27 December 2011

ByzantineCalvinst youtube channel

A few weeks ago I set up a ByzantineCalvinist youtube channel. Among the items posted are my own guitar arrangements of Away in a Manger and Genevan Psalm 13. I hope at some point to access a venue with better acoustics for recording purposes. But for now this will have to do.

24 December 2011

In þe bigynnyng was þe word

In þe bigynnyng was þe word, and þe word was at God, and God was þe word.
Þis was in þe bigynnyng at God.
Alle þingis weren maad bi hym, and wiþouten hym was maad no þing, þat þing þat was maad.
In hym was lijf, and þe lijf was þe liyt of men; and þe liyt schyneþ in derknessis,
and derknessis comprehendiden not it.

John 1:1-5 (Wycliffe translation)

21 December 2011

A favourite Ravel piece

One of my all-time favourite musical pieces is Maurice Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, a highly imaginative work that nevertheless follows traditional classical forms. In its original piano version, written between 1914 and 1917, Ravel composed six movements: the Prélude, Fugue, Forlane, Rigaudon, Menuet and Toccata. Each was dedicated to the memory of a friend who had died during the Great War. Despite these personal losses, and despite the title's allusion to the tomb of baroque composer François Couperin, it is not at all a morose piece — except possibly for the Forlane — as can be heard from the Prélude below:

In the months after the end of the war, Ravel scored four of the movements for orchestra: the Prélude, Forlane, Menuet and Rigaudon, changing their order so as to conclude with a moderately fast movement. Although Ravel was a master orchestrator (his version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is more frequently performed than the Russian composer's original piano version), he chose not to score the Fugue and Toccata, possibly because the latter would have required a larger number of instruments than he had envisioned for the piece. The orchestral version thus has a somewhat different feel from the piano version. The complete orchestrated version can be heard below:

Many have wondered what the piece would have sounded like if Ravel had scored all six movements. Jack Jarrett has tried his hand at orchestrating the two missing movements below:

The results are intriguing, although I believe that Hungarian conductor Zoltán Kocsis has better captured the spirit of the piece and approximated Ravel's own orchestral timbre in the following performance of the spectacular Toccata:

Whether the following is Kocsis' arrangement of the Fugue I cannot say, but the Chicago Reed Quartet's performance seems very much along the lines of what Ravel would have done, that is, using a small wind group and giving the oboe a prominent place.

What I would love to hear is a performance of the full six movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin, in their original order and with Ravel's and Kocsis' orchestrations. That would be one thrilling concert.

07 December 2011

Question authority. . . unless it's mine

In putting the finishing touches on my manuscript on authority, office and the image of God, I came across this wonderful passage in Thomas Molnar, Authority and Its Enemies (p. 112):
There have always been people like Dr. Ronald Fletcher, who writes: "Never accept authority; whether that of a jealous god, priest, prime minister, president, dictator, unless in your own seriously considered view, there are good grounds for it. . . . Rationalists in the modern world reject the authoritarian heritage of Moses and substitute a set of non-commandments, i.e., principles on which the individual must work out his own conduct when faced by particular problems." One wonders what authority issues (or doesn't issue?) the non-commandments which tell individuals how they must work out their problems, and one is reassured again that the enemies of authority do not allow authority to fade away. If not Moses, then Dr. Ronald Fletcher is in authority.

06 December 2011

Religion and soft drink labels

Many of us are persuaded that religion is not merely one element among many in life but is central to one's entire being. Social and political scientists have explored the implications of this for partisan loyalties, among other things. But could one's ecclesial commitments influence the more mundane side of life? For example, take a look at this map:

Generic Names for Soft Drinks

. . . and then look at this map:

Leading Church Bodies, 2000

I won't pretend to isolate the causal connection, but it certainly appears that what Southern Baptists call coke, Lutherans and Methodists call pop and Catholics call soda. I offer this puzzling phenomenon to the graduate student in the social sciences casting about for a dissertation topic.

02 December 2011

US party reform needed

David Frum, former speech writer for George W. Bush, wonders aloud: When Did the GOP Lose Touch With Reality? The German weekly Der Spiegel carries this article in its English-language edition: A Club of Liars, Demagogues and Ignoramuses. Even if this is rhetorical overkill, the Republican Party's range of would-be presidential nominees is rather less than impressive. Those who were sceptical of Obama's deliberate cultivation of messianic expectations in 2008 hoped he would face a credible opponent in 2012. But thus far the GOP has yet to deliver and shows no signs of doing so any time soon.

It is long past time to repeal the internal party reforms of the early 1970s. It used to be said that any boy could become president. Even if we update the gender reference, we should not be happy with such a possibility. Do we really want just anyone to be the CEO of earth's remaining superpower? I sure don't. When I was a child, delegates to a party's convention actually chose its candidate for president. Party leaders in state, federal and local politics did their best to put forward a candidate they believed was qualified for the position and had a good chance to beat his opponent. Yes, there were smoke-filled rooms. Yes, there was wheeling and dealing. Yes, the occasional Warren G. Harding would somehow make it past the filtering process. Nevertheless, obvious incompetents were generally weeded out before they got too far.

That all changed four decades ago when Democrats and Republicans sought to more thoroughly democratize their candidate-selection process through a series of binding primary elections and state caucuses. Now by convention time everyone knows who the party's candidate will be. No genuine choices have to be made. If the voters have chosen a weak candidate, the party convention is nevertheless obligated to give him or her its backing. Not to do so would be perceived as undemocratic.

Philosopher Yves R. Simon observed that a democratic constitution needs nondemocratic elements if it is to survive and flourish. There is truth in the ancient Greek and Roman preference for the classical mixed constitution, combining the best elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into a stable and enduring form of government. That the current crop of Republican candidates is being taken seriously as presidential contenders is a sign that things have got out of hand. It may be time to make the candidate-selection process within the parties a little less democratic for the sake of preserving the competitive character of electoral politics in the United States. It may be too late for 2012, but let's shoot for 2016.

In crisis: Canada's first peoples

Canada's native reserves are in crisis and have been for a very long time. Stephen Harper's government is under fire for its handling of an emergency housing crisis on the Attawapiskat reserve. Ottawa has ploughed $90 million dollars into the reserve with little positive to show for it. Whose fault is it? Brian Dijkema suggests that responsbility lies with "a complex cauldron of abuse, mismanagement, moral waffling, lies, and other foul ingredients put into the pot by a variety of cooks, including the federal government."

Gary Moore, an immigrant from South Africa to Canada, finds that this country's reserve system bears more than a passing resemblance to his homeland's odious racial policies of the past: Apartheid laws rule Canada’s First Nations reserves.
Change was once in the air in Canada. In 1969 the then Indian-affairs minister Jean Chrétien issued a policy white paper which proposed repeal of the Indian Act, the winding-up of the Indian-affairs department and transfer of its functions to other government departments, equal treatment for aboriginals, interim funds for native economic development, rejection of land claims, and new measures to allow indigenous people to control and own the land. Chiefs and others objected. Mr. Chrétien’s proposals were dropped.

Mr. Chrétien’s 1969 white paper still rings true. It says that to be an indigenous person is to be someone apart in law and provision of government services and to lack power, and that special treatment has made aboriginals disadvantaged.

I am far from an expert in aboriginal affairs, but I do wonder whether our reserve system has not worsened life for our first peoples. Would they be better off under a different régime — one in which they enjoyed equality under the law with their nonaboriginal fellow citizens, and no longer suffered under special treatment? Such a change should obviously not be imposed on our first peoples without their consent, yet something just as obviously needs to be done to facilitate their taking responsibility for their own communities' welfare and to free them from their crippling dependency on Ottawa.

