27 March 2009

The films of Hitchcock

Readers of this blog are aware of my longstanding interest in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, some of which I have reviewed here and others on the Internet Movie Database website. Writing for Breakpoint's Worldview magazine, Gina R. Dalfonzo has her own take on Hitch's cinematic oeuvre: Crime and Punishment: Christianity in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock.

One scene I have yet to see commented on in this vein is that in Foreign Correspondent in which Edmund Gwenn's cheerful but sinister character takes Joel McCrea to the top of London's Byzantine-style Westminster Cathedral, from which he intends to dispose of him. As they are about to ascend the tower, we hear through the open door of the church a choral rendition of the haunting Dies Irae from the older version of the Requiem Mass, a tune that has found its way into numerous musical compositions over the centuries. The allusion to impending death is obvious here, as is Hitch's debt to his Catholic upbringing and education, though it would almost certainly be lost on non-Catholic audiences.

23 March 2009

Russian Orthodoxy

When our family received the new issue of National Geographic, we were pleasantly surprised to read this photographically rich article on the Russian Orthodox Church. The author, Serge Schmemann, is the son of the late Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann.

22 March 2009

New province recognized

The reconfiguration of the Anglican Communion continues apace as its largest province, boasting fully a quarter of the world's Anglicans, has now recognized the new Anglican Church in North America: Church of Nigeria Formally Accepts Emerging Anglican Province.

20 March 2009

King David, a flawed ruler

I have always had an affinity for the biblical David, who is second only to Moses in the esteem of the people of Israel down through the centuries. Initially, of course, this personal affinity had everything to do with my sharing his name, an awareness that came already in early childhood. Furthermore, David not only founded a dynasty that ruled for some five centuries, but he was also the ancestor of Jesus himself, "great David's greater Son." 

Moreover, I have a great love for the Psalms, many of which are ascribed to David, who, like me, was a poet and musician. The struggles David expresses in these heartfelt stanzas are ones with which most of us can identify in some measure. Finally, I have inherited my namesake's interest in politics. Throughout much of scripture, David is seen as the paradigmatic monarch, a man after God's own heart (I Samuel 13:14), who sang God's praises and led his people to victory against their enemies. 

But as I've been reading through the Davidic episodes in I and II Samuel in recent weeks, I've been struck by the recognition that, in many respects, David was not that good a king. His reign was an exceedingly turbulent one, marked by warfare, rebellion and filial betrayal. He was a poor administrator and appears to have been propped up by his powerful nephew Joab, to whom he owed his political position. David loved his sons deeply but seemed unable to control them or to command their loyalty. He allowed his personal affections and private allegiances to overwhelm his public duties, especially as his mourning over Absalom's death appeared to manifest an ingratitude to those who had risked so much to save his throne. Once more Joab had to rescue him from his poor judgement (II Samuel 19:1-8). 

Worst of all, David had one of his own soldiers killed so he could take his wife for himself, which incurred the wrath of God as expressed through the prophet Nathan (I Samuel 11-12). Yet David repented and sought forgiveness (Psalm 51 is associated with this incident), which God freely granted while not exempting him from the consequences of this flagrant infraction of his law. 

Finally, David appears to have been given to snap judgements based on hearsay, as seen in the case of Ziba's slander of Jonathan's son Meribaal (II Samuel 16:1-5, 19:24-30). In short, even the justice of David's rule is in doubt, in stark contrast to the evident wisdom of his son Solomon (I Kings 3).

Nevertheless, somehow, through all this David remained a man after God's own heart. Despite his evident flaws, he was still chosen by God to rule his people, "for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart" (I Samuel 16:7). Though most of David's descendants were wicked rulers, God remained faithful to his promise to him, maintaining a dynasty that would culminate in the King of kings, whose suffering and death we remember during this season of Lent. 

Of course Lent also reminds us of our own sins, which weigh upon us and poison our actions and relationships with others. I personally find it comforting that, if God could love so flawed a servant as David, he can and will love us too, despite our failings. It is this hope of salvation in Christ that sustains us as we near the feast of his Resurrection.

