25 December 2008

The incarnation: a stumbling block

The following piece appeared in the 8 December issue of Christian Courier, as part of my monthly column, titled Principalities & Powers:

In the liturgies of some churches, the congregation stands at the reading of the gospel lesson. There may even be a gospel procession in which the celebrant walks down the aisle accompanied by two people, one bearing a candle held aloft to provide the symbolic light and another carrying the book from which the lesson will be read. This is a sign of respect for the gospels, which, uniquely in Scripture, tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

It is striking, however, that only two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, contain infancy narratives. Each provides a different, albeit complementary, account of Jesus’ birth, but both agree that he was born in Bethlehem, the city of his remote ancestor David. Mark, whose gospel is much shorter than the other four and is devoted largely to Jesus’ deeds rather than his words, does not mention the birth at all, focussing instead on the beginning of his ministry and the inaugural role of John the Baptist.

The fourth gospel is different from the three synoptics. If John passes over Jesus’ infancy, he nevertheless bears clear testimony to the incarnation:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (1:1-5 RSV).

God became man in Jesus Christ. This is what we confess weekly in our churches and it’s what separates Christians from the followers of the other Abrahamic religions.

A decade ago a former moderator of the United Church of Canada revealed in an interview that he did not believe that Jesus was divine or that he had literally risen from the dead. Naturally this created controversy in his own church and elsewhere, but his doubts are shared by many. After all, if Jesus was a mere human being, even a very good one, and we nevertheless worship him, we are guilty of nothing less than idolatry. This is precisely what Jews and Muslims believe about Christians.

Yet if God did not become man, we are still in our sins and there is no salvation for us. For no mere human being could bear the weight of God’s anger at our sin and thereby release us from it, as the Heidelberg Catechism affirms (Question 14). Only the One who is true God and true Man can work our salvation from the debt of sin (Questions 15-18). This is the message of the gospels and there can be no doubt that it is a stumbling block to many, as Paul puts it (1 Corinthians 1:23), even to some who would otherwise claim the label Christian.

Nevertheless, the church has always taught that, read together, the four gospels give us a full understanding of who Christ is. John affirms that God become man in the incarnate Word, while Matthew and Luke relate that the Word-made-flesh was born of an ordinary woman in humble circumstances, far from the centres of political power yet threatening enough to be hunted by an apprehensive local ruler.

God became man in Jesus Christ, a momentous event that is still foolishness to the nations two thousand years later.

20 December 2008

Thoughts on friendship

Friendship is one of those things that we tend to take for granted. When we do think about it, we may be tempted to follow the greeting card companies and sentimentalize it, which effectively cheapens it. Nevertheless, friendship is something we are created for. Indeed we could hardly live without it. Friends are not an add-on to life; they are central to what it means to live as fully human creatures, communing with our fellow image-bearers of God.

Over the coming weeks I will be posting a series on friendship, possibly as a precursor to writing something more lengthy and in depth on the subject. At present I envision an outline of my thoughts running something along these lines:

  • The stages of friendship, including: childhood, youth and adulthood. Each successive stage may represent a deepening of friendship, though this is not necessarily the case. In a highly mobile society, such as exists in North America and much of the western world, the nurturing of friendships is not necessarily for life.

  • Forms of friendship, according to the pluriformity of society, including: marital, collegial, mentor/protégé, familial and political/civic. Friendship in each of these settings appropriately takes different forms.

  • Levels of friendship. The typical North American claims to have numerous friends — far more than any ordinary person could reasonably be expected to cultivate in a limited lifespan within a geographically circumscribed homeland. This raises the issue of degrees of friendship. Some of our friends are simply closer to us than others. There is nothing amiss in this, given our created limitations.

  • Friendship with God. Is friendship with God possible? If so, is our friendship with him different in kind or in degree from our human friendships? I hope to address these questions in this last section.

  • As I proceed to write, it is possible that I will alter this outline, perhaps adding categories or addressing different issues than I have here. If any of my readers thinks of a topic I should explore, I am certainly open to suggestions. My next posting on this topic will come shortly after the beginning of the new year.

    16 December 2008

    The 'O Antiphons'

    In many churches of the western tradition, tomorrow marks the beginning of the "O Antiphons" in the Liturgy of the Hours. For those unfamiliar with these, here is Father William Saunders' fascinating explanation: What are the "O Antiphons"? In the 19th century John Mason Neale translated and adapted them as the beloved Advent hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. (Hat tip: Mere Comments)

    15 December 2008

    December snippets

  • Given that Stephen Harper's Conservatives do not have a majority government, this is almost certainly the most sensible thing I've read in a while: Flaherty to consult with Liberals on budget plans. Whether it will enable him to avoid a no confidence vote next month remains to be seen. In the meantime, Lorne Gunter traces Harper's gradual transformation, despite his intentions otherwise, from new school to old school politician. It seems senate reform will have to wait.

