26 January 2011

Talking with Plato?

This is the sort of thing I find utterly fascinating. Greek-speaking Muslims continue to live in the Turkish Pontos speaking a dialect of ρωμαίϊκα, a language with grammatical structures retained from classical Greek. Listen as well to the distinctive Pontic music in the background. Incidentally, ρωμαιϊκά means Roman, which harks back to the time when Orthodox Christians living in the Eastern Roman Empire called themselves Ρωμαίοι, or Romans.

24 January 2011

Government's divine mandate

I am not a fan of most politically-oriented sermons, especially when they undertake to pronounce on the specifics of public policy. However, a week ago our pastor, the Rev. Dr. W. J. Clyde Ervine, gave us all an excellent example of the right way to preach a political sermon. The title was King Solomon's Charge, based on I Kings 2. This is part of an ongoing lectio continua series on Solomon's reign. The Old Testament lesson recounted the circumstances that brought Solomon to the throne, including the execution of his father David's chief of staff, Joab, and his own half-brother Adonijah.

The episode raises a difficult issue: "is Solomon to be morally excused for killing the enemies who might have wanted to kill him?" Ervine admits that not everything scripture recounts does it necessarily approve. Yet he raises another possibility that ought not to be glossed over:
David is king and head of government, giving a charge not so much to a son, but to the incoming head of government. What he says is this: “Solomon, as king, you must deal with the State’s internal as well as external enemies. You may not want to, but you must confront those who mount treasonous attacks against the kingdom”. David mentions Joab as an example, while Solomon will later place Adonijah in the same category. Put like that, the issue isn’t whether or not Solomon was brutal, but whether the State may legitimately use force against its enemies. That’s the issue I Kings 2 poses; its answer is affirmative. I Kings 2 wants readers to conclude that Solomon was justified in hunting down State criminals, and further suggests that Solomon’s punishment of those criminals was endorsed by God. At verse 22, we’re told that as Solomon contemplates the punishment he believes Adonijah deserves, he says: “So may God do to me, and more also, for Adonijah has devised this scheme at the risk of his life! Now therefore as the Lord lives, who has established me and placed me on the throne...Adonijah shall be put to death”.The text presents Solomon’s blood-letting, not as the violence of a private thug but as the legal action of the head of state.

This, of course, raises the larger question of whether the state legitimately uses force, even to the extent of taking life. Although there is a long and honourable pacifist tradition within Christianity, we must nevertheless take seriously those biblical texts assigning the power of the sword to government.

Having been present as Dr. Ervine delivered this sermon (which can be heard here), I can testify that the congregation was unusually quiet throughout, perhaps wondering where he would be going next in his argument. It somehow felt like a controversial sermon, although his conclusion is entirely biblical and falls squarely in the centre of the larger Reformed tradition.

A powerful preacher, Dr. Ervine's sermons are worth listening to. If you are ever in the neighbourhood, please do come to Central Presbyterian Church, Hamilton, Ontario, at 10.30 sunday morning.

08 January 2011

KJV quadricentenary

I am part of what may have been the last generation of English-speaking Christians to grow up with the King James Version of the Bible. This was the Bible we read in church and it shaped the liturgical patterns of our worship. We children memorized verses from it in sunday school, thereby giving it an intimate familiarity to us that has not been matched by any subsequent translation.

To be sure, the Revised Standard Version had come out three years before I was born, but our church, a confessionally Reformed church, did not read from it, perhaps because of such controversial translations as that for Isaiah 7:14, which substituted "young woman" for "virgin." What we did not know, of course, is that, when the KJV was first published back in 1611, the Geneva Bible was the translation preferred by our Reformed forebears, who were suspicious of the king's motives in commissioning a replacement. Nevertheless, over the long term the KJV won out over competing translations, retaining a cherished place in the hearts of English-speaking Christians for 350 years.

Protestant Christians, that is. In that world of half a century ago our use of the KJV underscored our differences with Roman Catholics, who read the 16th/17th-century Douai-Rheims Bible, a translation from the Latin Vulgate. In the KJV we English-speaking protestants possessed a common Bible whose cadences we knew thoroughly and which constituted a shared heritage that in some sense we took for granted. This was our Bible and always would be. We had a duty to read it and hear it in church. To be sure, given its archaic language, the KJV was not always easy to understand. Moreover, despite the claim of some contemporary KJV loyalists to love its superb literary qualities, it is no longer clear to us whether its language really is poetic or whether it sounds poetic to us simply because it is from the KJV.

