31 July 2006

Love that sprawl: a (severely) qualified defence of the suburbs

Back in 1962 Malvina Reynolds wrote and sang a song, Little Boxes, that hit the charts that year and was further popularized the next year by Pete Seeger. Its memorable lyrics poked fun at the standardizing conformity of post-war suburban life in the United States:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

I was in the lower elementary grades at the time, living — horror of horrors — in one of the western suburbs of Chicago: Wheaton, Illinois. I recall the song, and I can still sing at least some of it from memory, but its biting social commentary largely went over my head at the time.

Little boxes on the hillside
Reynolds was not the first to look down on the suburbs. Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have said that his native village of Oak Park, just outside Chicago (and where yours truly happens to have been born), was characterized by "broad lawns and narrow minds." Countless books and films have made the suburbs look like fabricated, but fundamentally false, communities, where neighbours live adjacent to each other, but without forming lasting bonds of solidarity. Everyone, as the cliché puts it, tries to "keep up with the Joneses," i.e., to acquire that more expensive gas grill or to join the more exclusive country club.

I was inspired to reflect further on suburbia by this post from our resident Latin-rite Calvinist. As a product of the suburbs, I can attest to both their advantages and drawbacks.

Advantages: (1) As the central cores of American cities deteriorated, the suburbs offered a refuge where a way of life could be started anew. (2) They offered some of the virtues of both urban and rural life. The urban metropolis was never far away, especially if the suburb was served by a rail line or, later, one of the new limited-access highways begun in the 1950s and '60s. Yet there were often open spaces and farms outside of town. This was the case with Wheaton when I was growing up, though it's no longer true four decades later. (3) It seemed to be a good place to raise children. Wheaton had plenty of parks, and the public schools were amongst the best anywhere. (4) Although this was not true everywhere in the US, Wheaton had (and continues to have) thriving churches representing a variety of denominations.

Drawbacks: (1) The suburbs were just a tad too comfortable, especially the more prosperous ones. The social climate encouraged parental indulgence of children, who would grow up into the self-absorbed baby boomers, many of whom thought it their right not to grow up at all, at least with respect to manners, mores and dress. (2) The suburbs often contributed to the deterioration of city centres when those fleeing to the 'burbs took the tax base with them. This led to a situation in which residents of Wheaton, Evanston and Oak Park would commute into Chicago, using its services but contributing nothing to their upkeep, because only those actually living in Chicago were taxed. This has been less of a problem in Ontario, where regional or metropolitan governments are authorized to tax.

So what do we do with the peripheries of metropolitan areas? To begin with, they are not going to go away, the wishes of the Reynoldses, Seegers and Hemingways notwithstanding. As long as there have been cities, there have been people living at their edges. In third-world cities these take the form of shanty towns, inhabited by those who have left the countryside to seek work in the industries often associated with urban centres. But these are the polar opposite of the comfortable suburbs of North America and elsewhere in the western world, and they deserve to be treated as phenomena in their own right.

The place to start is to recognize that human settlement patterns are legitimately diverse, encompassing city centres, other urban neighbourhoods, near suburbs, far suburbs (near and far being relative to the available transportation), rural regions and small towns and villages. Each of these has its own beauty and integrity. Similarly each is in its own way subject to human sinfulness. There is nothing intrinsic to any of these settlement patterns that will insulate residents from the ravages of the fall. Nor should we wish to see any one of these squeeze the others out of existence.

I myself am currently living in a part of Hamilton, Ontario, that is generally considered to be suburban — that is, the part of the city above the escarpment popularly, if misleadingly, known as Hamilton Mountain. However, one of the benefits of living where we do is that we are within walking distance of two pharmacies, a supermarket, a variety store, a dry cleaner, a dollar store and the enormously popular Sweet Paradise Bakery. This is not generally characteristic of suburbia, where one must have an automobile to get anywhere at all.

