Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

26 June 2010

Bartók's ethnomusicological efforts

A century ago Béla Bartók, along with Zoltán Kodály, travelled the countryside recording and collecting the folk songs of the native populations of the old Habsburg lands. Here is the original recording and his own piano transcription of the Swineherd's Song:

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25 June 2010

In the phrygian mode

Not too long ago I was puzzled to hear my father tell me that a lot of Greek folk music is in the key of E. How could he know the precise key of a folk song with so many variations in so many parts of the Greek-speaking world? It quickly dawned on me that he meant that it was in what we now call the phrygian mode, which spans the octave between any two E's on the white keys of the piano. Here is an example from one of the Aegean islands:

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24 June 2010

Two kingdoms, revisited

Some months ago Comment published my essay, Two Kingdoms and Cultural Obedience, in which I undertook to critique the two kingdoms theology emanating from Westminster Seminary California, as exemplified in the writings of especially Darryl G. Hart and David Van Drunen. Although I had appreciative words to say about some of their emphases, especially liturgy and the institutional church, I found their overall perspective wanting. Now Van Drunen has published a new book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought. Steven Wedgeworth has read it and has published a trenchant review in Credenda Agenda: Two Kingdoms Critique. Here's Wedgeworth:
There is much to be commended in VanDrunen’s book, and insofar as it merely seeks to defend the position that the Reformation stands in continuity with concepts of natural law, and that it taught the two kingdoms, he is certainly correct. The book repeatedly makes two fundamental confusions, however, and since these are guiding assumptions throughout, the contemporary two kingdoms theory eventually finds itself at considerable distance from the basic social vision of earlier thinkers like Luther and Calvin. These two confusions are 1) identifying the two kingdoms with the modern institutions of “Church” and “State” and 2) setting the contrast between the two kingdoms as one between “redemptive” rule on the one hand and “creational” rule on the other. Both confusions seem to stem from equivocation, allowing for the possibility of closing the gap between “neo-Calvinist” views and modern two kingdom views with regard to the contrast of rule. The first confusion is more serious though, effectively rendering VanDrunen’s larger project incompatible with the older Reformed doctrine.

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23 June 2010

Defining social justice

Christianity Today carries an interview with my friend and sometime co-conspirator, Gideon Strauss, the new chief executive officer of the Center for Public Justice. I was struck by this exchange:

Define justice. How does it differ from public justice and social justice?

In the biggest sense, justice is when all God's creatures receive what is due them and contribute out of their uniqueness to our common existence. We are called to do justice in every sphere of our lives: how I love and educate my daughters, collaborate with my colleagues, interact with neighbors. Public justice is the political aspect—the work of citizens and political office bearers shaping a public life for the common good. Social justice is the civil society counterpart—nonpolitical organizations that promote justice (emphasis mine).

At Redeemer University College we have seen an increasing interest amongst our students in social justice. In fact, we now have a social justice major, an annual social justice conference and a course in the Religion Department devoted to the topic. Although I am happy to see this enthusiasm develop, it is not necessarily clear to me that everyone knows how the adjective social is intended to modify the noun justice. I quite like Strauss' definition, as it nicely captures the truth that all of us are called by God to do justice, not only within the context of the state, but within the various communal settings for which we bear responsibility.

Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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22 June 2010

June snippets

  • The BBC reports this fascinating discovery: Ancient Egyptian city located in Nile Delta by radar.
    An ancient Egyptian city believed to be Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos people who ruled 3,500 years ago, has been located by radar, Egypt’s culture ministry says. . . . A team of Austrian archaeologists used radar imaging to find the underground outlines of the city in the Nile Delta, a now densely populated area. The Hyksos were foreign occupiers from Asia who ruled Egypt for a century. Avaris was their summer capital, near what is now the town of Tal al-Dabaa.

    Might this Hyksos period in Egyptian history correspond in the biblical narrative (Genesis 41-50) to the time when Joseph and his Hebrew family had gained a privileged position in that country?

  • Has Québec Premier Maurice Duplessis, who dominated his province for a generation, been given a bum rap? Conrad Black, languishing in a minimum security facility near Orlando, Florida, thinks so: Re-examining the roots of Quebec's 'Quiet Revolution.' While many people tend to think of Duplessis as an old-fashioned autocrat keeping the province in the dark ages, Black disagrees:
    With a little research, I discovered that Quebec had made the greatest economic and social progress in its history under Duplessis and that his era was the only one in which the average per capita income of Quebec actually gained on Ontario's. He had the most advanced pension regime and daycare system in Canada, and built most of Quebec's universities, 3,000 schools, and the autoroute system, while reducing taxes and provincial debt. He extended electricity to rural Quebec, and, of course, took back from Ottawa, Quebec's rights over direct taxes.