  • The embattled Illinois governor, Rod Blagoyevich, grew up in the Serbian Orthodox Church of the Holy Resurrection in the Logan Square neighbourhood of Chicago. Parishioners believe that his parents "taught him better than this," that God's forgiveness awaits him if he truly repents, but that he must still pay for his deeds, beginning with his resignation from office. Writing for US News & World Report, Jennifer O'Shea tells us 10 Things You Didn't Know About Rod Blagojevich.

  • Might Barack Obama get caught up in the scandal over his vacated Senate seat? Writers for The Telegraph are certainly open to the possibility. Here's Toby Harnden: Barack Obama has to come clean about Rod Blagojevich – and fast. And Iain Martin: Barack Obama, Rod Blagojevich, Jesse Jackson Jnr: what a fabulous scandal.

  • Avery Cardinal Dulles has died at age 90. Joseph Bottum has written an obituary for the well-known Catholic theologian. I had the privilege of meeting Dulles once at a conference at Calvin Seminary just over a decade ago. I was a respondent to a paper he had written on Religious Freedom and Pluralism. My response was titled, Differentiated Responsibility and the Challenge of Religious Diversity. In conversation with him, I asked whether he preferred to be addressed as Prof. Dulles or Fr. Dulles. (This was before his appointment to the rank of cardinal.) He replied that he preferred Fr. Dulles, because his priesthood for him was of greater importance than his academic position. May he rest in peace until the resurrection.

  • The Vatican has just released an "instruction" on bioethics, titled Dignitas Personae. It is addressed "to the Catholic faithful and to all who seek the truth."

  • And now to Cyprus, where the recently retired president, Tassos Papadopoulos, has died at age 74. As he is generally thought to have been an obstacle to the reunification of the island, his departure from office was unlamented by many. His early associations with EOKA did not exactly endear him to Turkish Cypriots. May God grant his family comfort in their time of loss and the people of Cyprus better governance under his successor.
  • 12 December 2008

    Yet another constitutional crisis

    And now to tiny Luxembourg, where controversy over a law permitting euthanasia and assisted suicide has led to the trimming of the powers of the head of state, Grand Duke Henri: Luxembourg monarch muzzled over euthanasia. Not surprisingly, pro-life websites are picking up this story. In 1990 the late Belgian King Baudouin abdicated for a day to avoid having to withhold assent to a liberalized abortion law and possibly touch off a constitutional crisis in that country. Henri chose another path for himself and his heirs.

    10 December 2008

    Crises in Canada and Illinois, continued

    Canada — This story is changing by the hour, but here is what the CBC reports as I write: Ignatieff prepared to form coalition. Michael Ignatieff has his wish: he is now leader of the federal Liberal Party and only three years after returning to this country after his decades of residence in the United Kingdom and the United States. Or to put it another way: he is returning to the cave after seeing what eludes the rest of us unenlightened ones: the bright ray (definitely not Rae!) of the sun.

    I will be reposting something I wrote a few years ago about Ignatieff's liberal individualism, but a colleague has pointed out to me that he may not be that different from his immediate predecessor, as indicated here: Stéphane Dion, inconspicuous achiever. This quotation is telling:

    Dion's academic work has mostly been as a cold-eyed analyst of bureaucracies and public administration and he is not a particular fan of institutions, religious or otherwise. As his wife, Janine, told an interviewer, for her husband "all that exists is the individual. Everything else is a social construction, hence does not exist."

    Illinois — Meanwhile, at the other end of the Great Lakes, Illinois is still reeling from yesterday's dramatic arrest of Governor Blagojevich. Writing for the BBC, Matt Frei asks: "When will the Illinois prison authorities finally grasp the nettle and open a governors' wing in Chicago's premier jail?" He recites a litany of gubernatorial names familiar to me from my early years:

    If convicted, Governor Rod Blagojevich will follow in a long and established line of former governors who have served time in both office and jail.

    Governor Otto Kerner was governor from 1961 to 1968 and served slightly less than a year in 1973 for bribery and fraud.

    Governor Dan Walker served in office from 1973 to 1977 and in jail for 18 months on charges of bank fraud and perjury.