30 November 2011

What the cultural mandate is not

Reformed Christians often refer to Genesis 1:28 as the Cultural Mandate:
And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

There is nothing especially earth-shaking in this; it is simply affirming that, as God's image-bearers, we shape the world around us and adapt it to a diversity of uses. In recent years a number of books have been published by Christians on precisely this topic. One of the best is Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling.

However, there is a persistent tendency amongst some to misidentify the Cultural Mandate as a command to redeem the larger culture from the distorting effects of sin. Chuck Colson's recent Breakpoint commentary is typical in this respect: Dual Commissions. Colson properly understands that the Cultural Mandate — or Commission — and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are not antithetical but, properly conceived, are complementary. Nevertheless, his understanding of the former is not entirely spot-on:
If Christians do not seize the moment and act on the cultural commission, there soon won’t be any culture left to save. But when we do our duty, we can change the world. Look at Christians like William Wilberforce, who spent most of his life fighting — and winning — the war against slavery in Britain, and bringing about a great cultural renewal in that country.

I will not deny that there are battles to be fought over significant issues, but that's not really what the Cultural Mandate is about. As Crouch puts it, "Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it's given to us and make something else" (p. 23). We have a God-given propensity "to make something more than we were given." This is fairly basic stuff. We fashion "paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels." Those who believe the cultural mandate was superseded by the Great Commission have only to look around: we human beings make culture willy nilly, and we always will, because God created us to do so. You don't have to be a culture warrior to recognize this reality of life.

Of course, one cannot escape the fact that our culture-making activities are affected by our sinful natures. This is the implication of Genesis 4:19-22. To be sure, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with fashioning culture. Yet neither can we escape the taint of sin in all our undertakings. Moreover, a distinction must be made between obedient culture-making and disobedient culture-making, which corresponds to St. Augustine's distinction between the City of God and the City of this World. Rightly-oriented culture-making obeys the norms God has given us for life in his world: social, economic, aesthetic, ethical, political and other norms.

A good portion of what Colson calls the "Cultural Commission" must rather be understood to be the last part of the "Great Commission": "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." Evangelization requires that we proclaim, not only God's saving grace, but the norms by which he intends those who are in Christ to live. In no way do mere human beings redeem culture by engaging in creative activity. This is presumptuous. Only God in Christ redeems his fallen creation. We are at most agents of his kingdom, manifesting his saving grace in everything we do — including the shaping of culture.

28 November 2011

'And with your spirit'

Yesterday, the first sunday in Advent, our English-speaking Roman Catholic brethren began using a newly revised liturgy that is closer to the Latin texts than the previous 1973 version in use for nearly four decades. Liturgy Training Publications has posted a comparison of the two texts for those wishing to see the differences side by side. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable change comes with the greeting at the beginning of the eucharistic prayer, which runs as follows in the old version:
"The Lord be with you"
"And also with you."

This now reads:
"The Lord be with you."
"And with your spirit."

This brings the English liturgy into closer conformity, not only with the Latin of the Novus Ordo mass, but with its translation into other languages as well, for example, French and Spanish. This month's issue of First Things carries Anthony Esolen's fascinating discussion of the new English texts: Restoring the Words.

Many other church bodies followed the Roman example during the 1970s, adopting the texts of the ordinary of the mass for their own use in, for example, the Episcopal Church's 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Church of Canada's Book of Alternative Services and the Lutheran Book of Worship. Our own congregation yesterday celebrated the Lord's Supper with the now familiar greeting: "The Lord be with you." To which we responded: "And also with you." This new disparity in our liturgies prompts me to wonder whether other denominations will eventually follow the Roman lead once again and bring their own liturgies into closer conformity with the new, more accurate, texts.

At this point I am reluctant to speculate on this question. Official ecumenism has fallen on hard times in recent decades, as various denominations have gone their own way on a variety of divisive issues, seemingly unconcerned with the impact on their sister churches, and sometimes even on their own communions. A more practical consideration is that composers have used the 1973 texts for their own mass settings, which are in use in countless congregations throughout the English-speaking world. Without a Vatican-style authority to impose a different translation on them, force of habit will likely incline them to stick with what they have. In the meantime, as of yesterday we are all just a little further apart, liturgically speaking.

22 November 2011

Whither the GOP?

David Frum is a conservative commentator south of the border who appears to have been anathematized by other American conservatives enthralled with the Tea Party. He poses a question: When Did the GOP [i.e., Republican Party] Lose Touch With Reality?
I’ve been a Republican all my adult life. I have worked on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, at Forbes magazine, at the Manhattan and American Enterprise Institutes, as a speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration. I believe in free markets, low taxes, reasonable regulation, and limited government. I voted for John ­McCain in 2008, and I have strongly criticized the major policy decisions of the Obama administration. But as I contemplate my party and my movement in 2011, I see things I simply cannot support.

America desperately needs a responsible and compassionate alternative to the Obama administration’s path of bigger government at higher cost. And yet: This past summer, the GOP nearly forced America to the verge of default just to score a point in a budget debate. In the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, Republican politicians demand massive budget cuts and shrug off the concerns of the unemployed. In the face of evidence of dwindling upward mobility and long-stagnating middle-class wages, my party’s economic ideas sometimes seem to have shrunk to just one: more tax cuts for the very highest earners. When I entered Republican politics, during an earlier period of malaise, in the late seventies and early eighties, the movement got most of the big questions—crime, inflation, the Cold War—right. This time, the party is getting the big questions disastrously wrong.

Will the Republican Party listen to Frum, or will it sideline itself in next year's election and hand another presidential victory to the opposition? Stay tuned.

17 November 2011

Choice in education?

An educational policy for the 21st century? Might be worth a try here as well.

16 November 2011

PR and the courts

The leader of Canada's Green Party is seeking a laudable goal with dubious means: Elizabeth May backs Supreme Court challenge against first-past-the-post elections. From the National Post:
May noted that more than 80% of people vote in Scandinavian countries and some other European nations, but she said the lowest voter turnouts in the world occur in countries with first-past-the-post systems, such as Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, where governments can be elected with majorities despite having received less than 50% of the ballots cast in elections.

The Association for the Advancement of Democratic Rights has failed in a previous legal challenge of Quebec’s first-past-the-post system. Now it’s hoping an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada will be heard and could eventually overturn the previous court ruling, changing elections across the country.

I would be somewhat surprised if the Supreme Court decided to hear this case. Yes, I agree with May: our single-member-plurality electoral system wastes votes, unfairly handicaps smaller principled parties, produces artificial majorities, and depresses voter turnout. But I am most reluctant to see the courts take the matter out of the hands of Parliament, even if the latter is, in effect, stacked against what many of us are convinced is a long overdue reform. If a court imposes electoral reform, even in the interest of enhancing democracy, it will be difficult for Canadians to take ownership of it. Questions concerning its legitimacy will continue to haunt our political life thereafter. Let's not go that route, please.

15 November 2011

Parental authority and children's rights

In 1989 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which was subsequently signed by representatives of 140 countries and ratified or accepted by 193, with the notable exceptions of Somalia and the United States. This was not the first time that obligations towards children had been expressed in terms of rights; an earlier Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child had been adopted by the League of Nations in 1924, although in its five brief points it never once used the word “rights,” speaking instead the language of duty: the child “must be fed,” “must be sheltered and succored,” “must be protected against every form of exploitation,” &c. The 1959 UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is similarly spare in using the language of rights, mentioning them twice under Principle 1 and not at all in Principles 2 through 10. By contrast, the CRC consists of 54 articles in which “rights” are referred to 26 times and the obligations of “States Parties” mentioned 110 times.

These differences between the CRC and the two earlier documents are significant in that they represent an historic shift which Michael Ignatieff has described as the Rights Revolution, Francis Fukuyama as the Great Disruption, and what I have elsewhere referred to as the dawn of the choice-enhancement state.