  • At Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) is taking place this week. This organization brings together two predecessor ecumenical organizations, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC). The Presbyterian Church in Canada has been a member of the former, while the Christian Reformed Church has been part of both and a founding member of the latter, once known as the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. The Acton Institute's Jordan Ballor expresses his view on the new body's social vision, as articulated in the Accra Confession: Unity or Unanimity at Reformed Council? Jeffrey Japinga responds to Ballor: Intersection of economics and faith is valid subject for church council, to which Ballor replies: Confessing the Wrong Side. This is an exchange worth following.

  • With the Uniting General Council of the new WCRC still in progress, I will not speculate as to the status of statements and documents previously adopted by the predecessor organizations. That said, if the Accra Confession does indeed represent the social witness of the converging bodies, it is worth commenting on, because it is not dissimilar to other statements approved by denominational and ecumenical bodies alike. At some point I will write more fully about the Accra Confession. For the moment I will simply indicate two areas of agreement and two reservations I have with the statement, beginning with the former. First, I applaud the document for recognizing that the Christian faith has social, economic and political implications. Second, it is correct to note that God is a God of justice. Now the down side. First, I agree with Ballor that engaging in policy debates in the public square is not the primary task of the institutional church. Second, it's not clear to me that this document should be labelled a confession at all. More to come.

  • For those believing, after 9/11, that Islam is on the march, the following American Thinker report may come as a surprise: Six million African Muslims leave Islam per year. Could the militancy of radical islamists be due to their sense of a beleaguered dar al Islam?

  • World Cup hoopla continues around the world. Here in Hamilton the flags I see most are those of Italy and the Netherlands, with an occasional flag from Spain or South Africa. Given my affection for the Genevan Psalms, I have been ever so quietly rooting for Switzerland, the land of brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and the cuckoo clock.

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    Te Deum Laudamus

    Ancient tradition tells us that the early Christian creedal hymn, Te Deum Laudamus, originated spontaneously with Sts. Ambrose and Augustine at the latter's baptism near the end of the 4th century. It was more likely written in the early 5th century by Nikitas, bishop of Remesiana, whose feast day is today.

    The Te Deum is sung in Latin below by the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensis of Milan, Italy. Anyone wishing to learn to read mediaeval musical notation, which is easier than one might think, will find it instructive to watch this.



    Below the Concordia Oakland Choristers sing the Te Deum in English translation:



    Many Christians will be aware of metrical versions of this hymn, the best known of which is probably Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, a translation of the German Großer Gott wir loben dich, written around 1774 by Ignaz Franz for the Ka­thol­isch­es Ge­sang­buch.



    In 1696 Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady included a versification of the Te Deum for their "New Version" Psalter. Some years ago I adapted their three stanzas and added three of my own to complete the hymn: O God, we praise you, we confess that you alone are Lord. In whatever form it is sung, the Te Deum deserves to be better known and more widely used amongst English-speaking evangelical Christians.

    Crossposted at First Things: Evangel

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    18 June 2010

    World Cup frenzy

    It's that time again. Cars drive past our house flying the various banners of the contenders for the coveted World Cup, as they did four years ago. Dayo Olopade reflects on some of the historical ironies in the individual matches and in the ethnic composition of the teams themselves: At the World Cup, the Empire Strikes Back.
    Today's French team is populated with players of Arab and African origin; star forward Franck Ribery is a Muslim convert reborn as Bilal Yusuf Mohammed. The German squad features Turkish starters, the Dutch squad finally has a black striker. Argentine Lionel Messi has lived in Spain for most of his life; Brazil's Kaka and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo play together—for Spain's Real Madrid. Nine of the U.S. players live and play in Britain—and seven more are first-generation Americans. Italy—perhaps by virtue of its lousy colonial record—is the least diverse of these squads. But even stiff-lipped England has embraced the new norm: An English commercial for football company Umbro features the polyethnic masses in contemporary Britain—an elderly man in dreadlocks, a young South Asian woman—clad in St. George's red, singing, lustily, "God Save the Queen."

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    17 June 2010

    The cimbalom

    From my father I have inherited a love of central and east European folk music. The cimbalom is played throughout the territories that once made up the old Habsburg domains prior to the Great War. Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, known also for his arrangements of the Genevan psalm tunes, used the cimbalom in his popular Háry János suite. Here is Jeno Farkas with his Szalai Hungarian Gypsy Band. I challenge listeners to identify the time signature in the final sequence. It's not easy to do.

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    15 June 2010

    Welcome, Mr. President


    Redeemer's new president, Dr. Hubert Krygsman, was officially welcomed yesterday morning, as reported in The Hamilton Spectator: Redeemer boss gets an 'eh'.