19 March 2009

Advertising and the virtues

Here is Canada's foremost naysayer, David Warren, on advertising:
The secret of advertising, in a largely post-Christian society, is to use a semblance of the theological virtues against the actual cardinal virtues. That is to say, the advertising propagandist must try to convince the prospective purchaser of mass-market goods that he may enjoy a mild parody of faith ("it's the real thing"), hope ("you can lose 10 kilos"), and charity ("make them smile"), if he will only abandon the sales resistance that comes from prudence, justice, temperance and courage.

Second thoughts

During last year's presidential election a number of prominent evangelicals openly aligned themselves with Barack Obama's campaign, claiming, somewhat implausibly, to have succeeded in toning down the Democratic Party's pro-abortion position and to have moved the future president towards an abortion reduction strategy — all of this while claiming the prophetic mantle. As readers of this blog know, I myself was sceptical of these claims, persuaded that these well-intended Christians had allowed themselves to be used for partisan political purposes while receiving little if anything of substance in the exchange.

One of these pro-Obama leaders, ethicist David P. Gushee, is now having second thoughts, as expressed here: Mr. President, we need more than lip service. Gushee writes:

Mexico City, conscience clause, Sebelius, embryonic stem cells. In each case, I have been asked by friends at Democratic or progressive-leaning think tanks not just to refrain from opposing these moves, but instead to support them in the name of a broader understanding of what it means to be pro-life. I mainly refused.

But I do confess that my desire to retain good relationships with the Obama team has tempted me to give what was asked in return for the big payoff of a serious abortion-reduction initiative that I could wholeheartedly support.

But this kind of calculation is precisely what has gotten Christian political activists in trouble in the past, not just for 40 years but for 1,600 years. We gain access to Caesar in order to affect policy; we hold onto access even if it involves compromising some of what we want in policy; in the end, we can easily forget what policies we were after in the first place. I think this definitely happened to the Christian right. It doesn't need to be repeated by the Christian center or left.

Once again, the danger is that, in our efforts to transform the world, we ourselves will be remade into its image. Gushee is perhaps more clear-seeing about this than some of his associates surrounding the new president who have refrained from criticizing him, even when this is obviously called for. Let us hope Obama will read and heed Gushee's frustrated plea for action.

18 March 2009

The new Calvinism

A number of my blogging friends have picked up on this surprising TIME Magazine story. Under the general heading of "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now," number 3 is titled, The New Calvinism. Cardus's Ray Pennings has twice commented on this story: Time Magazine thinks Calvinism is Changing the World?, and Time's Ten Ideas Through the Lens of Number Three. Pennings believes that within a Calvinist framework christian faith can never be merely private but has public significance:

When Calvinism takes hold, it is not just something that impacts Calvinists. It has comprehensive implications for a society when it is consistently lived out. Last week, I was trying to explain to someone why what I believed mattered to my neighbours, and was not simply a private matter that they could live with out of respect for my religious freedom and because "I'm happy it works for you -- I'll find truth in my own corner." I used an ecological metaphor. When we live together, we share the air and water -- they don't respect the boundaries of private and public we set between us. So it is that personal religious beliefs, when taken seriously, end up not being all that personal. That is not just true for Calvinism -- it is as true for secularist belief, Islamic adherence, or new age philosophy. Our beliefs impact the social ecosystem in which we live and ultimately, the purity and health (or lack thereof) of the prevailing belief systems that shape our politics, economics, culture and every other aspect of society are impacted.

Not all professed Calvinists are necessarily keen on what they see as this "worldly" vision of transformation. The Acton Institute's Jordan J. Ballor cites a recent article by Calvin Van Reken analyzing the changes in hymns sung in the Christian Reformed Church over the decades: ‘Calvinism’ Transforming and Transformed.

[Van Reken] gives Rev. George Croly’s “Spirit of God, Who Dwells within My Heart,” which dates from 1867, as an example. When Croly wrote the song, it began, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from earth.” In its current form, the song begins, “Spirit of God, who dwells within my heart, / wean it from sin, through all its pulses move” (emphasis added).

Van Reken concludes that “Rev. Croly was praying in particular for grace that would help him be weaned from attachments to this world. In Reformed churches today, this is rarely sung or spoken. After all, because our world belongs to God, should we not feel at home here?”

