prosecution? Even if it did produce "high value information" (which Chapman doubts), is torture ever justified? Johnson's case would be more persuasive if he would move beyond charging his opponents with weakness and "Carterism" and clearly address the justice of such tactics as waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

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    21 April 2009

    Canada's Grant family

    Yes, after more than two decades, I still have my Canadian politics students reading George Parkin Grant's Lament for a Nation. It's not that I agree entirely with his argument. In fact, I think he severely shortchanges Canada's political institutions, as I wrote here five years ago: George Grant and the Primacy of Economics. Nevertheless, his views are worth taking seriously and grappling with.

    It just so happens that Grant's nephew is the leader of the federal Liberal Party, a certain Michael Ignatieff, who has just published a book on his maternal ancestors, True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada, an excerpt of which is published in Maclean's: Nation in progress. Robert Fulford thinks, not unreasonably, that Ignatieff is repackaging himself for the voters in this book: Ignatieff gives a shake to the family tree. Writing for Maclean's, John Geddes praises the book, perhaps too obsequiously: Michael Ignatieff’s ‘True Patriot Love’. In the Financial Post, Terence Corcoran claims that neither Ignatieff nor his late uncle had a real grasp of economics and markets: A true patriot of megaprojects.

    Will this latest book endear Ignatieff to the Canadian public? Will he successfully convince them that his days as a rootless cosmopolitan are over and that he's finally returned to his roots? Or will they see this as a cynical ploy to gain political power in a country that has not been his for most of his nearly 62 years? Time will tell.

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    19 April 2009

    Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών

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    15 April 2009

    Redeemer in the Post

    One of my colleagues has merited mention in yesterday's edition of the National Post: Private school loyalty defies poor economy.

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    12 April 2009

    Easter's origin


    Monastery of Chora,
    Constantinople


    Anthony McRoy asks: Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday? That's what the Venerable Bede thought, but McRoy adduces evidence to the contrary.

    This provides a good occasion for me to republish something I wrote nearly two decades ago and published here for the first time three years ago, titled, Easter: What's in a Name?

    In most western languages the word for the day which we English-speakers know as Easter derives from the Hebrew pesach, or passover, usually by way of its Aramaic equivalent, pascha. Only in German (which calls it Ostern) and English is the Paschal feast called by a name sounding more like a direction on a compass than a christian holiday. Where does our word Easter come from?

    When I first planned to write on this subject, I intended to argue that we Anglo-Saxons should adopt "Pascha" in place of "Easter." I still think it would not be a bad idea. In fact in some nonstandard English dialects it is already known as Pace or Pasch, and in Old Scots (the language of Robert Burns and Auld Lang Syne) as Pasche or Pash.

    At first glance the origin of "Easter" looks suspect. There is a long tradition, going back to the early English church historian, the Venerable Bede (673-735), that "Easter" derives from Eastre, pagan goddess of spring and of the dawn. Although most Christians are probably aware that many of the days and seasons of the church calendar were taken over and adapted by the early Christians from their pagan neighbours, many will find it offensive to think that the day itself could still bear the name of a false deity. English-speaking Christians might well look with some envy on their fellow believers whose languages give the day of Christ's victory over death a name with more obviously biblical and christian roots.

    For example, in most of the Romance and Germanic languages, as well as in Greek, the name for this day is some variation of pascha. Many of the Slavic and Baltic languages appropriately call it the Great Day or Great Night. And some of the Finno-Ugric languages (for example, Estonian and Hungarian) call it the Feast of Meat, a reference to the end of the long Lenten fast. (Perhaps it also refers to the tradition that at least on Easter all Christians were expected to receive the elements of the Lord's Supper — that is, the body and blood of Christ — even if they had abstained during the rest of the year.)