Indeed, to my mind, the fact that suburbs are built around car ownership is one of the chief drawbacks of these communities. I think I was probably happiest living in the centre of Toronto nearly thirty years ago, where I didn't need a car. I was quite content to ride the trams, buses and subways, which would take me anywhere I wanted to go within the city. I could wish, among other things, that suburban areas would take more seriously the need for public transportation so as to diminish residents' dependence on the automobile.

So what is to be done. . . about the suburbs? Do they need renewal? Definitely. What shape should this take? That's for a future post.
Sixty psalms now posted

I have now posted Psalms 14, 19, 32 and 53 on my website. That makes ten psalms versified and arranged since the end of June and sixty altogether. Psalms 14 and 53 have the same tune and indeed are said by some scholars to be yahwistic and elohistic versions respectively of the same psalm, with a very few differences in wording, as reflected in my own versifications. Psalms 14, 19 and 53 are unrhymed versifications, while Psalm 32 is rhymed. The tune for Psalm 14 and 53 has a short phrase at the end of each stanza — unusual even for the Genevan Psalter with its irregular metres. But I enjoy the challenge of coming up with something fresh within the constraints of set tunes and metres.

I am gradually redoing some of the musical arrangements composed in 2001 and earlier, bringing in more instruments and adding transitional music before, between and after the tunes proper. Those completed include Psalms 23, 24, 62, 95 and 99.

In addition I have added much new material to the introductory essay and corrected some of the links on the liturgy page. I will probably be putting this project aside for now, as preparations for the beginning of the next academic year beckon with the approach of August.

25 July 2006

Artists' take on Vézelay

Vézelay is a delightful village in east-central France whose chief claim to fame is the romanesque Basilique de Marie Madeleine, which claims to house the remains of Mary Magdalene, the "apostle to the apostles," as she was called by some of the early church fathers. I visited this village back in 1975 and quickly fell in love with it. The following summer I painted one of the streets I had photographed. Here is a recent photograph of the street:

Immediately below is the oil painting I did of the same scene in the summer of 1976, when I was 21 years of age. It now hangs in the dining room of our home. It is obviously taken from a different angle and slightly farther away from the arch.

But it seems I was not the only one to find the scene worth committing to canvas. Here is Émile Wegel's rendition, which appears to be a water colour:

And here, finally, is Thérèse Verbery's oil on canvas version, which bears a certain likeness to my own, including the long shadows:

The principal difference between our two efforts is that mine makes the village appear somewhat hot and arid, while Verbery's brims with life and seems somehow more inviting. By contrast, though Wegel's painting may look brighter, with more vivid colours, it is just as lifeless as mine and no less forbidding. Looking at my own work from the vantage point of three decades later, I can't help but wonder whether I was influenced in some fashion by Edward Hopper. If I had to do it again, I'd try my best to communicate something of the warmth and hospitality of Vézelay, something I seem not to have successfully captured.

Incidentally, three days ago was the feast day of Mary Magdalene.

24 July 2006

Still more posted on psalter website

I have posted quite a lot more on my Genevan Psalter website in recent days, including the following:

1. Psalms 50 and 117, the latter of which is, of course, the shortest psalm. This I versified and arranged as recently as yesterday.

2. Six non-Genevan psalms written just over 20 years ago in the style of the English and Scottish psalters, with their regular metres. I wrote these prior to discovering the Genevan tunes, and they are posted for purposes of comparison with the more lively, and less regular metres of those tunes. Included are Psalms 25, 51, 95, 98, 130 and 137.

Psalms 51, 95 and 137 are set to original melodies composed especially for these texts. The tunes are titled MISERERE, VENITE and HICKORY ROAD respectively. I set Psalm 25 to Thomas Tallis' surprisingly haunting THIRD MODE MELODY, for which I composed transitional music between the stanzas. I say "surprisingly," because one wouldn't expect a tune with so little movement in the melody line to be as compelling as it is. The tune was further immortalized in 1910 by Ralph Vaughan Williams in his magnificent Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, one of my all time favourites.