As Van Reken also notes in the article, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew Philip Yancey passes along the words of his former minister Bill Leslie, who “told him that as churches grow wealthier and wealthier, their preferences for hymns changes from ‘this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through,’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.’”

It’s worth considering as “The New Calvinism” becomes a force for changing the world the extent to which “Calvinism,” or better “Reformed theology,” is also changed, and not always for the better. Van Reken’s critique and engagement with the “new” view is an important one that ought to be thoughtfully considered by all proponents of “The New Calvinism.”

There are some real positives in the new vision, and some correctives to the old vision that need to be taken seriously. But as Van Reken summarizes, “The new vision can also generate a real problem: It focuses all our attention on this world and the good we can do. In so doing, the hope of heaven can be diminished, with the result that some come to love the world and the things in it. In a word, it helps us become worldly.”

There is, of course, a genuine danger that, as Christians undertake to transform the world for the cause of Christ, they will themselves be transformed by the world. We are always in danger of loving the creation more than the Creator. Yet the way to combat this is not to reject God's good creation but to love it ordinately as the gift of God's grace, and to do the hard work of grappling with the very spirits that would deform our affections and obstruct the culmination of God's kingdom and the redemption of that creation. With due respect to Croly, it is precisely from sin that we seek freedom in Christ, not from our created corporeality and its attendant responsibilities, which will be transformed and redeemed in the promised resurrection of the righteous.

I will take up this issue again in a review article forthcoming in Comment on Donald A. Carson's Christ and Culture Revisited. Stay tuned.

10 March 2009

From Geneva to Constantinople

The Genevan Psalms in Turkish? Read about it here.

09 March 2009

Rights, freedom and justice

The following article appears in the new issue of Christian Courier dated today:

In our postchristian society, appeals to human rights have become the functional equivalent of the biblical prophets’ “thus saith the Lord.” They are treated as the final word on a subject, and those disputing such appeals are likely to be marginalized as heretics. In such a climate, some people are tempted to give up altogether on the concept of rights, simply because so many tend to use it as a justification for subjective wants. Yet the abuse of something cannot rule out its legitimate use. There are two foundational problems with the current legal climate surrounding rights.

First, we tend to assume that all rights are justiciable, that is, properly to be brought before a judicial or quasi-judicial body to be settled in case of a claimed violation. However, this is an erroneous assumption that is incompatible with constitutional government and a recognition of the legitimate multiplicity of legal spheres. Matilda can be said to have a genuine right to her husband Frank’s love. Yet the state cannot force Frank to love his wife, because spousal love lies outside the proper competence of governmental authority.

So how would a violation of such a right be addressed? Primarily within the marital context itself. If Matilda feels that Frank is not paying enough attention to her, she does not complain to a human rights commission; she takes it up with Frank by reminding him of his responsibilities as husband. If this has no effect and if Frank stubbornly refuses to listen to and love her, there’s always the possibility of divorce. Yet even in this case the state has not really forced Frank to love Matilda; it has simply recognized the dissolution of their marriage. To be sure, the state has stepped in here, but only as a last resort. Respecting and protecting spousal rights properly belong to the spouses themselves, and perhaps to those who witnessed their vows. Government does not create these rights; it only provides a legal backup in case the marital community irreparably breaks down.

Second, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between negative and positive freedoms, between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” In the past most bills or charters of rights limited themselves to protecting certain negative rights, including those to freedom of speech, religion, press, association and the like. Such rights call on government simply to refrain from breaching them. No extra expenditure of funds is required. In fact, a government may actually save money by closing down an agency responsible for censoring books, periodicals and broadcasting. In so doing it is recognizing that there are certain activities lying beyond its normative competence.

When we get into the realm of positive freedoms the issue of rights becomes more complicated. In a democracy, of course, government undertakes to protect the right to vote, which is the most basic positive right. However, “freedom to”, if wedded to an expansive notion of rights and their justiciability, is incompatible with a recognition of limits to government. If I claim to have a right to nourishment, does that obligate government to force the local grocer to provide me with food?

