26 March 2013

Democrats, Republicans and Pope Francis

Writing in The Washington Post, Charles Camosy draws a seemingly unlikely connection between the two major American political parties and the newly minted Pope: Republicans have a Pope Francis problem. Here's Camosy:
And the election of Pope Francis, if understood correctly by the Democrats, could push them over it.

Consider that this pope from Latin America has views about strong state and international government energetically standing for the poor and vulnerable, ecological protection, and nonviolence that are to the left of Nancy Pelosi. He would likely be considered too liberal for a prime time speaking slot at the 2016 DNC convention. The pope is radically suspicious of the libertarian approach to “autonomy” and “choice”—especially when it ends up hurting the vulnerable and opening the way for violence.

For Pope Francis, to no one’s surprise, this includes suspicion of the right to choose abortion. His anti-abortion views might make his pontificate seem unfriendly to Democrats, but in reality our peculiarly American obsession with autonomy and individual choice—whether it is about our guns, our pelvises, or our money—is more at home in the Republican party. If Democrats could embrace Pope Francis’ connection between social justice for the poor and equal protection of the laws for our prenatal children, they could finish the GOP for a generation.

It would be nice to think that Camosy is right, but, especially in matters of life and sexuality, the Democratic leadership, along with many of their candidates, are dogmatically wedded to this autonomy and individual choice and show no signs even of flexibility, much less of backing down. Those Democrats who have chosen the lonely path of dissent from this secular orthodoxy have been put under enormous pressure to conform. Such groups as Democrats for Life are swimming against the strongest current imaginable, and thus far without making so much as a dent in their party's monolithic public stance.

This should present an opportunity for the Republicans, but thus far they have chosen to squander it and indeed are difficult to take seriously. I do not envy ordinary Americans, whose political choices range from the preposterous to the unpalatable.

25 March 2013

A commuter's communion with God

A few weeks ago I was on the GO train to Toronto filled with morning commuters. I would shortly be arriving at Union Station where I would then transfer to a VIA Rail train to Montréal. Although my mind was initially on the lecture I would be delivering at the end of my journey the following day, I became aware, sitting across the aisle from me, of a middle-aged woman who looked to be Filipino. She was reading from a very small tattered booklet that appeared to lack a cover. After reading she would close her eyes for a time and then resume reading again. She was obviously not dozing. As I myself had prayed the daily office using my e-reader back at the Hamilton GO station, I knew exactly what she must be doing. I had to resist the inclination to ask to see her well-worn booklet. Instead I silently prayed that God would answer her prayer.

Because I am not a regular commuter into Toronto, I will likely never see this woman again. I may have been the only person on the train who knew that she was praying, but because of this, I felt as if the two of us have something — or rather Someone — very precious in common. Someone whose sacrifice on the cross we observe with gratitude during this Holy Week.

21 March 2013

Singing the Psalms through adversity: the Czechs

The following appeared in the 11 March issue of Christian Courier as part of my monthly "Principalities & Powers" column:

In November 1976 I was privileged to visit what was then called Czechoslovakia and its capital city, Prague. Although the communists were still in power and the weather was cold and gloomy during my stay, I fell in love with this beautiful 14th-century urban jewel, which managed to glitter despite the austere Stalin-era buildings at its periphery. As a child I had grown up hearing one of my mother’s favourite musical pieces, Bedřich Smetana’s Vltava, or Moldau, a tone poem dedicated to the river on which Prague is built. Thus I was thrilled finally to walk across the fabled Charles Bridge spanning the waterway that had inspired the 19th-century composer.

For an amateur musician Prague is a treat, as its residents glory in the music of Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček, Bohuslav Martinů and many others. Stepping into a church one Sunday I heard a soloist singing two of Dvořák’s Biblical Songs, which I had worked up in my undergraduate voice lessons and had come to love. Dvořák wrote these haunting songs based on the Psalms while in the United States, after learning of the death of his friend and conductor, Hans von Bülow, and of the imminent death of his own father back in Europe. Not surprisingly, the grieving composer turned to the Psalms for comfort.

While in Prague I visited more than one antiquarian book shop, purchasing an 1845 Czech New Testament and Psalms. (In retrospect I’ve come to recognize the irony in my taking a Bible out of a communist country when so many other Christians were taking risks to bring Bibles in.)

But it was another purchase at one of those stores that I keep returning to decades later. This was a small, thick volume called Malý Kancionál, or Little Hymnal, published in 1900 by the Unity of the Brethren, also variously known as the Bohemian Brethren, the Moravian Brethren and the Unitas Fratrum, founded by Jan Hus at the start of the 15th century. On the front cover is a stylized illustration of a chalice, a prominent Husite symbol, stemming from their championing the right of the laity to receive the Eucharistic cup along with the bread to which ordinary believers were at that time restricted. Inside the covers I found a complete metrical psalter, along with some 350 hymns – a psalter hymnal, in short. This sat on my shelf for nearly a decade before I discovered the significance of this book. The 150 Psalms are in fact set to the Genevan tunes, as used in the Swiss, Dutch, Hungarian and other Reformed churches. I had had no idea that Czechs had ever sung these, but obviously some did. Where did they come from?