It is worth noting that, especially in the US, the CRC is controversial because it would seem to bring the state too deeply into the legitimate sphere of family intimacy. Such reservations have thus far successfully prevented the US from ratifying the Convention. Even among the signatories, several states, including the Vatican, have explicitly qualified their acceptance for various reasons. Indeed it is not altogether clear that recasting parental or societal obligations towards children as rights represents genuine progress in ensuring the latter's well-being, especially if we do not curtail the tendency to view all rights as policed by the courts.

In one sense, of course, no one can doubt that children have the right to be loved and cared for by their parents. Yet the primary agents for fulfilling this responsibility are the parents themselves, and not the “states parties” which have signed the document, though the latter certainly have an obligation towards both parents and their children under their general mandate to do public justice. It is worth noting that the word authority appears only three times in the text of the 1989 Convention and each time refers to legal or judicial authority. When used in the plural form, authorities always denotes political authorities. Noticeably absent from all three documents is a recognition of the primacy of parental authority in nurturing the child towards maturity.

I have just completed the first draft of a manuscript on the subject of authority, office and the image of God. In the course of researching and writing this, I have become convinced that we need to reconfigure the ongoing conversation surrounding authority so as to recognize that it resides in an office – or, better, offices – given us by the God who has created us in his image. Accordingly we would be better served, in speaking of parental obligations towards their children, to focus on the authoritative offices borne by each, namely, father, mother, son and daughter.

What will a shift to the language of authority gain for us? I believe it will enable us better to account for the full complexity of the relationship between parents and minor children – necessarily an ever-changing relationship as the children grow to maturity. It will also help us to distinguish between the legitimate authoritative offices of parents and government, recognizing that, while both presumably intend the child's best interest, the secondary authority of government is necessarily limited by the primary authority of parents. It is thus not a matter of opposing freedom, say, of parents to the authority of the state but of recognizing that different agents possess authoritative offices whose demands are different yet, properly understood, mutually supportive and equally worthy of respect.

10 November 2011


Canada now has a counterpart to First Things, the 21-year-old journal founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. It's called Convivium, is edited by Peter Stockland and Fr. Raymond J. de Souza, and is published by the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal. The name comes from the homily Fr. de Souza preached at Fr. Neuhaus's funeral.

In each issue Fr. de Souza offers Small Talk, "an eclectic and ecumenical roundup of incidents, events and oddities that catch our editor's eye." Here's a sample:
What's the difference between Orthodox and Roman Catholics anyway? Not much, apparently. "The differences are slight," we are told by the Toronto Star. "They use the same liturgies, though Orthodox Christians don't consider the Pope a divine figure." So writes Murray Whyte. No one expects Whyte to know anything more about religion than anyone else at the Star, so it is sad but not surprising that he doesn't know that Catholics don't consider the Pope divine. But does he really consider a dispute about whether a man is or is not divine to be "slight"? Imagine if the Star had been covering the court of Constantine back in the fourth century. Breaking news from Nicaea: Arius and Athanasius quibble over slight differences.

The October 2011 preview issue is now out and subscriptions can be had here. Please subscribe today.

31 October 2011

End of month notes

  • It's almost certainly past time for this: Commonwealth agrees first-born girls can be queen. Two observations: First, eliminating gender discrimination is the easy part; ending birth-order discrimination would be more complicated. Then again we are talking about hereditary monarchy, no? Second, the United Kingdom can change the succession to the Crown more easily than Canada. In the UK an act of parliament is sufficient; here we would need a constitutional amendment requiring unanimous provincial approval. It seems unlikely that a single province would stand in the way, but stranger things have happened in our history.

  • We Canadians are not as wedded to our national symbols as are Americans to theirs, so changing them is not unthinkable: Should a polar bear replace the beaver as Canada’s national emblem?

  • Some months ago a friend, knowing my American birth, made me feel sheepish for not knowing that the oak tree is the United States' national tree. However, I subsequently discovered that the choice of a national tree was made only in 2004, long after I left the country. It seems my memory isn't as bad as I had feared. Um, now what were we talking about again?

  • The global protests are becoming more specific:

  • How many deadlines have passed for the indefatigable Harold Camping's doomsday predictions? Apparently a week ago last friday was the last straw, even for Camping: Family Radio Founder Harold Camping Repents, Apologizes for False Teachings. Last I heard, Family Radio was still airing on shortwave, but for how long?

  • Andrew Coyne is dead-on here: If our leaders were corrupt, would we know it?
    In other countries executive power is subject to various checks and balances. Who or what prevents a prime minister of Canada from doing as he pleases? The governor general? But he is his appointee. The Senate? He appoints all the senators. The courts? He appoints every member of the Supreme Court, and all the federal court judges, too. The bureaucracy? He appoints the clerk of the privy council, every deputy minister, the heads of all the major Crown corporations, even the ambassadors. The police? He appoints the chief of the RCMP. And so on, hundreds and hundreds of posts, great and small, and nearly all without any independent oversight.

    Reform is long overdue. I think modifying our first-past-the-post electoral system towards some form of proportional representation would be a step in the right direction, but it's not the only one.

  • This is from my Genevan Psalter blog, but it is worth posting here as well. The Psalm Project will be performing at Redeemer University College during its North American tour in January.

    I hope their efforts will lead to a recovery of psalm-singing in North American churches, but one thing puzzles me: why would anyone tour North America in January?
  • 23 October 2011

    Soprano recital

    I may be prejudiced, but I think this is worth sharing with the world:

    19 October 2011

    October snippets

  • Jason Hood has posted something on The Death of Christianity in the Middle East, for which the United States and its allies may bear some culpability. The statistics are sobering:
    Here’s the big picture, from the Jersualem Post: “…at the time of Lebanese independence from France in 1946 the majority of Lebanese were Christians. Today less than 30% of Lebanese are Christians. In Turkey, the Christian population has dwindled from 2 million at the end of World War I to less than 100,000 today. In Syria, at the time of independence Christians made up nearly half of the population. Today 4% of Syrians are Christian. In Jordan half a century ago 18% of the population was Christian. Today 2% of Jordanians are Christian.”

    Please continue to pray for our brothers and sisters in that troubled part of the world.

  • Many of us baby boomers grew to maturity in the suburbs that sprang up around the major North American metropolitan areas in the wake of the Second World War. Is it possible, however, that the settlement patterns characteristic of these communities are unsustainable over the long term? Robert Johnson and Kevin Lincoln have given us A Complete Guide To The Ponzi Scheme That Is Suburban America. An excerpt: "The suburbs do not create wealth, they destroy it. The American style of building our places is simply not productive enough to continue." It's something to think about.

  • The protesters on Wall Street and elsewhere have also given us something to think about. In the meantime Henry Blodget gives us Four Charts That Explain What The Protesters Are Angry About...
    1. Unemployment is at the highest level since the Great Depression (with the exception of a brief blip in the early 1980s).

    2. At the same time, corporate profits are at an all-time high, both in absolute dollars and as a share of the economy.

    3. Wages as a percent of the economy are at an all-time low. In other words, corporate profits are at an all-time high, in part, because corporations are paying less of their revenue to employees than they ever have. . . .

    4. Income and wealth inequality in the US economy is near an all-time high: The owners of the country's assets (capital) are winning, everyone else (labor) is losing.

    Whose fault is this? That's where the disagreements come in.

  • Jean Bethke Elshtain is one of my favourite living political philosophers. We were privileged to host her at Redeemer University College back in 1998. Now we read that she is heading to Baylor University as Visiting Distinguished Professor of Religion and Public Life. Should the biblical proscription of coveting keep us from envying Baylor?

  • Canada may finally be getting its own counterpart to First Things in the form of Convivium, the brainchild of Peter Stockland and Fr. Raymond de Souza. The new journal was launched last evening in Ottawa. The National Post carries an inaptly-titled report: New magazine reunites church and state. Thus far there appears to be no online presence, but that will likely come in time.

