30 December 2009

O Kerstnacht

Some two decades ago one of my colleagues gave me a copy of his own nonmetrical English translation of the Dutch Christmas hymn, O Kerstnacht, Schoner dan de Dagen. The text was written by the Dutch poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel in 1637. The melody is attributed to Cornelis Padbrué and is performed below by Harald Koll on a most unusual instrument known as a kontra guitarre. I recently found that I had versified this text for two of the stanzas some time ago, but not for the third. My discovery today of this performance perhaps provides an occasion to complete the job so that it can finally be sung in English.

25 December 2009

The child born in Bethlehem

Canada's National Post published an unexpected and rather extraordinary editorial yesterday: The child born in Bethlehem. Here's an excerpt:
In Christ all things hold together. All things, Christians believe, not just their own spiritual things. In Jesus Christ, to look at man is to look at God. In Jesus Christ, the God who lovingly and freely created the mighty galaxies and the lilies of the field now comes as man to redeem and to save that very same creation. The Christian good news is that in coming as man, all that man touches is now touched by God.

To use the Greek again, at Christmas what is anthropocentric now becomes theophanous -- to see man is to see God. The human and the divine are now united. All that man needs is now in contact with the divine. Man never loses his freedom to do evil, but he gains the capacity to build up what needs to be restored-- that all things might hold together again. For the Christian concerned about the environment, Bethlehem remains more important than Copenhagen.

Indeed, for the Christian, Bethlehem remains always more important; more important than Rome and Athens and Kyoto and Ottawa and New York and London, and other capitals ancient and modern. Those latter places provide the stories we have the privilege to report. On this day when many of our readers turn their attention to those Bethlehem nativity scenes, we acknowledge that there are stories greater still.

It's difficult to imagine The New York Times publishing something similar.

Unto us a Son is born

The nativity of our Lord

18 December 2009

WSJ mention

My friends and protégés at Cardus have been mentioned in an article by Jonathan Fitzgerald in today's Wall Street Journal: Winning Not Just Hearts but Minds: "And Comment, a publication of the Canadian Christian think tank Cardus, recently considered Christian perspectives on psychology." This particular issue was put together by my beloved friend and colleague, Russell Kosits, whose office is two doors down from mine at Redeemer. Also mentioned: ". . . and First Things—a traditionally ecumenical publication that recently launched a new section dedicated to evangelicalism." I myself have been privileged to write for the latter since its inauguration a few weeks ago.

09 December 2009

Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying

I would love for our churches to sing Advent hymns all year round. Why? Because they convey the aching sense of longing that all of us Christians have as we continue to live between the times. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it,

Advent is a time of waiting. Our whole life, however, is Advent — that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. “I stand at the door?” We however call to him: “Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

Another of my favourite hymns nicely communicates this sense of anticipation of Jesus’ second Advent: Philipp Nicolai’s immortal 1599 text: Wachet Auf, Ruft Uns die Stimme, translated into English in the mid-19th century by Catherine Winkworth as Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying. Inspired by Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25: 1-13, it describes the coming nuptial feast in which the Bridegroom arrives to receive his bride, summoning the wise virgins who have been ready and waiting for this moment:

“Wake, awake, for night is flying,”
The watchmen on the heights are crying;
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices:
“Oh, where are ye, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
With bridal care
Yourselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom, who is near.”

I had some difficulty locating a video performance of Wachet Auf that was not from J. S. Bach’s eponymous cantata, numbered BWV 140. I finally found this organ performance at the Friedenskirche in the north German city of Fedderwardergroden. This arrangement is closer to the original rhythm of Nicolai’s tune and is suitable for congregational singing.

06 December 2009

Veni Redemptor Gentium

Some of my favourite hymns are Advent hymns. No, not the Christmas songs that fill the malls and airwaves around this time of year, but the Advent hymns that fill us with a sense of expectation at both comings of the Messiah. One of the very best has to be Saviour of the Nations, Come. The Latin text, Veni, Redemptor gentium, is attributed to St. Ambrose of Milan, famed mentor to the even more famous St. Augustine of Hippo. It was translated into German as Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland by Martin Luther in 1523. The tune was adapted from a 12th-century gregorian chant by Johann Walther the following year.

As great as J.S. Bach, Buxtehude and others are, I much prefer the old German chorales before the baroque composers got their hands on them and so heavily ornamented them. Accordingly, here below the hymn is sung in Latin by the Schola Cantorum Riga in Latvia. Simple is better.

Here is a version of the same tune beautifully performed by lute and descant viol. (I make no apologies for the busy visuals at the edges!)

