27 August 2009

Seeking the good of marriage

At the beginning of the year I wrote a short series of posts on friendship, intending to cover the topic more extensively than I ended up doing. However, I did promise to come back to the subject of marriage, and I think now is a good time for that. My doing so was inspired by reading these two, seemingly contrasting, articles: The Case for Early Marriage, by Mark Regnerus, and On Christian Singleness and Secular Sexuality, by Joi Weaver.

From the beginning the church has made place for both marriage and the single state, in many cases esteeming celibacy above ordinary marital relations, as Weaver indicates. Indeed virtually the entire Roman Catholic clergy is celibate and the upper echelons of the Orthodox clergy are as well. Since the 16th century, however, celibacy has generally not been favoured by evangelicals and in some cases it has been positively discouraged. Some are indeed called to a life of celibacy, but these will always be exceptional. The vast majority of God's image-bearers will marry and have children, a necessary reality of life if a given society is to survive from one generation to the next.

Sad to say, this diversity of callings with respect to marriage has come to be viewed by the larger society as a mere choice amongst alternative sexual lifestyles, of which so-called traditional marriage is only one. If we respect the person's right to choose, then it is expected that we will maintain a benign equal regard for every such choice. It is a small step beyond this to the assumption that we have the right to redefine marriage itself, an action taken by a number of jurisdictions, including Canada, in recent years.

However, if marriage is an institution, possessing its own nature and whose contours are set, not by the marrying couple, but by God himself, then we must necessarily take a fundamentally different attitude towards it. I myself am only two generations removed from arranged marriage, as my paternal grandparents were betrothed to each other at the initiative of my grandmother's older brother, who had become responsible for his younger siblings after their parents died. Although I am not in favour of reviving this custom, I have sometimes wondered whether arranged marriage does not better communicate its true nature than the more recent love match. Some 40 years ago popular musician Sergio Mendes put this lyric into his cheerful song, Pretty World: "We'll hang a little sign that just says, 'Paradise, Population two.'" Yet real marriage is not just the private preserve of two people; it occurs within the context of community and, given the intrinsic fertility of the marital act, it has the potential to create community as well.

Is marriage itself a community that needs to be nurtured by husband and wife, as well as by the neighbouring communities of extended family, church, state, workplace and so forth? Is marriage more than the sum of two persons? Though the larger society may have lost sight of this, it is nevertheless true. This is the clear teaching of scripture as well, from Genesis 2:24 to Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7-8, 1 Corinthians 6:16 and Ephesians 5:31. In marriage husband and wife become one flesh.

And what of the age of marriage? Is it better to marry young or to wait until one is better established and more mature? There is no single right answer to this. I myself married late, while my sister married at just under 21 years of age. There is something to be said for both paths into matrimony. However, it now seems to me, despite my own example, that the bulk of the arguments fall on the side of young marriage, albeit not too young. Late marriers have fewer children, due to decreasing levels of fertility, possible health complications and the simple fatigue that comes with age. Too many people taking this path will result in a below-replacement birthrate, which is unsustainable over the long term. That's the negative reason. A positive reason is that, when a man and a woman marry young, because they are still finding their way into adulthood, they are more likely to grow into it together, shaping each other's attitudes, values and commitments as they do so. They are better able to realize the "one flesh" union spiritually than those who have already lived much of their adult lives single, with attitudes already well-formed and commitments in place.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Yet whichever path is taken, we must remind ourselves that marriage is not just another lifestyle choice. Nurturing marriage is hard work. Giving ourselves unreservedly to another is not easy, especially in the context of a society that glorifies personal autonomy and independence. Yet this is exactly what we must do if we are to seek and achieve the good of our marriages.

24 August 2009

Reforming the Roman missal

Well over a generation ago, in response to Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church in the English-speaking world formulated vernacular liturgical texts that would come to influence many, if not most, other christian denominations as they undertook their own liturgical reforms. Now the Roman Church is undertaking to replace them with more accurate translations from the Latin texts. Zenit carries this report: Bishops Present Coming Missal Changes. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has posted a website explaining this "reform of the reform", along with examples of textual alterations.

My question is whether the other denominations, e.g., Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, &c., that adopted the earlier texts will now follow suit. Because ecumenical relations have been soured by a number of unilateral moves by some of the major denominations, and because some of these have given up the pretence of liturgical unity within even their own ranks, my own guess is that they will not. With no king in Israel, everyone will do what is right in his own eyes.