  • Two decades ago we learned that a Class A minor league baseball team would be coming to Geneva, Illinois, a picturesque community on the Fox River not far from where I grew up. I had my own ideas concerning a name for the team, which they saw fit to christen the Kane County Cougars instead of my own preference: the Geneva Psalms.

    Later: Convivium is indeed online. Check here.
  • 04 October 2011

    Liberalism . . . and liberalism

    Miroslav Volf, author of the new book, Public Faith, speaks about the need to save liberalism as a way of securing an open public square where all faiths can meet and work for the common good.

    I am increasingly persuaded that the contemporary debate over liberalism has been hampered by the failure of most of the participants to distinguish between two different, albeit related, meanings of the word.

    On the one hand, there are those who critique liberalism, noting that its individualism is incapable of doing justice to community or accounting for our responsibilities to each other in a variety of settings. On the other, those defending liberalism, even if their defence is as moderate as Volf's, tend to emphasize that it provides a framework within which diverse citizens can work out their differences for the sake of the common good. This is the approach taken by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and many of the writers in First Things.

    I would suggest that the two sides are talking past each other and are referring to different phenomena. The first group is critiquing what is essentially a spiritually-based ideology which tends to reduce all communities to mere voluntary associations, thereby levelling the distinctions among church, state, family, marriage, business enterprises, labour unions, &c. Under such an approach, it is virtually impossible to speak of intrinsic differences among these. That marriage has been increasingly reduced to a private contract between self-interested parties should not surprise us, given the predominance of liberal ideology in the English-speaking countries. This is the kind of liberalism I take on in chapter 2 of my Political Visions and Illusions, as well as here.

    When the second group hears that some people, including Christians, are criticizing liberalism, they hear a critique of political institutions that facilitate deliberation as a means of resolving potentially intractable differences. Such people as David VanDrunen and my friend and colleague Janet Ajzenstat fall into this category. They think that the first group is dismissing representative democracy, democratic elections, parliamentary debate and constitutional limits and is pining for a restored monarchy or a socialist commonwealth. There may be a few critics seeking these goals, but, as far as I can tell, the majority of such critics, myself included, value highly what some call liberal democracy but which I prefer to call constitutional democracy.

    To be sure, our contemporary democratic institutions do owe something to the ideology of liberalism, with its contractarian account of the origins of civil government, but the smooth functioning of a democratic constitution is not dependent on this account. In fact, as the late Sir Bernard Crick pointed out half a century ago, democracy itself, if liberated from constitutional constraints, can become antipolitical in the sense that it hinders the chief political task of peacefully conciliating diversity.

    My proposal is that, before the debate over liberalism continues, the two sides clarify what they mean by liberalism so as to avoid the misunderstandings that have beset the conversation up to now.

    13 September 2011

    A Conservative dynasty?

    This is my latest column in Christian Courier, published under the general title of "Principalities & Powers." Please take out a subscription today.

    Five years ago I was invited by columnist Lorne Gunter to speak at the annual meeting of the Civitas Society in Ottawa. This was after he read an article I had written for the Cardus publication, Comment. Although the organization touts itself as “a strictly non-partisan ‘society where ideas meet’,” it soon became clear to me that this gathering of journalists, academics, prominent politicians and political aides was only too pleased to celebrate the recent victory of Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government at the polls. Tasting the first fruits of political power, Stephen Harper himself made an unscheduled appearance with his entourage on that first evening of the event.

    The most revealing session of this meeting was an in-house talk by Frank Luntz, the American pollster and consultant – or spin-doctor, in current parlance – whose work for the Republican Party had contributed to two electoral victories for President George W. Bush. Somewhat to my surprise, Luntz told the gathering that, if Harper’s party were to listen to his advice, he could help them create a Conservative dynasty that would last for twenty years. At the time this seemed somewhat implausible. After all, the Liberals had ruled virtually unopposed for more than a decade and could still claim in some fashion to be Canada’s “natural governing party.” The newly elected Conservatives had only a minority in the House of Commons, and the Bloc québécois had a stranglehold on La Belle Province, apparently preventing any other party from achieving majority status.

    I was reminded of Luntz’s promise after the Canadian people gave the Conservatives their coveted majority in May, demoted the Liberals to third place, virtually eliminated the Bloc as a political force, and elevated the New Democrats to official opposition. Now the notion of a lengthy Conservative dynasty does not seem nearly as far-fetched as it did in 2006. The NDP has just lost Jack Layton and is being led for the time being by a neophyte. Michael Ignatieff has become only the second federal Liberal leader, after Stéphane Dion, not to become prime minister. Finding a suitable replacement will not be easy for the deeply-divided party.

    Even those otherwise sympathetic with the federal Conservatives’ policies should be uneasy with the current state of affairs. One senses that Harper and company have smelled blood and are going in for the kill. Yet a healthy democratic polity requires more than one robust political party. These parties must be fairly evenly matched to preserve the genuinely competitive character of elections. A ruling party must function under a realistic threat of being defeated in the next election; otherwise it will become complacent and take its popular mandate for granted. Where one party is repeatedly favoured to win, corruption and injustice are likely to creep into its activities.

    If Stephen Harper wishes to leave behind a positive legacy for Canada, he should do what he can to support the New Democrats’ choice of an able leader who will keep the Conservatives on their toes and hold them to account for their policies. A weakened opposition unable to perform this vital task will tempt the government to pursue policies of short-term benefit to itself but detrimental to the public interest just because they can get away with it.

    One of the things that brought down the Liberals in 2006 was public indignation over the Sponsorship Scandal, which saw their government disbursing funds by questionable means to advertising firms for unclear purposes. It did so during a period when its position in the House of Commons was virtually unassailable, facing as it did a divided opposition. During Luntz’s address to Civitas, he emphasized the “disgusting” waste of tax dollars by the Liberals – something intended to appeal to the participants’ sense of justice.

    However, partisanship itself can be taken to unjust lengths. Partisans are more easily outraged by their opponents’ missteps than by their own. Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that those fancying themselves the “children of light” underestimate the power of self-interest in themselves even as they see it in their enemies. Yet if we understand clearly the teachings of Scripture, we must admit that everyone, and not just our opponents, has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). This recognition will keep us from embracing a narrow partisanship that ignores the good in our adversaries and the evil in ourselves.

    Up with Authority

    My review of Fr. Victor Lee Austin’s most recent book appears in last week’s edition of Comment: Why We Need Authority. Given that I am in the latter stages of writing a book on the subject, I have found Austin’s defence of authority refreshing and eloquent. I strongly recommend it.

    08 September 2011

    Looking north

    Stratfor Global Intelligence has published a fascinating analysis of American global hegemony that argues, in effect, that geography is destiny: The Geopolitics of the United States. Here is a sample:
    The American geography is an impressive one. The Greater Mississippi Basin together with the Intracoastal Waterway has more kilometers of navigable internal waterways than the rest of the world combined. The American Midwest is both overlaid by this waterway, and is the world’s largest contiguous piece of farmland. The U.S. Atlantic Coast possesses more major ports than the rest of the Western Hemisphere combined. Two vast oceans insulated the United States from Asian and European powers, deserts separate the United States from Mexico to the south, while lakes and forests separate the population centers in Canada from those in the United States. The United States has capital, food surpluses and physical insulation in excess of every other country in the world by an exceedingly large margin. So like the Turks, the Americans are not important because of who they are, but because of where they live.

    On the other hand, all is not well economically in the "Land of the Free," and some Americans are queuing up at their northern border: Americans flee north to Canada for economic opportunity.
    Canadian officials say the number of Americans applying for temporary work visas doubled between 2008 and 2010. Immigration lawyers in Toronto and the border city of Windsor, right across from job-starved Detroit, say they’re seeing a dramatic growth in clients seeking to come to Canada to work, or even as permanent residents. . . . Canada was one of the few to escape the 2008 financial meltdown relatively unscathed, a turn of events largely attributed to Ottawa’s long-standing refusal to deregulate the banking sector.