    In English we are stuck with the apparently tainted "Easter." But twentieth-century scholarship has called into question Bede's interpretation. There is still no general agreement on the origin of the word, but it has been suggested that it may come, not from the name of a goddess, but from eostarun, the Old High German word for the dawn itself. (Our word "east" obviously has similar origins.) In fact there are some remarkable similarities between the words for "resurrection", "Easter" and "dawn" in several Indo-European languages. The common meaning underlying these words is a "rising" of some sort.

    If our own word Easter originally meant sunrise, then perhaps it was fittingly applied to the Rising of the Son of God from the dead by our Teutonic forebears. And if this is so, then it seems that we English-speakers do after all have a most appropriate name for the feast of Christ's Resurrection.

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    07 April 2009

    From Geneva to Constantinople, continued

    Here's an additional post from my Genevan Psalter blog on the subject: More psalms of Ali Ufki.

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    Redeemer on Spec's front page

    Redeemer University College made the front page of the Hamilton Spectator after yesterday's visit from Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk: Redeemer students meet Kreviazuk's challenge for kids.
    When Timothy Epp sent an e-mail inviting Chantal Kreviazuk to come to Redeemer University College to speak to his sociology class about her charity work, he knew it was a long shot. But to Epp's surprise, the popular Canadian singer-songwriter responded with a challenge -- raise $2,500 to help children in war-torn countries and she'd come.

    Epp, a professor of sociology and pop culture, passed the challenge along to his students and they got to work. They held loose-change drives, offered fellow students discount haircuts and gave faculty members cut-rate pedicures. Some even shaved their heads. Yesterday, their efforts paid off when Kreviazuk stood on the stage of Redeemer auditorium and accepted a cheque for $5,056.01.

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    06 April 2009

    Tax deductions and the public good

    As the United States is now officially in recession, could one of Barack Obama's proposals have the unintended consequence of obstructing efforts to help the poor, who will suffer most from its effects? Ryan Messmore argues, with some plausibility, that this could be the case: Obama's Proposal to Reduce Charitable Deductions Would Hurt Civil Society, Expand Government. According to Messmore:
    The President claims that his tax plan will only have a small negative effect on charitable giving. Percentage-wise, this may be true, but the estimated reduction in giving means billions of dollars less each year for charities, especially if weak economic conditions continue.

    Scholars at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University estimated that, had Obama's proposed changes been in place in 2006, total itemized contributions from wealthy households would have dropped almost $4 billion.

    While this amount is only a small percentage of total charitable donations given each year, it represents more than the annual operating budgets of the American Cancer Society, World Vision, St. Jude's Children's Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, and the American Heart Association combined. Moreover, other scholars estimate that under Obama's proposal charitable organizations would see donations drop possibly by as much as $9 billion every year.

    In addition to receiving less money from wealthy donors, charitable organizations under Obama's plan could face a more subtle yet significant challenge: government crowding them out of social welfare provision. This phenomenon occurs when government claims increasing responsibility for tasks once performed by civil society, absorbing a larger percentage of the resources dedicated to carrying out those tasks.

    There is another important factor that Messmore does not mention. If the reigning ideological perspective holds that government is intrinsically secular and that whatever government funds must be free from the taint of "sectarian" religion, then the expansion of the public sector must necessarily come at the expense of those initiatives with an overt confessional basis. The result might be what the late Richard John Neuhaus famously called the naked public square, except that in reality it is nothing of the sort, because it is inevitably infused with religious conviction of some sort, even if the latter amounts to the belief that the cosmos can be understood without reference to God.

    This secular religion comes now to be given a privileged status and a continually growing political and economic space, before which all the particular beliefs held by flesh and blood people — including Christians, Jews and other adherents of traditional revealed religions — must give way. That this effectively erodes religious freedom would seem evident, but many are ready to acquiesce in this for the apparent pragmatic benefits associated with government action. Yet if Messmore is correct, the expected benefits will prove illusory: little will be gained, but much will be lost.