We all know the flaws in the KJV. It was translated from texts finalized in the 16th century, which have long since been superseded by superior Hebrew and Greek texts based on much earlier manuscripts. It contains numerous readings not attested to in the latter and of questionable authenticity — and presumably canonicity as well. I myself am far from urging a wholesale return to the KJV, although I believe it definitely worth celebrating during its 400th anniversary year.

The problem is that, while my generation of protestants grew up with a common Bible, no subsequent translation, however superior, has managed altogether to replace the KJV. By 1977 an expanded edition of the RSV had come to include the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books, thereby making it the closest we would come to a Common Bible for all Christians — protestants, Catholics and Orthodox. Yet ultimately it failed to catch on at the grassroots level. We now live with a ridiculously large number of Bible translations in English at the beginning of the second decade of this century. The multiplication of Bible versions shows no signs of slowing down, much less stopping.

For 30-some years the New International Version was the largest-selling Bible in the English-speaking world, considerably outpacing the RSV and KJV alike. But two months ago the International Bible Society released an updated version of the NIV which may fail to catch on, if recent controversies are any indication. Although I was initially sceptical that the English Standard Version would supplant the NIV, I now think it has a fighting chance if the NIV 1984 is no longer to be available, except online.

Will any of these translations still be read 400 years from now? It would be foolish to predict so far into the future, but it seems unlikely that any will equal the King James Version not only in terms of longevity, but in its capacity to shape the language and culture of the English-speaking peoples.

07 January 2011

Hopeful news from Egypt

With attacks on middle eastern and south Asian Christians apparently increasing in recent weeks, it is encouraging to read news like this: Egypt Muslims to act as “human shields” at Coptic Christmas Eve mass.

“Although 2011 started tragically, I feel it will be a year of eagerly anticipated change, where Egyptians will stand against sectarianism and unite as one,” Father Rafaeil Sarwat of the Mar-Mina church told Ahram Online. The Coptic priest was commenting on the now widespread call by Muslim intellectuals and activists upon Egyptian Muslims at large to flock to Coptic churches across the country to attend Coptic Christmas Eve mass, to show solidarity with the nation’s Coptic minority, but also to serve as “human shields” against possible attacks by Islamist militants.

Today is Christmas in the Coptic and Orthodox calendars. Let us wish our brothers and sisters in Egypt and elsewhere God’s blessings as they celebrate today the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Let us also give thanks that there are Egyptian Muslims willing to stand with their Christian fellow citizens against terrorist threats. It is a sign of hope in a part of the world where hope is so often in short supply.

03 January 2011

Persecution updates: Egypt, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan

Until virtually the dawn of the modern age the historic heartland of Christianity — possibly containing most of the world's Christians at the time — included the lands of north Africa and what we now know as the Middle East. Yet over successive centuries the Christians there have been subject to harsh treatment by their Muslim rulers, and consequently their numbers have diminished substantially. In those countries where Christian communities remain, they have been targeted by terrorists bent on making their lives more difficult in their historic homelands. Here are only a few incidents:

  • Two days ago a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt, was bombed, killing 21 people. President Hosni Mubarak has promised action, and the city's governor is pointing to al-Qaeda as the culprit. Meanwhile, the Tehran Times blames Israel, asserting that "it goes without saying that no Muslim, whatever their political leanings may be, will ever commit such an inhumane act."

  • Attacks continue on Christians in Iraq, with a survivor of an October church attack being shot to death in her bed, apparently for her religious beliefs. More such news can be found at the Assyrian International News Agency. According to Assyrian Christian News, Iraqi Christians Want Their Own Province. The likelihood of that happening seems rather slim.

  • Somewhat more likely is the possibility that the largely Christian south Sudan will peacefully separate from the Islamic north in a referendum to be held next sunday, 9 January. This was provided for in an agreement that ended the Sudanese civil war half a decade ago. Redrawing boundaries in Africa has long been unthinkable for most governments in that continent, but a peaceful, if not exactly amicable, division of Sudan looks increasingly probable. However, partition is never a simple matter, and the issue of boundaries could lead to further trouble, as it has elsewhere.

  • Last month our family had breakfast with two representatives of International Christian Voice, an organization that monitors the plight of Christians in Pakistan. They are working to repeal that country's blasphemy laws, under which Asia Bibi is in prison awaiting execution. Although there have been intimations that Bibi could be released, her future remains in the balance.