    Governor William Stratton ran Illinois from 1953 to 1961 and was later indicted but acquitted for tax evasion.

    Governor George Ryan, who was Governor Blagojevich's immediate predecessor is still IN jail, completing a six-and-a-half-year sentence on, yes you've guessed it, wire fraud and bribery.

    The closest Canada has to Illinois's brand of politics is British Columbia, the major difference being that BC has far more interesting scenery.
    Home state antics

    As an Illinois expat, this story comes as no surprise to me: Governor Accused in Scheme to Sell Obama’s Senate Seat. Among the allegations against Rod Blagojevich:

    The governor is accused of racing to solicit millions of dollars in donations from people with state business before an ethics law bars such behavior in January, and threatening to rescind state money this fall from businesses, including a Chicago hospital for children, whose executives refused to give him money. He is also accused of putting pressure on The Chicago Tribune to fire members of its editorial board who had criticized him or lose the governor’s help on the possible sale of Wrigley Field, which is owned by the Tribune Company and is home to the Chicago Cubs.

    What about Barack Obama himself, whose Senate vacancy was the occasion for Blagojevich's less than savoury fund-raising activities?

    Mr. Obama, who Mr. [Patrick J.] Fitzgerald said was not implicated in the case, sought to put distance between himself and the governor during brief remarks on Tuesday afternoon and later in an interview with The Chicago Tribune, saying he did not discuss his Senate seat with Mr. Blagojevich.

    “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so we were not — I was not aware of what was happening,” Mr. Obama said. “And as I said, it’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”

    It is just possible that our own Conrad Black will soon have a new cellmate. In the meantime, with Christmas just round the corner, Obama's Senate seat is up for sale on ebay, with a promise of free shipping. Gift-wrapping goes unmentioned.

    07 December 2008

    The Green Bible

    Though some Christians style themselves "Red Letter Christians," I myself have never liked red letter editions of the Bible. There are two reasons for this. First, when the words of Christ are printed in red, the publisher seems to be elevating them above the remainder of Scripture, which explicitly states that "all scripture is given by inspiration of God" (II Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis mine). This is unwarranted and amounts to making a canon within the canon. Second, as I get older I find it increasingly difficult to read red text on a white background. These two issues cause me to avoid such editions.

    Now we are being sold something called The Green Bible, which, as Brian McLaren tells us, "puts references to God’s creation in green." I've not yet seen this edition, but because Scripture is the story of creation, fall into sin and redemption of that creation in Jesus Christ, I should think that the entire Bible would have to be printed in green letters. Sorry, but I doubt that my eyes can handle that.

    06 December 2008

    Church news

    This report is just in from Moscow: Russian Orthodox Church Leader Dies. The Moscow Times assesses probable candidates to succeed the deceased Patriarch. The BBC recounts the Double life of Russia's patriarch.

    Alexii II (1929-2008)

    Turning to the fracturing Anglican communion, the GAFCON primates have welcomed the formation of the new Anglican Province in North America, whose first public liturgy, shown below, was held at the Evangelical Free Church in Wheaton, Illinois, whose spacious building I myself have been inside.

    05 December 2008

    Prorogation: the day after

    As the dust settles for now, Canadians are trying to come to grips with the events of the past few days. This sport story is clever, to be sure: Leafs Just Won The Cup, but it plays into the popular misconception that electoral politics is about winning and losing rather than representation. Fair Vote Canada tells us what a coalition government would look like if we had some form of proportional representation: The sound of one democratic hand clapping. As it turns out, not everyone in the back benches is happy with Dion and Layton's proposed coalition: Dissent in Liberal ranks appears after Parliament suspended.

    Stephen Harper has his reprieve, but he will have to face the Commons once again at the end of next month. Now it's home for Christmas. And the Governor General can resume her European tour.
    Lost history of Christianity

    It was almost by chance that I purchased Philip Jenkins' book, The Next Christendom, in Toronto back in 2002. I hadn't before heard of him, but the volume looked intriguing and my subsequent reading of its contents proved a thought-provoking experience. In it Jenkins chronicled the dramatic shift in recent decades of Christianity's centre of gravity from Europe and the west to the "global south," i.e., Africa, Asia and Latin America. As he told this story, he dropped some tantalizing hints that the historic demographics of Christianity might not have been what most people think they were.