20 August 2009

Abortion reduction

Last year around this time, when a number of prominent evangelicals were claiming to have toned down the Democratic Party's pro-choice policy, I expressed scepticism and wondered whether they had allowed themselves to be taken advantage of with nothing to show in return. My genial, if curmudgeonly, friend Keith Pavlischek says yes and cites concrete evidence that the Obama administration has no intention of pursuing an abortion-reduction strategy, despite the claims of Jim Wallis and others to the contrary: Ceding the Common Ground on Abortion.

It is one thing to recognize that politics is the art of the possible, as Bismarck is reputed to have said. Like it or not, involvement in the political process necessarily entails accepting compromise and settling for what one observer has called proximate justice. It is quite another, however, to yield ground so totally on an issue of importance, to receive nothing in the exchange, and then to claim the opposite. This comes close, if not to outright deception (I prefer to be charitable here), then to something approaching acute political ineptitude.

19 August 2009

The Shweeb

Could the Shweeb prove to be more than an amusement park ride? Might a network of these covering (and hovering over) a major city help to ease traffic congestion on the streets, as well as present opportunities for commuters to increase their physical stamina? It's worth considering.

18 August 2009

Long live the kaiser?

Was iconic German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer really an antifeminist conservative monarchist? He was indeed, according to Georg Huntemann, writing in the Dutch periodical Reformatorisch Dagblad: Bonhoeffer, overtuigd monarchist. To learn more we should perhaps check out the author's The Other Bonhoeffer: An Evangelical Reassessment of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Caritas in Veritate: a response

I was pleased to play a very small role in the drafting of this statement: Doing The Truth In Love: An Evangelical Call for Response to Caritas In Veritate, which was initiated by a group of people connected in some way with Cardus, including three of my protégés. The statement is posted at the First Things website and at that of the Center for Public Justice.

Worship music

I am cross-posting this with my Genevan Psalter blog. It follows upon an earlier post there titled, Worship wars, but its subject matter is, I believe, of more general interest.

It is not difficult to find Christian theologians and liturgical scholars commenting on what makes for a good hymn text. For example, I recently read J. Gresham Machen's Christianity and Liberalism, in the course of which he discusses the merits of three familiar hymns, Nearer, My God, to Thee, In the Cross of Christ I Glory and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, the last of which he judges superior to the other two, due to its obvious grasp of the place of the cross in the economy of salvation. Similarly, following the church fathers, the reformers and many others, I myself am persuaded that the psalms must have a pre-eminent place in the church's liturgy. So much for texts.

But what of the church's music? Is there better or worse music by which to worship the Triune God? Are some genres better suited than others to the liturgical assembly? Does it really matter whether we use organs, unaccompanied voices or electric guitars? Isn't it all finally a mere matter of personal taste? That's what many would argue. I strongly disagree. Although one could write an entire treatise on the subject, I will limit myself to putting forth a few principles for consideration.

1. The tune must fit the text. Even if their metres are identical, not every text necessarily goes with every tune. A particularly egregious violation of this principle is found in the 1957 edition of the Christian Reformed Church's Psalter Hymnal. Number 158 is a metrical versification of Psalm 83 set to FOREST GREEN. The text is one of the imprecatory psalms, calling down God's wrath on his enemies, which would seem to require something less obviously cheerful than FOREST GREEN. (Happily, this unfortunate pairing of text and tune did not make it into the 1987 edition.)

2. Avoid pairing texts with a tune too obviously associated in the popular mind with another text or occasion. The Scottish Psalter's The Lord's My Shepherd, I'll Not Want could conceivably be sung to Lowell Mason's ANTIOCH, but given that the latter is a familiar Christmas tune, it is probably not wise to do so. It may also be illegal in some cases. About three decades ago, some churches were singing a liturgical benediction to Richard Rodger's tune for Edelweiss, from The Sound of Music. Rodgers himself and, later, the executors of his estate were definitely not amused.

3. The music should not overwhelm the text but ought to be ancillary to it. There is something to be said for unaccompanied unison singing, as found in, e.g., the Orthodox Churches and 16th-century Geneva. Reformed Presbyterians allow for part-singing but without musical instruments. While most Christians do not see fit to embrace such seemingly austere practices (and for good biblical reasons; see Psalm 150), it is nevertheless true that excessively flashy organ-playing or loud guitars and drums come dangerously close to violating this principle. Instruments should precisely accompany singing, not dominate it.

4. Music for the congregation must be fairly simple in structure, both rhythmically and musically. It certainly should not distract from the text being sung. Here a distinction must be made between those tunes meant for congregational singing, on the one hand, and solo and choral singing, on the other. I leave aside the latter for now, except to note that choirs and soloists generally take on more challenging music than the typical congregation can be expected to.