    Please pray for these persecuted brothers and sisters overseas, as they live in precarious circumstances which put their faith constantly to the test.

    Almighty God and Father, as we are members of the one body of Christ, we share in the sufferings of your people around the world; deliver now the oppressed from their persecutors, and equip us to stand publicly with your servants in their adversity. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen.
  • 02 January 2011

    Singing the Psalms: in German, Czech and Dutch

  • For Christmas this year my beloved wife gave me an antiquarian copy of the Lobwasser Psalter, a sturdy little volume that has weathered the centuries remarkably well. The Lobwasser Psalter was a German-language translation of the Genevan Psalms set to verse in 1573 by Ambrosius Lobwasser (1515-1585), a Lutheran teaching law at Königsberg in East Prussia. His translation was based on the French text he had heard the Huguenots singing during his stay in the Berry region of France. Lobwasser intended his Psalter primarily for private use. This edition was published in Zürich in 1770, by which time it was evidently being used in public worship as well.

    Lobwasser Psalter


  • At age 21 during a visit to Prague (in what was then still communist Czechoslovakia) I purchased a Czech-language psalter and hymnal published in 1900 by the Unity of the Brethren, also known variously as the Bohemian Brethren, the Moravian Brethren and the Unitas Fratrum. I have now scanned and posted the psalter portion of this Malý Kancionál (Little Hymnal) for the benefit of those interested in a lesser known tradition of metrical psalm-singing. This Czech translation, to be sung to the Genevan melodies, was made by Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599), a minister in this church from Zábřeh in Moravia. Strejc studied in Tübingen and Königsberg and came into contact with the Lobwasser Psalter, which impressed him so favourably that he decided to model his own Czech versification on it, an undertaking he completed in 1587. Strejc is probably best known for his German-language hymn text, Mit Freuden Zart, familiar in English as Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above, the tune to which comes from the Bohemian Brethren's Kirchengesänge (1566) and bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Genevan Psalm 138.

    My thus far preliminary research has raised some intriguing questions worth further exploration. First, might Strejc have met Lobwasser personally in Königsberg and thereby come under his more direct influence?

    Second, given that the Kirchengesänge were produced by the same group of which Strejc was a minister, might this be evidence of a connection between the tunes for Psalm 138 and Mit Freuden Zart? To be sure, Strejc's versification of that Psalm came later, but might the Unity of the Brethren have become aware of the Genevan tunes earlier, and might it have been through Strejc? Tellingly, the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) ascribes the tune directly to the "Trente quatre pseaumes de David, Geneva, 1551." These two possibilities are probably mutually exclusive.

    Third, if Lobwasser based his translations on the French text of Marot and Bèze (for which he was criticized by his Lutheran colleagues), and if Strejc based his translations on Lobwasser's German text, how true are Strejc's texts to the Hebrew? Only someone conversant in Czech and Hebrew, and perhaps all four languages, would be able to answer this question satisfactorily.

    Czech Psalter

    Czech Psalter

    By the way, the city of Königsberg has been called Kaliningrad since 1945 and has been part of the Russian Federation. At some point there was talk of changing the name (Kalinin was a Stalin-era Soviet functionary) to honour its most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant. I would like to suggest as an alternative that it be renamed for either Lobwasser or Strejc. Or even both: Lobwasserstrejcgrad!

  • Those interested in becoming better acquainted with congregational psalm-singing in the Netherlands would do well to check out Ijsselm's Channel on youtube (short for Ijsselmeer perhaps?). Here one finds a number of recently-posted Genevan Psalms sung in the traditional 19th-century Dutch fashion characterized by four distinctive features: (1) they are sung at a slow pace; (2) they are often sung in isometric rhythm (i.e., every note having equal value), as opposed to the more syncopated rhythms of the original tunes; (3) the organist plays the initial note for a few seconds before the congregation joins in, leaving the impression that the congregation is lagging behind; and (4) the arrangements used suppress the modal flavour of the original tunes. Here is one example:

    I might point out that, amongst the Dutch Canadians I know personally, many dislike intensely this style of singing and their churches have thus altogether abandoned the Genevan Psalms for more contemporary fare. I find this tragic, and my own Genevan Psalter website is part of a larger ongoing project to recover the Genevan tradition and to make it more singable for younger generations of Christians in a variety of traditions.
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