    Six years later Jenkins fleshes out those hints for us in The Lost History of Christianity, subtitled: "The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died." Most of his readers will be familiar with the two worlds of Latin and Greek Christianity, centred in Rome and Constantinople respectively. Few will be aware of the territorially vast christian world east of the Roman Empire extending from the Syriac-speaking Near East to the borders of China or to the south in Egypt and Ethiopia. These were more than just a few "schismatics" peripheral to the "mainstream" of Christianity. The numbers were large, at times exceeding those of the Latin west under papal jurisdiction, thereby constituting another christian "mainstream" — and one closer than the others to the semitic cultural world of the New Testament.

    To illustrate the size of this "Third Christian World", Jenkins focusses on Timothy I, Patriarch, or Catholicos, of the Church of the East around 800. His see was initially in the city of Seleucia and later moved to nearby Baghdad, but his ecclesiastical jurisdiction extended far beyond the land between the rivers:

    In terms of his prestige, and the geographical extent of his authority, Timothy was arguably the most significant Christian spiritual leader of his day, much more influential than the Western pope, in Rome, and on a par with the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Perhaps a quarter of the world's Christians looked to Timothy as both spiritual and political head. . . .

    In England, to give a comparison, the medieval church had two metropolitans: respectively, at York and Canterbury. Timothy himself presided over nineteen metropolitans and eighty-five bishops. . . . Just in Timothy's lifetime, new metropolitan sees were created at Rai near Tehran, and in Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and Dailumaye on the Caspian Sea (pp. 6, 10).

    So what happened to this now nearly defunct Christendom? It did not die out in the 4th century. Indeed it endured as a vital spiritual community into the 14th century, that is, up to the very cusp of the modern age. Through most of this time Christianity was in large measure a Syriac religion whose adherents breathed the very atmosphere of Yeshua and his apostles. And this at the supposed zenith of western Christendom.

    Of course, the muslim invasions of the 7th century put enormous pressure on the christian communities they conquered. Yet the latter continued to survive and thrive for centuries thereafter, even under foreign domination. However, in the 14th century a series of catastrophes led to the virtual collapse of Syriac Christianity and the far flung communities it had spawned. These included renewed persecution at the hands of muslim rulers, successive Mongol and Turkish invasions, a cooling global climate leading to failed harvests and conflict over scarce resources, and the Black Plague. The remaining christian communities were finally finished off in the 19th and 20th centuries, as nationalistic régimes sought to cleanse their territories of ethnic and religious minorities.

    This is a story that has not been fully told and understood until now. We are indebted to Jenkins for bringing it to our attention. How his book will be received probably depends on the audience. It is obviously not intended primarily for scholars and can better be described as a page-turner aimed at an educated audience. Some of Jenkins' fellow academics may fault him for his lack of knowledge of Syriac-language primary sources and his dependence on (mostly) English-language secondary sources. Yet others may applaud his effort to put before an English-speaking public a significant historical episode with which they are almost certainly unfamiliar.

    One facet of Jenkins' argument gives me pause as a political scientist: a key reason why so many christian minorities were able to survive into the 20th century is that they successfully hid themselves from central government authority within relatively inaccessible topography. One thinks of the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon or the Orthodox Montenegrins in the Ottoman-dominated Balkans. Until fairly recently few governments were able fully to exercise their authority over every square inch of territory nominally under their jurisdictions. This provided an opportunity for disliked minorities to continue to live their faith relatively free from harassment.

    By the 20th century, however, technical developments enabled governments to enforce their control in uniform fashion over all their territories. This monopoly over the power of the sword, to use Paul's expression (Romans 13), enabled governments to punish brigandage and other criminal activity more consistently than in the past. This represented a net gain for justice. My favourite christian philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, has defined the normative internal structure of the state in terms of this monopoly, which has ensured an unprecedented uniformity in the administration of justice.

    On the other hand, it also brought to the modern state the means to oppress more consistently as well. It was only in the 20th century that Egypt and Turkey finally rid themselves of their minorities, either through death or exile. If justice becomes more certain in the modern state, so does injustice. In this respect, one might well lament the passing of the old polyglot empires whose relative tolerance was based, not on good will or respect for human rights, but on their incapacity to be fully intolerant.