Finally here is an intriguing jazz rendition of the hymn as arranged by Christian Steyer for piano and choir, performed a year ago in Berlin:

05 December 2009

December snippets

  • More than a quarter of a million people thus far have signed The Manhattan Declaration since it was first released late last month. Drafted by Dr. Robert George, Dr. Timothy George and Chuck Colson, it covers three topics: abortion, marriage and religious freedom. It claims the support of Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Christians, mostly in the United States but elsewhere as well. Dr. Paul Brink of Gordon College, who is a Redeemer grad and one of my protégés, discusses the document here: The (Unfinished) Manhattan Declaration. Brink's conclusion:
    Particularly in its concluding statements on religious liberty, the careful tone of the earlier discussions is overtaken by a competing rights-based spirit of “Here, I’ll take my stand.” The result may impress politicians that these Christian voters are determined to protect their views, but it can’t really be described as calling the state to its biblical task. In terms of articulating that clear vision of state responsibility, considering, for example, why certain Christian truths should be entrenched into law and not others, the Declaration is at best incomplete.

  • The historian in me is definitely intrigued: A Lost European Culture, Pulled From Obscurity. Long before the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, beginning seven millennia ago, a sophisticated civilization developed along the lower Danube River. This was an urban culture that had mastered copper smelting and produced stunning works of art. Yet, because it was a preliterate culture, we know little about these people, including what they called themselves. To learn more visit this exhibition at New York University: The Lost World of Old Europe: the Danube Valley, 5000-3500 B.C. Is it a travelling exhibition? I'd love to see it come to the Royal Ontario Museum.

  • Over the decades I have found it difficult to summon up much sympathy for libertarians, whether they be the lifestyle libertarians of the "left" or the economic libertarians of the "right." Both believe that the unfettered individual will inevitably bring in the eschaton, or something close to it. Here is a good example of the utopian thinking of the latter: Rockwell's Thirty-Day Plan. Government is the problem. The less there is, the better off we will all become. Ah, if only it were that easy. Those in the grip of an ideology are most likely to embrace the promise of quick solutions to complex problems.

  • So is the earth warming or not? I am one of those agnostics who find arguments on both sides persuasive, depending on whom I am reading at the moment. That said, what is now being called Climategate will not make life any easier for those who believe the evidence is strong for anthropogenic global warming. Then again, reading this gives me pause: I wish that the climate change deniers were right.

  • Readers would do well to look at this article by our own Rob Joustra, researcher for Cardus and a part-time Redeemer colleague: Fair Trade and Dead Aid: "My Voice Can't Compete with an Electric Guitar." The Acton Institute's Jordan Ballor likes what Joustra has to say: Critiquing Fair Trade and Dead Aid, yet he questions what he might mean by an architectonic critique of global capitalism. Joustra responds here: Fair Trade and Dead Aid, Responses. Whatever one think of the notion of fair trade, I make no apologies for having recently purchased at 10,000 Villages a bottle of extra virgin olive oil from Palestine, which I hope to taste soon.

    Later: I have now imbibed some of the Palestinian olive oil on bread. It has a fruity flavour very much reminiscent of the Italian variety. I still prefer the Greek.
  • 02 December 2009

    Faith, hope and love: virtues or functions?

    This term I have been teaching Ancient & Mediaeval Political Theory, a course that is crosslisted between the philosophy and political science departments at Redeemer. Yesterday we heard two fine student presentations on Thomas Aquinas’ writings on the virtues (Summa Theologica Ia-IIae, qq. 55-64). Here we encountered his explanation of the four cardinal natural virtues, viz., prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, which he borrowed from Augustine, the stoics and, ultimately, Plato, even as his account of these virtues is basically Aristotelian.

    Then we were introduced to the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity or love. The difference between the natural and theological virtues is that, while the former are acquired through habitually choosing the right mean between vicious extremes, the latter are directly infused in us by God without our effort and are not defined by a mean. It is impossible, e.g., to love God to excess. Thomas, of course, took these virtues from the famous 13th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

    Evangelical and Reformed Christians often express discomfort with Thomas’ distinction between natural and supernatural virtues, as they do with the parallel synergism of Roman soteriology which suggests that we can contribute so much to our own salvation but must then wait for God to complete it through his grace. This distinction appears to downplay the role of God’s grace in enabling even our own response to his call.

    But there is something else that appears to indicate that Thomas’ identification of faith, hope and love as virtues is not entirely without difficulties. It further suggests that perhaps his debt to Augustine is not as great as it might have been. Augustine famously defined virtue as rightly ordered love. The two cities are distinguished from each other precisely by their different loves. The city of God loves God above all that he has created, while the city of this world loves the creature rather than the creator. Both love, but in the latter case love is ill-directed and out of order.

    If so, then perhaps faith, hope and love are not virtues at all, but created human functions that are themselves subject to virtuous or vicious use. Just as we can love inordinately, so also can we put our faith in the wrong things. Everyone, even the professed atheist, puts her faith in something, whether it be reason, material or biological forces, economic growth, a messianic proletariat or the continual satisfaction of subjective desires. Similarly we have a tendency to misplace our hope in things that will ultimately disappoint, as we are so often encouraged to do in election campaigns and even ordinary advertising.

    As I am painfully aware that there are scholars better versed in Thomas’ works than I am, I would be interested to know from them how Thomas might address this apparent difficulty in his account of the virtues. I do not, of course, exclude the possibility that it is I who am missing something here.


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