Psalm 98 is one of the earliest metrical psalms I wrote and it is set here to my own arrangement of KINGSFOLD, which I composed three years ago. Most of these six metrical psalms could easily be matched to another tune in common metre double (CMD) or long metre double (LMD).

3. Two more biblical canticles: the First Song of the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah 42:1,3b-7 (quoted by Jesus in Matthew 12); and the Magnificat of the Virgin Mary from Luke 1:47-55. The former is set to another tune by Orlando Gibbons, SONG 22. For the latter I composed a tune especially for the text which I named SOUTH BEND, after the city where I was living at the time. Last week I finally composed a descant for the last stanza.

4. Two extrabiblical hymns: my Credo in Septuple Metre, a metrical version of the Apostles' Creed; and I Belong, a versified paraphrase of Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, easily the jewel of the 16th-century Reformation confessions. Both are set to original tunes. The Credo is set to a tune, LUSIGNAN, which I composed five years ago. It is written with a 7/8 time signature, unusual in western music but common in Greek music. I Belong was originally written some two decades ago to be sung to Jean Sibelius' beloved FINLANDIA, and I actually sang it with this tune as a solo at the South Bend Christian Reformed Church. However, five years ago I composed another tune for this, which I named simply HEIDELBERG. I hope it conveys something of the feel of the text.

19 July 2006


Do Stephen Harper and John Howard have the same speech writers? Harper touts Canada as 'energy superpower'; PM's vision of Australia as energy superpower.

18 July 2006

A Hamilton landmark

Here is the façade of the historic MacNab Street Presbyterian Church here in Hamilton, whose building dates from before Confederation.

Until yesterday the church's sign carried an intriguing sermon title, SINGING THE PSALMS, which must have been preached two days ago. I'm sorry to have missed it.
Tuesday notes

Our pumpkin plant is in flower, as seen below, though in the intense sun and heat of recent days the flowers close in mid-day. This was taken early yesterday morning.

pumpkin flowers

That's our tomato right behind, and behind that is our less-than-thriving roquette (arugula) plant.

One more thing: I have now posted Psalm 50 on my website.

15 July 2006

'Out of the mouths. . .'

Although I had said I would not be writing at length about my struggle with depression, this is too wonderful to keep to myself.

There have been a very few occasions when I knew that God was speaking to me plainly, for example, in a small, seemingly insignificant healing at age 5, in the words of a guest preacher whom I usually found difficult to listen to, in the scripture passages prescribed by the Daily Office Lectionary, in the prayers of a friend and — twice in my life — in dreams I knew to be visions from God. This time he spoke words of comfort to me through the lips of a seven-year-old.

The other evening, as we were sitting at our dining room table after family prayers, Theresa looked up at me and said something quite unexpected and uncharacteristic that elicited from me first a gasp, then tears, then a hug: "Daddy, God will give you healing in the name of Jesus Christ."

13 July 2006

More additions to psalter

I have added three more pieces to my Genevan Psalter website: the canticle from Jonah 2:2-9, and the two Pauline hymns from Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20.

My versification for the Song of Jonah I wrote back in 1982, before I was acquainted with the tunes of the Genevan Psalter. Accordingly it is written in the double common metre (DCM) ubiquitous in the English psalters and hymnals of the 16th and 17th centuries. The tune is OLD 18TH from the English Psalter of 1561, with a slight altering of the arrangement from the Scottish Psalter of 1929.

The versification of the Philippians hymn I wrote around 1984 and it was subsequently published in the grey Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church. I had chosen Orlando Gibbons' SONG 34 as the tune to which it should be set, but I was overruled by the committee, which chose Joseph P. Holbrook's rather pedestrian tune, BISHOP, instead. However, when the Mennonites republished my text a few years later, they did indeed use the Gibbons tune, to my delight.