    I will end with a quotation from Jenkins:

    Historically, Christians faced the issue of whether to speak and think in the language of their anti-Christian rulers. If they refused to accommodate, they were accepting utter marginality, and cutting themselves off from any participation in a thriving society. Yet accepting the dominant language and culture accelerated the already strong tendency to assimilate to the ruling culture, even if the process took generations. Although a comparable linguistic gulf does not separate modern Western churches from the secular world, Christians still face the dilemma of speaking the languages of power, of presenting their ideas in the conceptual framework of modern physics and biology, of social and behavioral science. To take one example, when churches view sin as dysfunction, an issue for therapy rather than prayer, Christians are indeed able to participate in national discourse, but they do not necessarily have anything to offer that is distinctive. Nor is there any obvious reason why believers should retain their attachment to a religious body that in its language and thought differs not at all from the secular mainstream. Too little adaptation means irrelevance; too much leads to assimilation and, often, disappearance (p. 245).

    04 December 2008

    And now back to the Anglican crisis . . .

    . . . where this development has occurred in my hometown of Wheaton, Illinois: North American Anglican Province Formed As Rival To The Episcopal Church. Canadians are part of this too. That this new Anglican Province overlaps with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada shouldn't pose too much difficulty in light of this: New indigenous province proposed.
    Crisis in Ottawa, III

    As Stephen Harper heads for the Governor General's office, Canadians might wish to read up on the King-Byng constitutional crisis of 1926 and perhaps even the Whitlam Dismissal in Australia in 1975. Let's hope Michaëlle Jean has done so before she makes her decision.

    Update: Mme. Jean is obviously no Lord Byng: GG agrees to suspend Parliament: PMO. I commented on a similar crisis three years ago: Why Clarkson will not intervene.

    02 December 2008

    Crisis in Ottawa, continued

    Just when we thought that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative minority government was settling in for at least another two years in power, the events of the past several days have upset these expectations. Now we read that Her Majesty's representative, Governor General Michaëlle Jean, is cutting short her European state visit to deal with the current crisis. That two opposition political parties would conspire to topple the government and replace it with a coalition government is unprecedented in Canada's history. It would not be unusual in some European countries, but those of us living under Westminster-style systems have generally eschewed multiparty coalition governments as somehow undemocratic — as if party leaders collaborating to form a government thereby frustrate the will of the voters.

    On the other hand, there is something rather surreal in the spectacle of a single party taking power based on only 37.63 percent of the vote and fewer than half the seats, and then having the effrontery to claim a mandate from the Canadian people to govern. It is scarcely less absurd when such a government receives an absolute majority of seats though most citizens have voted against it. This, once again, points to the need for electoral reform in this country.

    Though I am not teaching Canadian politics this term, I have spent some time in each of my classes this week talking about the developments in the nation's capital, due to their historic nature. I have likened what is happening to pre-1992 Italian politics, when multiple parties would have to take great pains to form a government, with leaders deciding to elevate to the premiership, not one of themselves, but a comparative nonentity deemed least objectionable to them. I couldn't help thinking of this as we witnessed especially the Liberals haggling over who would become prime minister. Would it be Stéphane Dion, the current but outgoing leader? Or Michael Ignatieff? Or Bob Rae?

    What are Stephen Harper's options? Some are suggesting he could request the Governor General to prorogue Parliament, that is, to end the current session. But given that it began only two weeks ago, ending it this early would be a highly unusual move that would certainly stretch our constitutional conventions beyond what any previous prime minister has attempted. There can be little doubt that this would flirt with the edges of democracy itself. What would the Governor General do? She has the authority to refuse Harper's request, but since 1926 her predecessors have chosen not to confront their prime ministers, even when it might be advisable for them to do so to protect the constitution.

    A central question is, of course, whether the Liberals and New Democrats would actually be able to govern. Together they boast only 114 seats as compared to the 143 held by the Conservatives. One-hundred fifty-five are needed for a majority. This means that the separatist Bloc québécois holds the balance of power with 49 seats. This gives the BQ king-making power. They will not, of course, participate in a coalition government, because they have few aspirations beyond being a protest party. Though Dion and NDP leader Jack Layton claim that the BQ will support their proposed government, at least in the short term, it is not in its long term interest to continue to prop up two parties that are more centralizing in their federalism than the Conservatives. Yet it is difficult to imagine the BQ propping up the Conservatives either.

    My own solution? I don't claim this to be the definitive answer, but it might just be wise for Harper, whom 62.37 percent of Canadian voted against, to enter into negotiations with Dion towards forming a grand coalition government, rather like that between Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in Germany. To be sure, the business of government would not move quickly under such an arrangement, but the divided verdict of Canadians two months ago may have left our politicians with no real alternative. Harper might do well to cast a backward glance to consider what happened to Prime Minister Joe Clark back in December 1979, when he tried to govern as if he had a majority, but found his minority government quickly defeated on the budget. If, as Henry Milner believes, we are in for a protracted period of minority government, our political leaders will have to overcome their overwrought fears of co-operating with the other parties and sit down and actually talk with them rather than just shouting at them from across the floor of the Commons.