    Canada is sometimes said to be cursed by its own geography, which tends to divide rather than unite Canadians. Yet we must be doing something right, even if we haven't the slightest chance of displacing America's global prominence.

    31 August 2011

    August snippets

  • The second half of the 20th century saw a dramatic proliferation of Bible translations, especially in English. It may not be much of an exaggeration to observe that one man fuelled this growth: Eugene Nida, Who Revolutionized Bible Translations, Dead at 96. The Good News Bible and its successors were obvious examples of his influence, but even the New International Version bore his imprint. I am of two minds concerning Nida's legacy. On the one hand, there is no doubt that easier-to-read Bible translations have brought to life God's word for the last two generations of Christians and seekers alike. At the same time, some translations have effectively obscured the peculiarities of the ancient cultures, discarding some metaphors (e.g., "to know" as a synonym for sexual relations) that perhaps ought to have been explained in footnotes rather than replaced by contemporary idioms in the text itself. I am somewhat sympathetic with the views expressed here by Raymond Van Leeuwen a decade ago: We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation.

  • Writing for The New York Times, Ross Douthat has poked holes in a recent New Yorker piece by Ryan Lizza connecting a well-known evangelist and "dominionism": The New Yorker and Francis Schaeffer. I am not one of those who was influenced by Schaeffer, but I personally know many people who were and who found direction for their lives through his ministry at the l'Abri communities. And not one of them, as far as I know, has tried to overthrow the US government.

  • This is from the National Geographic Society: 18th-Century Ship Found Under 9/11 Site. "Others have also suggested that the ship—which was likely deliberately sunk—may have done duty as a British troop carrier during the Revolutionary War." Contemporary New Yorkers may have forgotten that their city was a bastion of loyalty to the Crown during what is probably better called the war for American independence.

  • Over at my Genevan Psalter blog, I have now reached the halfway point in my thus far 25-year effort to set to verse the biblical Psalms, with fresh metrical versifications of Psalms 127 and 122. I also call attention to two compelling renditions of the Psalms by a group styling themselves Brother Down: Psalm 13 and Psalm 75. Yes, these are the Genevan tunes! Here is more from Douglas Wilson: Psalm Off Results. "Canon Press is now negotiating with the band Brother Down in Santa Cruz in hopes of releasing an album of Reformation-era psalms, all done in their distinctive style." It seems we have something to look forward to.

  • Who was H. Evan Runner? A Calvin College philosopher who had considerably more impact on the North American christian university scene than the relative paucity of his academic writings might otherwise indicate. Read about him here: The Importance of H. Evan Runner Although I did not know him well, Runner was nevertheless something of a spiritual and intellectual grandfather to me, as I was taught by a number of his students at a crucial stage in my own pilgrimage.
  • 24 August 2011

    Holy smokes!

    Tobacco use has never been a temptation for me and I certainly would not advise anyone else to take up the habit. However, it seems there is a relationship between widespread availability of Bibles and cigarette use unknown to most of us. J. Mark Bertrand reports on the connection: Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em?

    09 August 2011

    Mark O. Hatfield (1922-2011)

    As a young Christian trying to sort out the relationship between my faith in Jesus Christ and the political landscape, Senator Mark O. Hatfield was one of my heroes. I was privileged to hear him speak at a church in Minneapolis back in 1975, and I was favourably impressed. Here are two retrospectives on Hatfield's life and witness within the political realm, coming from opposite sides of the political aisle: Cal Thomas: A Conservative Remembers Mark Hatfield; and Wesley Granberg-Michaelson: A Tribute to Mark O. Hatfield. This is from my own Political Visions and Illusions (pp. 148-149):
    U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon enjoyed a long political career extending over nearly half a century, although many of the positions he took on specific issues were quite controversial, especially his early opposition to American involvement in Vietnam. Hatfield explicitly claimed to vote in accordance with his convictions whether or not his constituents always agreed. Nevertheless, Oregon voters continually re-elected him, twice as state Governor and five times as Senator, not because he followed their wishes, but because he acted on principle and in so doing earned their continued respect. Refusing to bow the knee to the god of popular sovereignty is not necessarily a recipe for political failure. On the contrary, many citizens prefer to vote for someone willing to stand on principle.

    May Senator Hatfield rest in peace until the resurrection and may the LORD see fit to raise up principled statesmen and stateswomen in his place.

    05 August 2011

    Church decline across the pond

    Many North American Christians have been influenced by the remarkable political and social witness of the great Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands. I am pleased to count myself among them. Thus it saddens me to read the following BBC report: Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world.
    An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland. It is part of the mainstream Dutch Protestant Church, and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord's Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse's sermon seems bleak - "Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get". "Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death," Mr Hendrikse says. "No, for me our life, our task, is before death."

    Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing. "When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that's where it can happen. God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."

    Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible's account of Jesus's life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

    Much as a vibrant Puritanism had turned to unitarianism within a century of the settlement of New England, so has Kuyper's Gereformeerd community been largely assimilated into the Dutch mainline Protestantse Kerk, which, though pockets of vitality definitely exist within it, is far from being a confessional church.

    However, the story is not over, and signs were already present four years ago that secularism in the Netherlands may be running its course. This Weekly Standard article is cause for hope: Holland's Post-Secular Future. Whenever we are tempted to despair over the apparent progress of secularism, we need only recall that ultimately it cannot satisfy. As St. Augustine put it so well, our hearts are restless until they find rest in the One who alone can provide it.

    28 July 2011

    Pennings on Breivik

    My friend Ray Pennings has written an insightful op-ed piece in The Globe and Mail that is worth reading: Don’t blame religion for Anders Breivik. An excerpt:
    The crimes of which Anders Breivik stands accused don’t show how religion can inspire evil. Quite the contrary: They are proof positive that a Christ-less Christianity is a cultural construct that can’t bring the depth of relationship required to prevent the horrors that evil inspires. It doesn’t show how faith makes us evil – it shows only why we so badly need to be inspired by the social virtues propagated by its institutions.

    John R W Stott (1921-2011)

    Never mind the radio and television preachers we hear so much about. The two most influential figures on English-speaking evangelicalism in the 20th and 21st centuries were, not Baptist or Pentecostal, but members in good standing of the Church of England: C. S. Lewis and John R. W. Stott, the latter of whom we were privileged to host at Redeemer University College several years ago. He will be greatly missed.

    25 July 2011

    July snippets

  • When I was growing up in Wheaton, Illinois, it was definitely a dry town. Not any more. Here is incontrovertible evidence of how much things have changed in what has become just one more Chicago suburb: More than 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall at Wheaton Ale Fest.

  • The son of the last Habsburg emperor, Archduke Otto von Habsburg, has died at age 98. Although Habsburg represented a family with centuries-old imperial ambitions for a united Europe, he spent his later years working for federal unity within the context of the European Union, especially as a member of the European Parliament. Photos of the funeral in Vienna can be see here. A survey of Habsburg's life can be read here.

  • Three years after its publication, I have finally obtained a copy of The Orthodox Study Bible, the first complete Bible in English for Orthodox Christians. At some point I will post a fuller review of the volume. For now I will make some initial observations. The Old Testament is a fresh translation from the Greek Septuagint, while the New Testament, somewhat oddly, is the New King James Version, originally published in 1982. The "canonical order" of the Old Testament books differs from that familiar to most English-speaking Christians, having been "taken from The Old Testament According to the Seventy, published with the approval of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece" (p. xi). At the beginning is an essay titled, "Introducing the Orthodox Church" (xxi-xxviii), whose appearance is somewhat surprising given that its target audience should already be acquainted with their own ecclesial communion. "Introducing the Bible" would seem more appropriate at that point. More to come.