Several years ago I wrote a metrical version of the Apostles' Creed, which I titled, Credo in Septuple Metre. The tune I came up with, LUSIGNAN, is actually a fairly simple one, but the time signature, 7/8, may make it unsingable by an ordinary congregation, except perhaps by one belonging to the Greek Evangelical Church, where such rhythms would be familiar. It would thus probably make a better solo piece. On the other hand, the moving hymn, Gift of Finest Wheat, is included in many hymnals and is beautifully sung by congregations, despite its alternating 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures. This demonstrates that the musical ability of many congregations should not necessarily be underestimated.

5. While the melody should be simple, it must also be memorable, which is to say, distinctive enough to stick with people. This implies a certain degree of movement in the tune. For example, Lowell Mason's HAMBURG is well-known and easily sung, though in my view it is not an especially strong melody, consisting entirely of a series of ascending and descending partial scales. Ascents and descents invariably move one step at a time, and the entire tune spans only five notes. This gives it the undoubted virtue of not unduly taxing the singer, but leaves it with the corresponding defect of not being very interesting.

By contrast, Edward Miller's ROCKINGHAM, which has the same metrical structure, is a much stronger melody, spanning a whole octave, with the movement reaching two obvious climaxes in lines 2 and 3. The motion of the tune sometimes moves by thirds and fourths, and even drops by a sixth after the second high note. ROCKINGHAM is simply a more dramatic tune and better communicates the story of redemption.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, I wrote a versification of Psalm 137 and came up with this tune. When I showed it to a professional musician who was a member of my church congregation, he told me there wasn't enough movement in the melody. I took his critique to heart, scrapped that tune and came up with this one instead: HICKORY ROAD, which many would likely judge superior to my initial effort.

There is more to be said on this topic, so I shall return to it later and explore specific genres of liturgical music in light of the above, including traditional chant and contemporary christian music.

14 August 2009

Les Paul (1915-2009)

Eunice Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009)

With gratitude, we celebrate the life of a gracious and kindhearted woman, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whose compassion for the mentally disabled led her to found the Special Olympics. What is less known, and what the media, with some exceptions, are generally neglecting to tell us, is that she was also very much pro-life, thus making her one of a very few prominent Democrats left to hold this position, as reported here: NBC Notes Eunice Kennedy Shriver Was 'Lifelong Opponent of Abortion'.

Canada's own Fr. Raymond J. de Souza puts this stance within the context of her Catholic faith with this piece in the National Post: A tale of two Kennedys.

The Shrivers represented the old Democratic Party -- economically liberal and culturally conservative. . . . Eunice was the ideal of the Catholic in public life -- passionately committed to the poor, defender of the weak, pro-life, morally upright and a woman of faith and family.

May she rest in peace until the resurrection.

12 August 2009

John M. Lyle: architect

A Progressive Traditionalist
Glenn McArthur. A Progressive Traditionalist: John M. Lyle, Architect. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2009. 220 pp.

I admit it. One of my guilty pleasures is the handsomely-illustrated coffee table book, and the current offering under review fulfils that role very nicely indeed. Glenn McArthur’s new book is a delight to page through for anyone possessing an interest in the arts and especially architecture.

John McIntosh Lyle (1872-1945) was one of the great architects of his day, and he had a strong connection with Hamilton, responsible for a number of familiar structures gracing our city.

Lyle was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1872. When his father, the Rev. Samuel Lyle, was called to the pastorate of Central Presbyterian Church in 1878, the family immigrated to Canada. The Rev. Dr. Lyle led the congregation for more than three decades, retiring in 1911. His son John studied at the Hamilton Art School, briefly at Cornell University, and at the Yale School of Art. In New York City he apprenticed at the office of Hamilton architect Frank Freeman before heading to Paris to enrol at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts for further studies.

Once these were completed in 1896, Lyle returned to North America, settling in New York and eventually finding work in the firm of Howard & Cauldwell. Only three years earlier, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had changed the course of the continent’s architecture, securing the place of the distinctive Beaux-Arts neoclassical style, especially in public buildings. Lyle himself would design two bandstands for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.

In 1905 Lyle returned to Canada, taking up residence in Toronto, where an extensive fire a year earlier seemed to promise opportunities to contribute to the vast rebuilding project. Although this promise did not pan out immediately, he did design the Royal Alexandra Theatre, built between 1905 and 1907, which was named for Edward VII’s queen consort.

Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton
A fire in 1906 destroyed his father’s church, Central Presbyterian, which had occupied a quasi-gothic building constructed in 1858 at Jackson and MacNab Streets. The congregation decided to relocate a bit farther south of the city’s centre to Caroline and Charlton Streets. The completed structure borrows from a number of influences, including the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London and the Congregational Church of Naugatuck, Connecticut. One of its more unusual features is that it has a flat roof, thereby resembling more the public edifices favoured by the Beaux-Arts school than the traditional European church. Nevertheless, the church’s interior is dominated by a series of traditional stained-glass windows portraying stories from the Bible. This juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional appears to vindicate McArthur’s choice of title for his book. So satisfied was Lyle with the outcome of his efforts that he incorporated a black silhouette of the building into his personal bookplates. The spire of Central is a distinctive landmark visible throughout the surrounding neighbourhoods.

From here Lyle would go on in 1913 to design the Great Hall of Toronto’s Union Station (see book cover above), familiar to generations of commuters who have passed through it twice daily. While other urban railway terminals have seen the wrecker’s ball in recent decades, this building continues to serve the travelling public much as it did when it first opened.

Throughout his career, Lyle was much in demand by the nation’s banks, where the neoclassical style was favoured in the early years of the 20th century, perhaps as a way of impressing would-be depositors with the imposing nature of their own financial solidity.

Among the Hamilton landmarks for which Lyle was responsible are the palatial home Wynnstay, now Mount Mary Immaculate, in Ancaster (1925); the Gage Memorial Fountain in Gage Park (1926); and the Hamilton High Level Bridge, where York Boulevard passes over the Desjardins Canal (1932). Other well-known Lyle designs include the Memorial Arch at Kingston’s Royal Military College (1921); and the Runnymede branch of the Toronto Public Library (1929), which incorporated English, French Canadian and aboriginal elements. I myself used to live near that branch three decades ago and visited it on occasion.

Also notable are the designs Lyle submitted for projects later awarded to others. Two examples are worth mentioning. In 1907 his proposal for the buildings of the Justice Department would have altered the landscape of the federal government’s public architecture by making it more resemble that of Washington, DC. When in 1922 The Chicago Tribune sought designs for its new building, Lyle’s unsuccessful effort featured neoclassical columns and, of all things, a spire reminiscent of the one he had placed atop Central Presbyterian Church!

Incidentally, Lyle's grandson recently donated a copy of this book to that church's library, where I came across it a few weeks ago after sunday worship. The family is to be commended for helping to disseminate knowledge of their forebear's contribution to Canadian architecture.

06 August 2009

August snippets

  • Fr. Raymond J. De Souza fears for the future of religious liberty in Canada, and with some justification: The unnecessary defeat of the Hutterites. Fr. De Souza:

    My late mentor, Father Richard John Neuhaus, used to argue that if the state is secular and small, the danger to religious liberty can be contained. But if the state is large, and everywhere the state goes religion must retreat, then religious liberty is imperilled.

  • Two more posts have gone up on my Genevan Psalter blog: Song of Hannah and Singing the Psalms: Presbyterian Church in Canada.

  • The Hungarian media have picked up on a recent article I published in Comment: Demokrácia vallás nélkül? I can make out my name and the links to my book and blog, but that's about it. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language distantly related to Estonian, Sami and the Finnish language spoken by my maternal forebears. I'd love to know what the article says, as well as more about the periodical Népszabadság that carries the article. Any Hungarian speakers out there who might lend a hand?

  • Nearly fifty years after the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation struck an alliance with the labour unions and rechristened itself the New Democratic Party, some members of the latter are toying with the possibility of another name change: What's in a name? The NDP mulls a change in moniker, and Putting 'new' back in the NDP. My suggestion? The Social Democratic Party of Canada, thus emphasizing its connection with similar, more successful parties elsewhere, e.g., the British Labour Party, the Australian Labor Party and Germany's Social Democratic Party. Might as well give it a try. After all, given that its federal record rivals that of the Chicago Cubs, it's not as though it has anything more to lose.

  • I have recently come across a marvellous book, A Progressive Traditionalist: John M. Lyle, Architect. Lyle designed the building that houses our family's congregation, Central Presbyterian Church, here in Hamilton, as well as Toronto's Union Station and many more structures. Given my longstanding interest in architecture and urban planning, I will be posting more on this book in the near future.

  • Did you know that Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Napoleon III's Prefect of the Seine and designer of the new Paris, influenced Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago? This year marks the 200th anniversary of Haussmann's birth and the 100th anniversary of Burnham's Plan. And did you know further that Abraham Kuyper was an outspoken critic of Haussmann's efforts? This is the subject of another forthcoming post. Stay tuned.

  • Life on Mars unlikely, methane mystery suggests. The phenomenon described sounds vaguely familiar to this earthling. Indeed is it possible that the red planet itself might occasionally "break wind"?

  • I have just received word that my book, Political Visions and Illusions, has gone into a third printing almost two years to the day after it went into a second. I am, of course, grateful that it continues to be read and valued.
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