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    14 June 2010

    Retributive justice and the social contract

    Joseph Bottum reflects on the forthcoming execution in Utah of double murderer Ronnie Lee Gardner, and wonders whether there is justification for this punishment. These paragraphs — especially the sections I have put in boldface — stand out for me:

    A government has two legitimate goals in its justice system: the protection of the state’s existence, and the maintenance of ordinary, common justice for its people. And sometimes these may require the death of criminals—as in treason, for example, or when citizens cannot be protected from someone except by that person’s death.

    But where comes the other kind of justice, the particular kind of justice that would justify the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner—not the ordinary justice of the social contract but high justice, the justice of God, the balancing of the cosmic scales? We want to see good people find good ends and bad people find bad ends. And God, and God’s agents, could carry out this justice.

    Of course, the foundation of a modern democratic state, born of a social contract, is exactly that the state is not God’s agent. The early modern thrones got around the problem with a theory of the Divine Right of Kings, but we rejected all that. The ancient pagan cities held the sword of punishment because, in however confused a way, they believed in the supernatural foundation for the earthly city, but that, too, we dismissed. Ancient Israel had direct revelation, but modern nations refused to hold revelations for themselves.

    Without some form of the divine, who has the right to pay blood with blood? Who has the authority to undertake high justice? Not us.

    I myself am not necessarily a proponent of capital punishment, due primarily to its irrevocability in the not unlikely case of a miscarriage of justice. However, I strongly disagree with Bottum’s reasoning above. True, we may live in democratic states claiming to be based on a social contract, but there is ample reason — both biblical and otherwise — to question this claim. St. Paul writes to the believers in Rome:

    Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due (Romans 13:1-7, emphases mine).

    With all due respect to Mr. Bottum, those who believe, with the church of the ages, that our world belongs to God cannot simply accept at face value the foundational claims of democratic theories of governance. We may very well agree that democracy as a mere form of government is the best currently on offer, yet this need not entail a rejection of the Pauline understanding of government as servant of God, which it continues to be irrespective of the changed procedures for attaining public office. Nor does it call for acceptance of a contractarian understanding of government, which I would argue is an inadequate account of its origins. (See my 10 March post: Unlocking Locke.)

    Forms of government come and go, but the divine mandate that government do public justice is a perennial one that is part of the very created nature of government and thus does not change with the times. This mandate on occasion may call for the shedding of blood, e.g., in cases of justified warfare and of the restraining and punishment of criminals. Again there may be good reason not to shed blood, and one hopes it will not be done too often. Nevertheless, one ought not to deny government the legitimate power of the sword based on a highly disputable contractarian account of democratic government.

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    12 June 2010

    Spare change



    Unsubstantiated rumour has it that a group of atheists and agnostics wants to remove the motto IN GOD WE TRUST from American coins and replace it with CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN.

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    11 June 2010

    St. Barnabas

    Άγιος Βαρνάβας

    “Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).

    “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them’” (Acts 13:2).

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    Hard luck story

    In the Chicago area when I was growing up people purchased their bed linens in stores accessible only by the many railways blanketing the region. When the railways declined most of these stores went out of business, except for one, which became known as the area's only. . .

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    09 June 2010

    Party merger?

    This would be an extraordinary development if it were actually to come about: Liberal, NDP insiders talk merger. However, this news is no surprise: "Last week, a poll suggested that a coalition led by NDP Leader Jack Layton would beat Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives while one led by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff would lose." Could talk of merger be a ploy on the part of disaffected Liberals to dump "Iggy"?

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    08 June 2010

    Propaganda warfare and global gullibility

    Even before 9/11 there was little doubt that winning the propaganda war can turn the tide in a real war. This should be kept in mind as we assess the recent Israeli attack on the Gaza aid flotilla. An excellent place to start is by reading George Friedman’s Flotillas and the Wars of Public Opinion, published by Stratfor Global Intelligence. The Turkish NGO that organized the aid flotilla was apparently doing more than to assist innocent Palestinians suffering from an unjust blockade. Its leaders sought to provoke an Israeli over-reaction that would bring down the world’s condemnation, damage Turkish-Israeli relations, alienate the United States from Israel, and possibly provoke an internal political crisis in Israel itself. In so doing, the flotilla’s organizers were borrowing a strategy employed by Zionists against the British in the late 1940s in the run-up to Israeli independence.

    The current Israeli government has played along with this strategy, seemingly falling into the trap set for it and willingly suffering the consequences hoped for by its enemies. I will not leap to Israel’s defence here. Given that virtually all my Cypriot relatives lost their homes in 1974, I have considerable sympathy for the plight of Palestinian refugees. At the same time, the complexities of the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian standoff should rule out any rush to judgement against Israel. A functioning Palestinian state could have got off the ground long ago, if Palestinians had been better served by their own leadership.

    How have North American Christians responded to the events of a week ago? As indicated on the National Council of Churches website, the major protestant denominations and the World Council of Churches have condemned the Israeli attack. On the surface it is difficult to disagree with these assessments. Israel’s blockade has caused hardship for the innocent residents of Gaza, and it has had next to no impact in loosening Hamas’ hold on that troubled territory. The principles of the just war do not countenance a military strategy aimed at civilians.