  • Our prayers ascend to God for the people of Norway who have suffered an unspeakable tragedy in the deaths of so many at the weekend. In the coming days and weeks much will be written about mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik, whom much of the media were quick to label a fundamentalist Christian. As it turns out, one would have to stretch the definition rather a lot to make it fit: A Word About Anders Behring Breivik’s Christianity. One wonders why the press didn't jump instead on his anachronistic claim to be a Knight Templar, which, along with his nonreligious Christianity, is one element of a very weird mix.

  • I had certainly intended to comment before now on Canada's watershed federal election, which took place at the beginning of May. The 2011 election will go down in history along with such crucial elections as those of 1896, 1911 and 1993, each of which saw significant realignments in voter support for the parties. The 1993 election all but finished off the old Progressive Conservative Party, while the May election placed the Liberals — Canada's "natural governing party" — in third place for the first time ever — behind the socialist New Democrats, who now form the official opposition. Admittedly, I hadn't seen it coming. I had predicted a third Conservative minority government, assuming that the separatist Bloc québécois would continue to hold the balance of power in Parliament. Their unexpected collapse enabled the Conservatives to win a majority government for the first time in nearly two decades. I've been wrong before, and I'll probably be wrong again.

  • Long-time readers of this blog are aware that I dislike majority governments, especially when they do not have the support of a majority of voters. The Conservative Party of Canada has 166 out of 308 seats in the House of Commons, but received only 39.62 percent of the popular vote. Electoral reform would put an end to this anomalous situation, with the Commons better representing the views of Canadian voters. It would by no means solve all our problems, but it would force our political leaders to negotiate with each other and — perish the thought! — to compromise, rather than relying on an artificial majority to push what is in effect a minority agenda into law.
  • 22 July 2011

    Murdoch's good news of the world

    A newsworthy item from the CNN Belief Blog:
    It just so happens that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which is weathering a storm of criticism around newspaper ethics, also owns the rights to the world's best-selling English Bible, the New International Version.

    Could this lead to an explosion in sales of the NRSV or ESV?

    19 July 2011

    A family bible

    My great-grandmother, Lucy Jane Bentley Hyder, died several years before I was born, so I have no personal memories of her. However, I do have her family Bible, a hefty King James version printed in 1892 that has been passed down the generations and came into my possession not quite twenty years ago. I cannot say whether her family read from it regularly, but, like so many other bible owners, she recorded births and deaths in its pages – something giving it inestimable value to her descendants.

    Lucy Jane and her husband Nelson were both born in 1875 and married in 1896. The first event she recorded was the birth of their eldest child, Mary E. Hyder, later that year. The most poignant record in her handwriting was the birth of twins Emmet and Emma in 1901, followed a day later by a record of their deaths. One suspects they were born — perhaps premature — at home before the days of hospital neonatal intensive care units. Apparently there was a page listing marriages as well, but at some point one of their sons seems to have torn it out to expunge evidence of an earlier matrimonial moment he preferred to forget.

    Lucy Jane was a Virginian by birth, growing up and living in East Stone Gap, Virginia, until around 1914, when she and Nelson moved to a farm outside Adrian, Michigan. They were members of the local Friends Church, not because they were Quakers, but because it was nearest their home. A cousin assures me that Lucy Jane believed the world was flat until her dying day. My mother tells me she spoke with a distinctive southern accent, pronouncing the neuter third-person pronoun as hit, a holdover from Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer’s Middle English, with an obvious family resemblance to the Dutch het.

    Though she had little formal education, Lucy Jane had the presence of mind to record two reminiscences of her own ancestry extending back to the end of the eighteenth century. One of these was dictated to my mother’s elder sister and is still found between the pages of the Bible in the book of Daniel. Armed with this information, I was easily able to find myriad connections with the so-called World Family Tree, containing the various European noble and royal figures from which virtually everyone we might chance to meet on the street is descended in some fashion. The results of my research I posted here nearly a decade ago: The Ancestry of Nelson Hyder and Lucy Jane Bentley Hyder, along with entries from the Bible itself.

    There are no underscorings in the text of this Bible. Whether it was read in the course of daily family prayers I cannot say. I wish I had thought to ask her daughter, my grandmother, while she was still alive. Yet it was obviously an important part of the family’s life together, collecting over the years newspaper clippings, personal letters and pressed leaves. The binding is intact, although the front cover is loose and some of the cloth has clearly worn away near the spine. I hope that my own daughter will treasure this volume, as have more than a century of her ancestors.

    Incidentally, during a recent visit with relatives, I rediscovered a family bible dating to 1841 belonging to the first settlers in a region of Michigan where my cousins were born and raised. I can no longer recall how it came into my possession some thirty years ago. But when I found it again and recognized what it was, I typed the original owners' names into the ubiquitous Google and quickly discovered that a descendant had posted their information on a popular genealogical website. I was able to contact her and return the volume to a family member who would value it more than I. This would not have been possible two or three decades ago.

    My curiosity is piqued. In an age of mass printing and the easy availability of books, does anyone keep a family bible anymore? The people I know have scores of individually-owned bibles in their homes, but does any have the clear status of family bible? Responses are welcome.

    18 July 2011

    Farewell to a prophet: Gerald Vandezande

    Adrian Helleman has posted a eulogy for Gerald Vandezande, who died this past saturday. I myself had known Vandezande for more than 30 years, mostly through associations with Citizens for Public Justice, on one of whose boards I served in the mid-1990s. He will definitely be missed. Here is Helleman:
    He was born in the Netherlands and emigrated to Canada in 1951 at the age of 17. Although he had only a high school education, by dint of hard work he learned cost accounting at night school. His employer sent him to Sarnia, where he met his future wife and coworker, Wynne. He originally had a dream to become a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, but God had other plans for him: proclaiming the gospel through Christian action.

    He did this first in the Christian Labour Association of Canada, where he became executive secretary. He was instrumental in winning certification for the CLAC. After that he worked for social justice through the Committee for Justice and Liberty, which became the CJL Foundation and later formed the nucleus for Citizens for Public Justice.

    This brief sketch cannot begin to do justice to Jerry's many ventures. Later in life his efforts for social justice expanded to include the environment, abortion, pluralism, independent schools, and child poverty. No doubt, I have forgotten many other things that he did.

    Jerry had a way of speaking to everyone in Canadian society, from factory workers to politicians. And he was fearless in addressing the issues of the day. Above all, he had a knack for uniting people from many faiths and working with them for a common cause.

    He was an inspiration and mentor to many younger people in Canada, who learned from him how a Christian should be engaged in politics. Jerry's thought had been shaped by the Dutch Christian religious leader and politician, Abraham Kuyper, who asserted that all of creation belongs to Christ. That means politics as well.

    On abortion, for example, Jerry supported proposed federal legislation that many anti-abortion Christians opposed and was thus defeated. This loss was a great disappointment to him.

    For Jerry, justice meant more than "Just Us," which was the title of his book. In the name of justice, we must not support only our own individual or community projects, but we must prepared to build bridges to those of other political views or religious faiths. We must be prepared to compromise, if necessary, in order to achieve our common political objectives. That, after all, is the nature of politics.

    The nation of Canada indicated its respect for Jerry by awarding him the Order of Canada [our counterpart to knighthood] in May 2001.

    His death is a great loss to all Canadians who are passionate for social justice. Many people from diverse walks of life and widely differing faiths have lost a great friend. I count myself among them. My wife and I have enjoyed his friendship and encouragement for many decades.

    Jerry was a prophet for our time, and Canada has lost one of its greatest prophetic voices. Our condolences go out to Wynne and their daughters, Janice and Karen, as well as the grandchildren.

    Farewell to a faithful prophet. A good and faithful servant of God, Jerry has received the commendation of the master (Mt. 25:21).