    01 December 2008

    Political crisis in Ottawa

    This is news indeed: Liberals, NDP one step closer to coalition deal. If this does occur, it will be nearly unprecedented in Canadian history. Stay tuned.

    22 November 2008

    The typewriter

    Those of us above a certain age remember the trusty typewriter, on which we patiently rewrote our term papers after painstakingly composing them in longhand.

    My old Royal Typewriter, c. 1930?

    This now obsolete machine was immortalized nearly six decades ago by Swedish-American composer Leroy Anderson in his humorous piece, The Typewriter. My question is: might its humour be lost on the younger generation, most of whose members have never even seen, much less heard, one of these ancient word processors?

    17 November 2008

    November snippets

  • Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom, has done it again. Just out is his new book, The Lost History of Christianity, whose subtitle says it all: "The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia — and How It Died." It is a riveting account and definitely merits a review, which is forthcoming in this space.

  • Fr. Neuhaus has posted a short piece unsurprisingly titled: The Coming Kulturkampf. Here's an especially trenchant paragraph:

    Christians do want to be useful in their Babylonian captivity. They follow the counsel of the prophet Jeremiah who urged the children of Israel to seek the peace of the city of their exile, for in its peace is also their peace. The great danger, then and now, is that, in being useful to the city of their exile, they forget the New Jerusalem, the city of their destination. It really is not terribly gratifying to be a “religious vote” eagerly sought by the partisan factions of Babylon when we remember that [Jesus] called us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

    Somewhat less helpful is his discussion of culture, which is missing a rather crucial component: the human element of shaping responsibly the world of which we are part. Neuhaus would do well to read H. Henry Meeter, The Basic Ideas of Calvinism, especially chapter 7: "Human Culture."

  • New Brunswick's Telegraph-Journal has published an op-ed piece favouring electoral reform: Respect voters through proportional representation. Bravo!

  • Oh, no. Not again: Ex-Harvard scholar enters Liberal leadership race.

  • The fires sweeping through southern California have affected Redeemer's sister institution, Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Thank God that no lives were lost, though much property is now gone. Please remember the Westmont community in your prayers.

  • Two weekends ago I was in the Boston area for two events. First, congratulations are due to my niece Bethany Givens and her new husband Brian Blankespoor, who were married in Andover, Massachusetts. Second, I was privileged to speak to the members of the first-year American government course at Gordon College. The instructor is Dr. Paul Brink, a 1993 graduate of Redeemer's political science programme. If any of his students are reading this, I bring them greetings and thank them for their hospitality and stimulating company.

  • This had to happen sooner or later: Extinction Threatens Yellow-Pages Publishers. I guess most of our fingers now do the walking over the keypad rather than the phone book.
  • 10 November 2008

    The ‘blessings’ of empire? Part 2

    Here is the second and final instalment of my series on the American empire. It appears in the 10 November issue of Christian Courier.

    Because we have come to see empire in almost wholly negative terms, we may have difficulty recalling a time when empire – and a Christian empire at that – was considered nearly an unmitigated good. Both Byzantine rulers and the heirs of Charlemagne in the west were rivals for the imperial title, which had its origins in ancient Rome. When Rome fell in 476, many of its subjects greatly regretted this event, because it spelled the end of an orderly rule of law over the Mediterranean basin and the dawn of a much more precarious political existence.

    For all its faults, which were considerable, the Roman Empire provided stability for hundreds of years by keeping the peace throughout its far-flung territory. Indeed its laws, as codified by the eastern emperor Justinian in the 6th century, provided the basis for the legal systems of continental Europe and elsewhere.

    When the apostle Paul and his companions were imprisoned in Macedonia, he would reveal their Roman citizenship to demonstrate that they had been illegally scourged by the civil magistrates (Acts 16:37-40). Later Paul would take the opportunity of his capture by the local authorities in Jerusalem to appeal to Caesar, which he had the right to do.

    To the church in Rome Paul wrote that Christians are to be “subject to the governing authorities,” which “have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Similarly, Peter instructed his readers to obey the political authorities and to honour the emperor (I Peter 2:13-17). Both understood that political authority has a crucial and God-given function to play in human life and that, even when it goes wrong or miscarries justice in particular circumstances, it nevertheless continues in large measure to maintain public justice.