My versification for the Colossians hymn I wrote in 1992 and sang with guitar accompaniment along with my sister at a church event near Boston that summer. I chose another Gibbons tune, SONG 1, for this text. It has thus far not been published in any hymnals, but it is meant as a complement to the Philippians hymn.
Protestants and natural law theory

The Acton Institute's Stephen J. Grabill has been posting a series on Why Protestants Don’t Like Natural Law, which is crossposted here. Grabill is a Reformed theological ethicist and author of the forthcoming book, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, whose thesis should be evident from the title. Grabill writes:
For much of Christian history, some type of natural-law theory has been used as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, the church and the world. But in recent times, Protestant churches and theologians have rejected natural law as a way of showing their differences with the tradition of Roman Catholic moral theology.

I've not read Grabill extensively on the topic, but from these brief posts it looks to me as though he may be conflating two related, though by no means identical, issues: (1) the protestant rejection of natural law theory, and (2) the protestant rejection of the reality which natural law theory purports to explain, viz., God's creation as a normative order. If the central issue is the latter, then there's a genuine problem that he is right to address — and one contributing to the antinomian tendencies we see in much of contemporary mainline protestantism. Grabill quotes Karl Barth, arguably the greatest protestant theologian of the 20th century:

Barth’s prefered idea based ethics directly on the command of the living God, which as he said “is always an individual command for the conduct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision, and action.” Herein lies the root of Protestant situation ethics, popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher, and criticized by Paul Ramsey as a “wasteland of utility.”

However, it is possible to agree with the church of the ages that God's creation is an orderly, lawful one, without necessarily accepting natural law theory's account of this. As I see it, there are at least five reasons for rejecting the natural law as a theory, four of which I find persuasive in varying degrees:

(1) It assumes a kind of religious neutrality in which thinking occurs independently of one’s ultimate commitments. I wouldn't wish to wield this objection as a blunt instrument, as some might be inclined to do. Yet this inevitably raises the issue of Thomas Aquinas' use of Aristotle and the Stoics in articulating his own natural law theory. To what extent can one draw on the insights of unbelievers without buying into at least fragments of their religious worldview? This does not have a simple answer, and indeed it lies at the heart of the ancient Athens and Jerusalem question posed by Tertullian in the patristic era. Without going into a detailed treatise here, I will indicate that the tendency for Christians to embrace composite worldviews joining biblical Christianity with other, incompatible worldviews is ubiquitous. I myself do not think that Thomas and his followers were entirely free of this tendency.

(2) It does not take seriously enough the fall into sin and its effects on the epistemic faculties. This is the objection one is most likely to hear from traditional protestants, i.e., from those heirs of the Reformation who are true to their own confessions. Such Christians would not, of course, be at all sympathetic to the antinomian tendencies of so-called mainline protestants. If anything, they might tend to err in the direction of a biblicism that does not take into account the reality of what Abraham Kuyper and his followers labelled common grace.

(3) It presupposes a kind of two realm conception of the cosmos in which the natural possesses a certain autonomy vis-à-vis God himself. This is most evident in Thomas' account of the virtues, in which four cardinal virtues — prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance — are deemed capable of being attained "according to the capacity of human nature," while the three theological virtues — faith, hope and charity — must be infused in us by God "supernaturally."

(4) Within the field of jurisprudence it has difficulty accounting for the status of an unjust law as a genuine law. Thomas Aquinas quotes Augustine to the effect that a human law that does not conform to the natural law is not a genuine law. In his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King quoted this to defend his and his followers' disobedience of the segregationist laws of Alabama. Yet as a defence of an act of civil disobedience, this is not fully adequate, because civil disobedience can only be to something possessing a lawful character requiring obedience. It would make better sense to recognize that the laws in question were unjust, viz., that they got the balance wrong, but that this did not diminish the character of these laws as genuine laws. Here the legal positivists, for all their considerable flaws, have a valid point.