    04 July 2011

    Americans ahead of their time

    In 1931 the Statute of Westminster elevated the so-called Dominions within the British Empire to a status of equality with the United Kingdom itself. These included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, the Union of South Africa and the Irish Free State. The Empire thus became the Commonwealth of Nations or, more popularly, the British Commonwealth. Each Dominion had its own Parliament and was functionally independent, sharing only a common monarch whose representative, the Governor General, was appointed by the King on the advice of his Dominion government.

    Two centuries earlier, however, the American colonists believed that something like the Commonwealth of Nations already existed. This is what contributed to the outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Here is David Hackett Fischer:
    These county oligarchies [in colonial Virginia] were not sovereign bodies. Above them sat the Assembly, Council and Royal Governor. The status of these institutions was in dispute until the American War of Independence. The Assembly was understood by Imperial officials as the colonial equivalent of a municipal council in England. They called it the House of Burgesses, a name which brought to mind the Burgesses of Bristol and other British towns. But Virginians had a different idea of their Assembly. In 1687, William Fitzhugh called it "our Parliament here," a representative body which knew no sovereign except the King himself (p. 407).

    Tragically, this difference of opinion had to be settled on the battlefield, with Americans claiming full independence on this day 235 years ago.

    30 June 2011

    Royal duty versus celebrity

    Father Raymond de Souza writes in advance of the visit of the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Canada: Lifestyles of the noto-rich-and-famous.
    Queen Elizabeth II has visited New York City three times, which is the same number of trips she has made to Moose Jaw [Saskatchewan]. She has gone where her duty takes her. . . .

    It is necessary that, on occasion, the Royals visit Hollywood and Fifth Avenue, but the occasions must be rare. The world of new money and fleeting celebrity is corrosive to the dignity and tradition that a monarchy sustains, and which sustains it in turn. The purpose of a Royal visit is not to chase after the people whom the world celebrates, but rather to bring the spotlight to those people and places which are not especially famous or powerful, but deserving all the same. Princes do not need wealth or fame, and it is unbecoming for them to lust after it.

    Wise words indeed. I hope the future king and queen have read Walter Bagehot's The English Constitution and an early edition of Robert MacGregor Dawson's Government of Canada, which should definitely be part of their political education.

    26 June 2011

    Chanting the psalms, daily prayer

    An acquaintance recently called to my attention two paragraphs from the Second Helvetic Confession, one of the confessional standards of the Swiss and Hungarian Reformed Churches, as well as of the Presbyterian Church (USA):
    Of the Prayers of the Church, of Singing, and of Canonical Hours

    SINGING. Likewise moderation is to be exercised where singing is used in a meeting for worship. That song which they call the Gregorian Chant has many foolish things in it; hence it is rightly rejected by many of our churches. If there are churches which have a true and proper sermon but no singing, they ought not to be condemned. For all churches do not have the advantage of singing. And it is well known from testimonies of antiquity that the custom of singing is very old in the Eastern Churches whereas it was late when it was at length accepted in the West.

    CANONICAL HOURS. Antiquity knew nothing of canonical hours, that is, prayers arranged for certain hours of the day, and sung or recited by the Papists, as can be proved from their breviaries and by many arguments. But they also have not a few absurdities, of which I say nothing else; accordingly they are rightly omitted by churches which substitute in their place things that are beneficial for the whole Church of God.

    There are a number of things erroneously rejected by many of the Reformers, whose knowledge of antiquity was not always accurate, including the sursum corda in the Lord's Supper and the sign of the cross. In this case the authors of the Confession appear to have been unaware that chanting the Psalms in the course of daily prayer has ancient roots in the church, extending back into biblical times. See, for example, Psalm 119:164: "Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances." Also Daniel 6:10: "[Daniel] got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God. . . ." And Acts 10:9: "Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour." Following scripture, the Rule of St. Benedict prescribed (or, perhaps better, codified) seven daily prayer offices for use in the monasteries:
    As the Prophet saith: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:164), this sacred sevenfold number will be fulfilled by us in this wise if we perform the duties of our service at the time of Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin; because it was of these day hours that he hath said: "Seven times a day I have given praise to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:164). For the same Prophet saith of the night watches: "At midnight I arose to confess to Thee" (Ps 118[119]:62). At these times, therefore, let us offer praise to our Creator "for the judgments of His justice;" namely, at Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Complin; and let us rise at night to praise Him (cf Ps 118[119]:164, 62).

    Although St. Benedict intended these daily prayer offices for monastic communities, it seems evident that they were much more widespread in the early church. The Muslim practice of praying five times daily, which many westerners regard as strange, obviously has roots in earlier Jewish and Christian usage.

    The Reformers recovered so many ancient things lost to the mediaeval church, especially the doctrines of grace. Yet, given what we know now of the ancient church and its liturgical practices, it is difficult not to conclude that in some instances they were too quick to discard usages that ought to have been retained.

    02 June 2011

    The Geneva Bible's influence

    This passage from Marilynne Robinson’s The Death of Adam makes me wonder whether we should have celebrated the 450th anniversary of the Geneva Bible last year in preference to observing the 400th of the King James Version this year:

    “The Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, was a very great influence on political thought in England and America. It was the Bible of Shakespeare and Milton, the Bible one hears referred to sometimes as the ‘breeches’ Bible, because its Adam and Eve, unlike the Adam and Eve of the King James Bible, did not have the presence of mind to fashion their fig leaves into ‘aprons.’ The implication is that it was a crude or naive translation, but in fact it is largely identical with the King James Bible, which was published in 1611. . . . The great difference is that the copious interpretive notes that fill the margins of the Geneva Bible are gone from the King’s Authorized Version. . . . Printing of this Bible in England was forbidden, and it was gradually driven out of circulation in England and America by the King James Version, which basks in the legend that it is a masterpiece created by a committee, and enjoys the reputation of having been the great watershed of English-language literature” (The Death of Adam, p. 197).

    Ascension Day

    30 May 2011

    Hell: temporary punishment?

    In the wake of the controversy over Love Wins, someone recently suggested to me that perhaps hell is not eternal after all and that those sent there might one day complete their sentences, much as a prisoner serves for a certain period and is then released. It’s an intriguing and hopeful thought, but it raises two difficulties, as I see it.

    First, my understanding, following that of the historic church, is that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin for all those who are in Christ. Mere human beings could never pay the price for their own transgressions. To suggest that they could — by, in effect, serving time — would seem to imply that there is a second path to salvation other than through the only begotten Son of God. But, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “no mere creature can bear the weight of God’s eternal anger against sin” (Q&A, 14), and “Only those are saved who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings” (Q&A, 20).

    Second, would not a non-eternal, temporary hell be tantamount to purgatory? Article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion definitively condemns belief in purgatory, but if one conceives of the possibility of completing one’s sentence in hell, then it seems to me that the distinction between purgatory and hell fades away.

    Incidentally, the Rev. Wes Bredenhof has discovered something interesting about the author of the Belgic Confession: Guido De Bres and His Belief in Purgatory.

    27 May 2011

    Why I am not a ‘red-letter Christian’

    Having come across the Red Letter Christians blog of Tony Campolo and others, I am reminded again of why I am not a red-letter Christian. There are two basic reasons:

    1. It effectively and improperly privileges a canon within the biblical canon, implicitly elevating Jesus’ words above the rest of inspired scripture.

    2. As I age my eyes have difficulty reading red letters against a white page. I prefer to read the Bible without straining my vision.

    I suppose this makes me a black-letter Christian. So be it. Case closed.

    14 May 2011

    A church in decline

    The fading of the mainline protestant churches over the past two generations has not been limited to the United States. North of the border, in the True North Strong and Free, a similar phenomenon has occurred. Canada’s National Post carries this article in its weekend edition: The split in the United Church. One of my Redeemer University colleagues, Dr. Kevin Flatt, is quoted here, as is Michael Van Pelt, head of the Hamilton, Ontario, think tank, Cardus, for whose publication, Comment, I write on occasion.