    Whether this authority takes the form of the early Israelite tribal judges, or the later Davidic monarchy or an emperor ruling over a large land mass, God has called it “to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.” Believers are similarly called to obedience, though not uncritically. Just as the apostles obeyed God above mere human authorities (Acts 4:19; 5:29), so should we be wary of the overreaching claims of all institutions, including the state.

    Is America an empire? I would give a qualified yes to this question. As the world’s most powerful state, it makes decisions that affect countless people around the globe, including Canadians. Yet this is not the whole story. Just over two centuries ago Americans originated, as a deliberate alternative to the unitary imperial state, the federal system with its constitutional division of powers. This arrangement has worked so well that it has been copied by others, including Canada, Australia and India.

    Even when the United States is at less than its best, Canadians should prefer living next to it over being adjacent to, say, Russia, which is renewing its old habit of bullying its neighbours, whether militarily or by withholding its natural resources. We are often in the habit of complaining about US actions at home and abroad. But the fact is that we do so with nearly complete impunity. We can easily get away with it, unlike Georgia vis-à-vis Russia. No matter how much the American government may be annoyed with us, we know that its troops will not be spilling over our borders any time soon. For this we can rightly be thankful.

    Although an empire is tempted to abuse its considerable power, the fact of one nation exercising more influence than another is not itself a violation of justice. Nevertheless, other nations are well advised to be vigilant in their dealings with it, to ensure that its power is adequately checked.

    05 November 2008

    It's finally over

    Barack Obama wins presidency, making history. Now the real work begins.

    03 November 2008

    Fauré's Pavane

    I fell in love with this piece when I heard Barbra Streisand sing it as a vocalise more than three decades ago. We are not accustomed to hearing it played more quickly than this, but, given that the following version seems to have come from a piano roll played by Gabriel Fauré himself, it may actually represent what the composer intended.

    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 . . .
    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?

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.
    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)

    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.
  • 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.

    30 September 2008

    The Panic of 2008

    Here is a small sample of opinion on the current financial crisis south of the border: R.R. Reno, The Wall Street Crisis; James W. Skillen, The Root of the Problem; Martin Masse, Bailout marks Karl Marx's comeback; Chuck Colson, The Bill Comes Due and Cost and Opportunity. But now this: The U.S. bailout plan goes awry. Now what?

    26 September 2008

    A weak parliament?

    Sometimes our politicians say exactly the opposite of what they mean. For example: Weak Parliament would hurt Canada's economic stability: Harper. Not quite. What Stephen Harper really wants is a strong government and a compliant parliament that won't thwart his government's agenda. I'm sorry to break it to you, Mr. Harper, but that is a weak parliament.

    25 September 2008

    Television appearance

    For those interested in the upcoming federal election, an obscure Upper Canadian political science professor was recently interviewed for the CTS television programme, 100 Huntley Street, which aired yesterday. It is available online here (high speed) and here (low speed). Or it can be downloaded here (high speed) and here (low speed). The report starts nearly 13 minutes into the programme.

    21 September 2008

    Speaking of which . . .

    . . . it seems that our cousins south of the border are faced with deciding which team prevaricates less than the other. Check out this site if you don't believe that falsehoods are being deliberately disseminated in the current presidential race: FactCheck.org. For shame!
    Choose your poison

    With a federal election looming next month, is the choice with which we are presented one "between an intelligent unprincipled cynic, and a relatively honest fool"? That's the conclusion of David Warren, easily Canada's most curmudgeonly journalist: Stephen & Stéphane.

    16 September 2008

    Pulling through

    Some six decades ago my mother used to listen to the immortal Fanny Brice on the radio playing her Baby Snooks character. In one episode, she and her father are on their way to visit his boss who is ill and in hospital. He tells his young daughter to say something cheerful to the patient, such as "I hope they pull you through." Upon their arrival, the boss groans in pain: "I'm at death's door," to which Baby Snooks dutifully replies, "I hope they pull you through."

    It seems that the state of Oregon, perhaps soon to be followed by neighbouring Washington, is taking this notion of pulling people through a little too literally, as indicated in this story: Oregon's Suicidal Approach to Health Care. To the culture of death it seems that life is a mere commodity, to be disposed of when its maintenance is no longer cost-effective.
    Skillen to retire

    Here is the posted announcement from the Center for Public Justice:
    Dr. James Skillen has announced his intention to retire as president of the Center for Public Justice effective Oct. 1, 2009. Skillen has served the Center for more than 30 years, 27 of these as executive director and later president.