    That said, Hamas and similar groups do not shrink from hiding amongst civilians to achieve their goal of antagonizing Israel. When Israel strikes back as expected, and when civilians die, virtually the entire world blames Israel and not the cowardly terrorists who initially provoked that country into its action and, in effect, used innocent Palestinians as hostages. The churches chime in along with these others, offering no distinctive insight that might flow from their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I am not particularly enamoured of churches as institutions pronouncing on complex issues of public policy and international relations, at least partly because of their tendency to assume that all such issues can be viewed as cosmic struggles between a good side and an evil side, the line between which can be easily identified. However, real-life politics does not admit of such facile categorizations. Few political issues see an obvious division between justice and injustice, oppressor and oppressed. One is far more likely to see conflict between two different conceptions of justice — between two groups pursuing competing but plausible visions of the public good.

    This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in the political process. They should indeed, but not as representatives of church institutions, which have their own God-given task in his world. Christians should organize as members of the corpus Christi, a global community manifest in every walk of life. They should, moreover, do so politically and not as moralistic preachers. This calls for acquiring a deep knowledge of real-life political practice and refraining from building ideal cities-in-speech, along the lines of Plato’s famous republic. To work for justice is not to try to construct the “just society,” as the late Pierre Trudeau put it. It is rather to listen to the day-to-day appeals for justice issuing from all quarters; to weigh them carefully in the balance; to recognize, where present, the legitimacy of the competing claims; and to assess these claims fairly.

    I will not pretend to point the way to a resolution of the long Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, which has eluded three generations of foreign policy officials in many countries. That said, one-sided condemnations do nothing to advance justice and are far more likely to play into the hands of those who have an interest in obstructing reconciliation. Well-meaning churches should not put themselves in the position of being used by terrorist groups for their own purposes.

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    06 June 2010

    Other environmental disasters

    The BP oil spill is an unmitigated man-made disaster. But it happens elsewhere, and we generally do not hear about it. Until now: The Oil Spills We Don't Hear About:
    I would be willing to bet that even residents of the smallest Nigerian villages have heard about the Gulf oil spill. By contrast, I know few people in the United States who have heard about the oil spills in the Niger Delta. Yet Nigeria is among the top five suppliers of oil to the U.S.

    The Niger Delta, which is home to more than 30 million people and is considered one of the world’s most important ecosystems, produces almost all of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings. Dead fish and oily water are part of daily life for Niger Delta residents, as are gas flares. Some middle-aged Niger Delta residents have never had a night of total darkness. There is a law against gas flaring in Nigeria, but it continues to be widely breached. Oil companies operate in Nigeria with little or no oversight from the government. It must be noted that the government has part ownership in the subsidiaries of all the oil multinationals which operate in Nigeria.

    A year ago, Amnesty International published a report, “Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta.” The report focused on Royal Dutch Shell because Shell is by far the largest operator in the Delta. According to the Oil Spill Intelligence Report, a 10-year study commissioned by Greenpeace, although Shell operates in more than 100 countries, 40 percent of all its oil spills happen in Nigeria. That’s simply staggering. The Greenpeace and Amnesty reports tell of spills that had been continuous for years and many that had never been cleaned up (despite claims by Shell to the contrary).

    According to the Amnesty report, “Oil spills, waste dumping and gas flaring are notorious and endemic in the Niger Delta.” Residents of the Niger Delta “have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.” The fish that is not polluted is killed by the oil and toxins, making earning a livelihood impossible for many who depended on the sale of fish.

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    03 June 2010

    Two Kingdoms and Cultural Obedience

    In recent decades, many Christians have been drawn to the Reformed understanding of the faith due to its holistic approach to the life in Christ—an emphasis found especially in the neocalvinist revival in the nineteenth-century Netherlands, led by Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and others. Transplanted to North America in the twentieth century, neocalvinism has led to the establishment of a number of confessionally-based organizations, including a network of Christian day schools, universities, labour unions, think tanks, political movements and farmers' associations. The Kuyperian influence has expanded over the last three decades due to the efforts of, among others, the Center for Public Justice, the Coalition for Christian Outreach, Redeemer University College, the Christian Labour Association of Canada and, of course, Cardus. It is now more common to hear ordinary evangelical Christians speak in terms of all of life belonging to Christ and of grace restoring nature, though they may differ in the practical implications they draw from this basic confession.

    However, not all evangelical Christians are necessarily on side of this neocalvinist revival.

    Read more here.

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    Gulf oil spill

    Let's hope and pray that the following live feed from the Gulf of Mexico will become unnecessary in the very near future. There can be no doubt that heads will roll over this ecological catastrophe when the air — and water — clears.

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