    The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 with the union of the former Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Methodist churches into a single national body. (A third of the Presbyterian churches, including our family’s congregation, remained out of the union, retaining the name, Presbyterian Church in Canada.) Since its high water mark in the mid-1960s, the United Church has gone into a precipitous decline in membership and attendance. However, the title of the article is not quite accurate: there has been no “split” as such, only a haemorrhage of members away from the United Church.

    Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Flatt, I would strongly recommend his Comment article, Cross-Border Evangelicals: Americans and Canadians, an astute analysis of the differences between evangelicals on each side of the 49th parallel.

    02 May 2011

    Smith takes on 'new universalism'

    I have not thus far weighed in on the controversy surrounding the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins. But I will call attention to an astute analysis of the "new universalism" by Calvin College's James K. A. Smith: Can hope be wrong? On the new universalism. I was especially struck by the following paragraph, addressed to those who persist in believing that "I-can't-imagine-a-God-who-[fill in the blank]" is a persuasive argument:
    The "I-can't-imagine" strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects "upwards," as it were, to a conception of God. While this "imagining" might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the "I-can't-imagine" argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities--including how I "imagine" the nature of love, etc. The "I-can't-imagine" argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of "my" imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards' radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)

    24 April 2011

    He is risen indeed!

    Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών,
    θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας,
    και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι,
    ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!

    Christ is risen from the dead,
    by death trampling down death,
    and giving life to those within the grave!

    13 April 2011

    Hearing the Word, seeking justice

    Notre Dame’s Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga published an insightful essay more than a dozen years ago: Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship, which found its way into his book, Warranted Christian Belief. Here Plantinga distinguishes between two ways of approaching the Bible: (1) Traditional Christian Biblical Commentary (TCBC) and (2) Historical Biblical Criticism (HBC). The former has the following three characteristics:

    First, Scripture itself is taken to be a wholly authoritative and trustworthy guide to faith and morals; it is authoritative and trustworthy, because it is a revelation from God, a matter of God speaking to us. . . . Secondly, an assumption of the enterprise is that the principal author of the Bible — the entire Bible — is God himself. . . . Thirdly . . . the fact that the principal author of the Bible is God himself means that one cannot always determine the meaning of a given passage by discovering what the human author had in mind.

    HBC differs from TCBC in that the former “is fundamentally an enlightenment project; it is an effort to try to determine from the standpoint of reason alone what the Scriptural teachings are and whether they are true. Thus HBC eschews the authority and guidance of tradition, magisterium, creed, or any kind of ecclesial or ‘external’ epistemic authority.” HBC requires, among other things, that “faith commitments should play no role” and that a hermeneutic of suspicion should govern our reading of the text. We cannot simply affirm that the biblical text is true but must apply empirical scientific methods to discover, if possible, whether, e.g., the picture of Jesus painted in the gospels is historically accurate. This approach is obviously at variance with TCBC, which comes to Scripture believing it is indeed the Word of God and thus a reliable witness to Jesus Christ.

    Plantinga is not wholly dismissive of HBC, which he admits has broadened our knowledge of the Bible and especially of the historical contexts in which it was written. However, HBC tends to view the Bible, not as a canonical whole, but as a collection of disparate texts with different human authors and thus conflicting emphases and teachings. Harmonizing these teachings is not the business of the biblical scholar, according to HBC, but to the theologian who is more evidently tethered to the church’s confession. What this means is that the practitioner of HBC “tends to deal especially with questions of composition and authorship, these being the questions most easily addressed by the methods employed.” Furthermore, he at least tacitly excludes the very question of most interest to believing Christians coming to the text, viz., what God is trying to tell us in his Word. There is thus some tension within the academy between the practitioners of biblical scholarship and theology, with the former often believing the latter to be naïvely precritical and thus unscientific.

    I myself am neither a biblical scholar nor a theologian. Nevertheless, as a political scientist reading and pondering Plantinga’s essay, I cannot help but observe a similar cleavage within the discipline of political science, viz., that between the empirical political scientist and the political theorist or philosopher. Having taught political science at the undergraduate level for a quarter of a century, I can testify that students take an interest in it when they are either captivated by a vision of justice or scandalized by the reality of injustice. This was my own experience as a student, when I changed my major from music to political science after the Watergate scandal and the Turkish invasion of my father’s native island of Cyprus. Because virtually all my paternal relatives became refugees overnight, I sought desperately to understand why injustice seems to be such a persistent feature of human life. This is what animated my passion for politics.

    However, the empirical political scientist would tell us that such concerns as the nature of justice should play no role in political science. Political philosophy, with its ongoing, millennia-old quest to discover the meanings of justice, statesmanship, good citizenship and civic friendship, is a subdiscipline of philosophy, or perhaps even of religion, and not of political science, which must necessarily limit itself to exploring those questions amenable to empirical methods. Political science can treat only political behaviour and must refrain from making normative statements about the good political order or the virtues conducive to it. Processing and analyzing voting statistics is political science. Exploring the relationship between electoral and party systems is political science. Debating the justice of proposed public policies or of a particular approach to the state is definitely not political science.

    I have no intrinsic quarrel with either HBC or empirical political science, properly understood. There is much indeed to be said both for studying the Synoptic Problem and for analyzing how, e.g., different sociological groups voted in the 2008 presidential election. Nevertheless I strongly disagree with those who believe that these types of empirical academic pursuits by themselves constitute the disciplines of biblical scholarship and political science respectively. There is little to be said for the assumption that reason functions apart from basic worldview convictions. The belief that Scripture is not much more than a collection of literary texts with no overall meaning or message is itself borne of a conviction that it — or rather, they — are not essentially different from any other texts. The notion that we should bracket our faith commitments in studying the Bible is rooted in a (nonfalsifiable) belief that it is possible for human beings to reason apart from these commitments and to obtain some form of religiously neutral objectivity.

    Something similar could be said of empirical political science as well. The claim of those following the behavioural methods is that they are simply observing the facts of political behaviour. Nevertheless they fail to recognize that this very term presupposes general agreement on what is political and what is not. This general agreement implicitly presupposes a normative order in which the distinction between political and nonpolitical makes sense. What is it that makes setting a country’s foreign policy political while a mother reading to her child before bed is nonpolitical? I would suggest that it has something to do with the jural aspect of the former. By its very nature, the state is called to balance legitimate interests within its jurisdictional sphere. It is, of course, all too common for states in the real world to get this balance wrong, sometimes spectacularly so, as in the Soviet Union and Germany between 1933 and 1945. Yet this entails, not an absence of justice as such, but its distortion or miscarriage. Justice, in short, is central to the very definition of politics, which behavioural political scientists cannot adequately grasp with their methods, however useful they might otherwise be.

    In the same way, the canonical status of Scripture and its authority are precisely what give this ancient collection of writings scriptural status. The existence of a Society of Biblical Literature already in some fashion presupposes recognition of at least their historical unity, even if not all its members acknowledge the authority of the whole.

    If the very things that draw students to biblical scholarship and to the study of politics are excluded from the two disciplines, then something is seriously amiss in the way both are conceptualized by their mainstream practitioners. If so, then our christian universities may be in the best position to bridge the cleavages between biblical studies and theology, on the one hand, and empirical political science and normative political theory, on the other.

    Nevertheless, this will come about only if faculty in the relevant departments take the time to become aware of the historical forces – along with their spiritual roots – that have artificially driven apart the two sides of these disciplines. This requires recognition that the academic enterprise, normatively understood, is not only about specializing in a particular field or subfield, but also about seeing clearly – and with great delight – the interconnections among the disciplines and their respective modest places within the coherent whole that is God’s multifaceted creation.


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