(5) Within the realm of theology, it assumes that one can know God apart from his revelation in Jesus Christ, which is the basis of Barth’s objection to so-called natural theology. I think Grabill's objection to Barth is on solid ground, because Barth appears to be rejecting, not simply natural law as a theory, but the very reality of which it is an account. When I was researching my book, I took the opportunity to read relevant sections of Barth's massive Church Dogmatics, and it struck me that the specifics of his ostensibly christological ethics could hardly be based on christology alone but inevitably presupposed the creation order even as he denied it.

Has Grabill read Dooyeweerd? I should think that, as a Reformed ethicist, he would at least know the name. Dooyeweerd himself came to reject natural law theory after initially embracing it, yet, unlike Barth and other 20th-century protestants, he strongly affirmed the reality of God's normative creation order.

I look forwarding to reading Grabill's book when it comes out.

11 July 2006

On holiday in 'the Boston States'

This is not my promised post on rest and leisure; these are more photos from our recent holiday in what (especially Atlantic) Canadians used to call "the Boston States." After Janine and Anthony's wedding, the three of us took a brief holiday to nearby Gloucester.

We stayed at the Bass Rocks Ocean Inn . . .

. . . which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

New Englanders chronically underestimate times and distances. We were told that the beach was a six-minute walk from the hotel. It was actually closer to 15 minutes — 25 minutes with a seven-year-old.

On wednesday we took the train into Boston. . .

. . . to visit the New England Aquarium, a special treat for our Theresa.

On thursday we visited Hammond Castle, Gloucester, where Nancy once had a graduation party after receiving her degree from. . .

. . . Gordon-Conwell Seminary.

This is Salem, where Nancy lived during one of her seminary years.

This has to be one of the most photographed buildings in the world. It's called Motif Number 1 and it's in Rockport. One of my sisters lived here during her studies at nearby Gordon College. Incidentally, Rockport is the basis for my notional cinematic horror sensation, Attack of the Killer Giftshops. I'm still trying to sell Hollywood on the idea.

10 July 2006

Monday notes

Last evening we ate spaghetti for supper in inadvertent honour of Italy's victory in the World Cup. As we ate we were treated to scores of honking vehicles flying the green, white and red tricolour, parading down our street.

I have now posted three more Genevan Psalm versifications on my website: Psalms 27, 84 and 93. These are in addition to Psalm 77, which I posted before we took our holiday. For Psalm 27 I have posted only a text, as the tune is proving a bit trickier to harmonize than I had anticipated. The text and harmonization of Psalm 93 came quickly to me as recently as yesterday.

At some point I will be posting a more substantial piece on leisure and rest, something which has pulled more into focus for me since sliding into depression two months ago. Although the "labour, leisure and liturgy" in the sidebar to the right suggests a balanced life, I've come to see that my own life has been rather less than exemplary in this respect.

As part of this effort to find balance, I have paid rather less attention to politics than is my wont in recent weeks. Posts addressing political and cultural issues will return in the near future.

Oh, and I am feeling much better these days. Thanks for your prayers, which are much appreciated.

Later: I have now posted my musical arrangement of Psalm 27.

09 July 2006

What God has joined together. . .

Congratulations are due to Anthony and Janine Givens-Belsley, who were joined in matrimony in Andover, Massachusetts, on 1 July. Our family was privileged to be present at the marriage of my beautiful and gifted niece to the love of her life. May God bless their journey together.

The Givens family home, where the reception was held. A good time was had by all.

Here am I with my recalcitrant grandniece, Ingrid, who is enjoying the reception somewhat less than everyone else.

I composed this piece just over two years ago, Dancing Day (Copyright © 2004, David T. Koyzis), which was inspired by the dancing at the end of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Though it wasn't played at the reception, it could have been. There are lyrics. Perhaps I'll post them at some point.

03 July 2006

Yet another psalm versification. . .

. . . is now complete in a first draft. This time it's Psalm 84, and I'll be posting it on my website as soon as I come up with an arrangement for the tune — possibly next week.


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