If I claim a right to have my idiosyncratic lifestyle choices affirmed by society, does this entail government forcing others to express support for me and shutting down all expression of disapproval? If so, that does not fit at all well into a robust notion of constitutional government. Yet this is where much of North America appears to be going at present.

Repealing our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not the answer. What needs to be changed is the willingness of our courts to treat mere policy aspirations as potential rights; instead they should return them to the ordinary deliberative processes crucial to representative government.

03 March 2009

March snippets

  • Michael Jansen reviews Martin Packard's Getting it Wrong: Fragments from a Cyprus Diary 1964: How big-power agendas and 'green lines' have kept Cyprus divided. I've not yet seen the book, but the review leads me to conclude that reading it would not be good for my blood pressure.

  • Christian History has just published my review article: Foreign Policy as Spiritual Warfare. The book under review is Malcolm Magee's What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, a fascinating account of an American academic and statesman who was gripped by the conviction that the christian faith has implications for all of life, including politics.

  • I have just posted on my Genevan Psalter website and blog a video of Psalm 23 sung in Spanish. Some time ago I also posted a non-Genevan metrical versification of Psalm 95, set to an old Cypriot folk tune. My sister and I recorded this back in 1993 at St. Barnabas Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. (Text copyright © 1986 by David T. Koyzis; recording copyright © 1993 by David Koyzis and Yvonne Koyzis Hook)

  • In 1913 the 17th Amendment to the US Constitution provided for direct election of Senators to the upper house of Congress. Prior to then they were elected by the state legislatures and could thus be seen to represent the state governments. However, the democratization of the Senate increased the possibility of deadlock between the two chambers, because both could now claim a mandate from the electorate. One side effect has been an increase in the use of a tactic that was once rare: Filibusters: The Senate’s Self-Inflicted Wound. Some constitutions, e.g., Australia's, provide mechanisms for breaking a deadlock between two parliamentary chambers. Yet the chances of passing another amendment to rectify this problem in the US are slim, in my estimation.

  • Did Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal inadvertently prolong the Great Depression, and are there parallels to today? Listen to this and see what you think.

  • My friend, the Rev. Chuck Huckaby (aka Hukabyi Károly Pál), a minister in the Hungarian Reformed Calvin Synod, maintains a website devoted to his Heidelberg Catechism Project. With the author's permission, he has posted on this site my own metrical rendition of question and answer 1 of the Catechism: I Belong. I doubt that any historic catechism can equal the Heidelberg in terms of its beauty and winsome teaching of the message of the gospel.

  • Every academic discipline has its intellectual gate keepers, who undertake to determine who is in and who is out. The field of biblical studies is no different in this respect. Where it does differ is in the reality that its subject matter is considered by huge numbers of people to be sacred writ and the very Word of God. This poses difficulties to those for whom a certain conception of science demands that this Word be treated like every other word. The ensuing controversy can be traced through this recent exchange. First, R. R. Reno: Recovering the Bible. Second, John W. Martens: No Country for Biblical Scholars. And finally, Reno again: Whither Historical Criticism? Is it possible to bridge the peculiarly modern and postmodern cleavage between those who explore the historical settings of the biblical texts and those who focus on the redemptive meaning of Scripture as a whole?

  • This isn't really news: U.S. supports creation of Palestinian state: Clinton. Successive American and Israeli governments have claimed to favour this in recent years, and concrete moves have been made in this direction. Unfortunately, Palestinians have not been well served by their own leaders, who have repeatedly squandered opportunities aimed at an admittedly less-than-perfect solution.

  • Which brings us back to Cyprus. . . .
  • 02 March 2009

    Brubeck's asymmetrical rhythms

    Has it really been 50 years since the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded and released Take Five, composed by the group's saxophonist Paul Desmond? In the ensuing decades, this piece, written in 5/4 time, has become a jazz classic.

    Two years later the group recorded Unsquare Dance, composed in 7/4 time.

    I've always had an affinity for Brubeck's music, not only because it's great music, but because of his affection for asymmetrical rhythms, which are very common in Greek and Greek Cypriot folk music. Much of the music I have composed over the years is in similar rhythms, which are fairly rare in western music.

    Brubeck is in his 89th year. Long may he continue to make music.


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