    If anything, the administration should be moving in the opposite direction. Recognizing that government cannot bear the entire burden of ameliorating the effects of a sluggish economy, it should instead be raising the charitable deduction rate for taxpayers to encourage a multiplicity of efforts at seeking the public good, leaving ample space for believers to put their faith into action in concrete ways that accord with their own traditions.

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    05 April 2009

    Palm Sunday

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    03 April 2009

    Niebuhr revisited

    As promised, I am linking to my review of Donald A. Carson's recent book, Christ and Culture Revisited, which appears in Comment today: Christ, culture and Carson. Here's an excerpt:
    Without a solid creational and biblical foundation for our efforts, any attempt to transform culture will amount to little more than trying to impose our own subjective aspirations on everyone else, whether or not they are willing, or—more significantly—whether or not those aspirations conform to the normative order of creation as understood in the light of Scripture. Moreover, given the encompassing presence and sheer power of the cultures of which we ourselves are part, there is every possibility that they will transform us first, even as we claim the opposite. If we should become comfortable with our surrounding culture, it may be because, by God's grace, the latter will have responded to our successful efforts and become more congenial to true faith. Yet it is just as likely that we will have been unknowingly co-opted by the culture. How can we tell the difference? It will not be easy, but the place to start is by immersing ourselves in God's written word and indwelling its story, as Lesslie Newbigin puts it. In any event, we should make every effort to remain vigilant and to keep our eyes continually on the cross of Jesus Christ.

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    01 April 2009

    April snippets

  • Reports like this used to appear more frequently some decades ago, but they continue to pop up occasionally as we near the end of the first decade of the century: Earth population 'exceeds limits'. This is from Dr. Nina Fedoroff, science and technology advisor to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One wonders whether she has read this: Age-Quake: Say Hello to Under-population. Of course, policy-makers will have to decide which scenario for the future they find more credible.

  • My alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, has been embroiled in controversy since it was announced last week that President Barack Obama will be speaking at commencement next month and will be awarded an honorary doctorate of laws. Here Stephen Barr comments on Notre Dame’s Faustian Bargain, while Francis Beckwith, himself a subject of controversy a few years ago, writes on Barack Obama and Notre Dame: Juris Doctor Honoris Causa? How, they ask, can a Catholic university honour someone who has openly worked to remove the few legal protections the unborn still enjoy?

  • Not surprisingly, Jim Wallis approves of Notre Dame's invitation to Obama, going so far as to mobilize support for it: Obama at Notre Dame: Continuing a Tradition of Dialogue. César Baldelomar, also writing for God's Politics, agrees: The Obama Notre Dame Controversy. Wallis and Baldelomar believe that the likes of Barr and Beckwith (and perhaps even Bishop John D'Arcy) are being divisive and disruptive. Wallis' blog didn't exist back in 2005, when President George W. Bush spoke at Calvin College's commencement, though Wallis himself was at Calvin a few weeks earlier. One wonders whether he thought Bush's presence would continue a tradition of dialogue or whether Wallis might have expressed support for those members of the Calvin community protesting the visit.

  • While we're on the topic of abortion, the Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, who has been appointed president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, preached this sermon nearly two years ago: Our Work is Not Done:

    And when a woman becomes pregnant within a loving, supportive, respectful relationship; has every option open to her; decides she does not wish to bear a child; and has access to a safe, affordable abortion – there is not a tragedy in sight – only blessing. The ability to enjoy God’s good gift of sexuality without compromising one’s education, life’s work, or ability to put to use God’s gifts and call is simply blessing. These are the two things I want you, please, to remember – abortion is a blessing and our work is not done.

    There is little to add to this, except to say that, where a church has lost its way in so fundamental a fashion, people will seek the light of the gospel elsewhere. (Hat tip: Rod Dreher)

  • Cousin Obama? "On Facebook, various applications posted joke alerts like 'Barack Obama confirmed you as a cousin'." I was one of those who received this message today. Or perhaps the President read my 6-year-old post on statistical genealogy?

  • Speaking of April Fools Day, this is a rather elaborate prank that I would love to have seen in person:

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