    “We are grateful for Jim’s excellent work of promoting CPJ’s mission to foster justice in public life,” said Dr. Harold Heie, chair of the Center’s Board of Trustees. “I am pleased to announce that, with the full support of the trustees, Jim will continue to serve the mission of CPJ after September 2009 as a writer, speaker, and researcher.”

    The Board of Trustees has appointed a special committee to be chaired by Gail Jansen, a former Board chair, to lead the search for the Center’s next president. The committee hopes to recommend a presidential candidate to the Board of Trustees at its spring 2009 meeting.

    These will be tough shoes to fill. Let us pray for the work of the committee in the coming months as it undertakes this important task.

    12 September 2008

    Religious freedom versus public conformity

    Stanley Carlson-Thies, of the Center for Public Justice, is a man of considerable insight, a quality much in evidence here: Is the Common Good Rainbow-Striped? Though his target audience is American, his remarks have definite relevance for Canada as well.

    11 September 2008

    Damascus road again

    This post by screenwriter Joe Eszterhas is little short of remarkable: My Base Instincts and God's Love. How God can turn such a heart to his ways is beyond our comprehension, but by his grace it happens time and again.

    08 September 2008

    September snippets

  • I have added another blog to my sidebar: The Idea File. The author is my emeritus colleague at McMaster University, Dr. Janet Ajzenstat, author of, among other things, The Once and Future Canadian Democracy. A few years back she and I exchanged views on Canada's constitution.

  • Downtown Hamilton is the location of an intriguing, recently-formed intentional community, some of whose members have connections with Redeemer. Read about them here: All for one: A communal, 'intentional community' has taken root in Kirkendall. We wish them God's blessings on their efforts at living a life together and reaching out to the surrounding neighbourhood.

  • Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism, offers some insight into the singular attraction evangelicals in the US have towards a civil religion that puts their nation at its centre:
    A peculiarity of the American experience is that, in the absence of an ecclesiology that tethered them to the Church through time, for many American Protestant thinkers, America became their Church. That was true then, and it is true now. More than three hundred years later, in yet another reversal that they describe as radical, some evangelical theologians, notably those influenced by my friend Stanley Hauerwas, today depict America not as the Church nor as the precursor of the New Jerusalem but as Babylon. . . . Whether America is depicted as the anticipation of the New Jerusalem or as its antithesis, whether America is the precursor or the enemy of the City of God, what such thinkers have in common is the lack of a clear connection to the Church in continuity with the Christian story through time.
    This is a trenchant observation. That said, one wonders whether Neuhaus can find a modest place for the American body politic as a community bound together by the mandate to do public justice. This would be a great improvement over his often expressed Lockean notion of the state and his habitual appeals to a supposed American exceptionalism.

  • From a quite different standpoint Brian Walsh has contributed this thoughtful piece to the Empire Remixed blog: To Hell With Romans 13. My question is similar to that for Neuhaus: can we find in Walsh's remarks a coherent political theory recognizing a normative task for the state? As for Romans 13, it seems to me that an appropriate interpretation would have to begin with Paul understanding that, while government frequently abuses its God-given authority, it still operates within a normative framework within which authority and obedience find their proper place.

  • It's off to the polls for Canadians: Federal election called for Oct. 14. And, uh, what happened to our fixed election dates? I don't recall Stephen Harper's government being defeated on a confidence motion.

  • Preliminary genealogical research indicates that John McCain, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are all distant cousins to each other. Then again, so are you and I.

  • An independent Republic of Vermont? Some think it would be a good idea: Breaking Out of the Empire Box. Check out their website: Second Vermont Republic, whose links page includes the League of the South, the Republic of Cascadia and, of course, our own Parti québécois.
  • 04 September 2008

    Seeking justice

    Michael C. Hogeterp offers some political wisdom: Beyond Election Madness. Hogeterp works for the Committee for Contact with the Government of the Christian Reformed Church and is a 1992 graduate of Redeemer's political science programme.
    Can parents be trusted?

    This video has more than a little relevance for us here in North America. It's a pity no one made use of this during last year's provincial election campaign.

    01 September 2008


    This time of year I frequently have this haunting song by Kurt Weill running through my head. Here is a classic rendition of September Song sung by the composer's wife, Lotte Lenya:

    30 August 2008

    Persecution in India

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

    29 August 2008

    Canada's revolution

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

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

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

    Empowering Party Conventions

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

    25 August 2008

    August snippets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Authority and power, I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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