A few years ago I learned the full story. Jiří Strejc (also known as Georg Vetter, 1536-1599), was a Brethren minister born in Zábřeh in Moravia. Strejc studied in Tübingen and Königsberg, where he came into contact with the Psalter of Ambrosius Lobwasser, a professor of jurisprudence at the university there. Strejc was so favourably impressed by Lobwasser’s German translation of the Genevan Psalter 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. Whether Strejc and Lobwasser ever met I have been unable to determine, but the latter’s psalter would come to influence the liturgical life of Czech protestants by way of Strejc.

The modern Czech Republic is a largely secular society with abysmally low rates of church attendance, a condition undoubtedly exacerbated by four decades of communist misrule. Nevertheless, possessing such a rich heritage in Dvořák’s Biblical Songs and Strejc’s metrical psalter, Czech Christians have a solid basis on which to reinvigorate their country’s tepid church life six centuries after Jan Hus’s abortive efforts at reformation. May God grant that Hus’s work finally come to fruition in the churches of the Czech Republic.

19 March 2013

Hamilton's 'New York Times'

In recent months the weekend edition of the Hamilton Spectator has included two sections from The New York Times for those willing to pay a modest amount on top of their regular subscription cost. Because the NYT adds more substance to the paper, The Spec has seen fit to drop its "Weekend Reader" section, the only part of the newspaper with any substance whatsoever. These developments raise two questions in my mind: (1) Has the NYT reciprocated by including sections of The Spec amongst its own sections? and (2) Why should readers not drop their subscription to The Spec and pick up the NYT instead?

18 March 2013

Reformed Christian Prayers for the Pope

I consider myself a Reformed Christian of strongly confessional bent. I love Scripture and recognize it to be God’s Word, the final authority for faith and life. I love the Heidelberg Catechism with its warm, evangelical flavour as it speaks to the heart of believers of our “only comfort in life and in death.” I love singing the Psalms, especially the sturdy melodies of the Genevan Psalter.

Given my unequivocal commitment to the Reformation, and especially to the branch stemming from John Calvin, some may find it surprising that I would pray for Pope Francis and the communion which he leads. Yet I do so, because all Christians in every tradition have a stake in the world’s largest ecclesiastical body. The sixteenth century Reformers themselves initially had no desire to break with the western church, doing so only when forced to. Instead they wished to reform an institution they loved—an institution they believed was corrupt and not living up to the demands of the gospel.

I take no pleasure in the scandals that have beset the Roman Catholic Church in recent decades. Some Protestants may experience a certain schadenfreude at the travails of the church with which their forebears broke so many centuries ago. But not everyone. I genuinely hope and pray that the new Pope, who took the name of another would-be reformer loved by Protestants and Catholics alike, will be able to clean up what needs to be cleaned up in his church. My prayer to God is that, where there is despair he may sow hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is corruption, holiness and unwavering fidelity to the cause of Christ.

11 March 2013

Whom to believe?

In the continuing controversy over climate change it is difficult to sort out the validity of conflicting reports. Here, for example, is a Financial Post column by Lawrence Solomon: Not easy being green. According to Solomon,
Arctic ice has made a comeback, advancing so rapidly that the previous decade saw less ice at this time of the year than exists today. And previously balmy Arctic temperatures just nose-dived, according to the Danish Meteorological Institute, which has tracked Arctic temperatures since 1958.

Alarmists shudder when looking south, too, at the stats from Antarctica. There the sea ice extent started growing early this year, and the ice cover remains stubbornly above average. All told, the global sea ice — including both polar caps — now exceeds the average recorded since 1979, when satellites began their measurements.

But then we read this from Emily E. Adams: Where Has All the Ice Gone? Here's Adams:

In September 2012, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean shrank to a record low extent and volume. The region has warmed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1960s—twice as much as lower latitudes. With less snow and ice to reflect the sun’s rays and with more exposed ocean to absorb heat, a vicious cycle leads to even warmer temperatures. Thinner ice combined with rising temperatures makes it increasingly difficult for the sea ice to recover. The historically ever-present white cap at the top of the globe could disappear entirely during the summer within two decades. . . .

While Greenland’s ice loss is astonishing, on the other side of the globe, parts of Antarctica’s vast ice sheet may be even less stable. The continent is flanked by 54 major ice shelves, which act as brakes slowing the movement of ice in land-based glaciers out to sea. Twenty of them show signs of thinning and weakening, which translates into accelerated ice loss. After the 3,250-square-kilometer Larsen B Ice Shelf collapsed in 2002, for instance, the glaciers it was bracing flowed up to eight times faster than before. The most dramatic thinning is in West Antarctica.

Which is right? Obviously they cannot both be. The two reports are separated by only a week, yet their respective accounts as to what is happening to the polar ice caps could not be more divergent. As a complete layman in the field, I am incompetent to judge the veracity of the two reports, which I am certain is true of most other readers as well.

However, in the absence of certainty on the issue, our political leaders must still make policies while weighing in the balance the various conflicting considerations at stake. The balance will never be perfect, of course, but in general it seems to me that, even if anthropogenic global warming is not occurring, we still have an obligation to pursue policies to protect our physical environment, both for the sake of future generations and in recognition of our responsibility before God for his creation. We may not be able to settle the debate, but it seems wise to err on the side of caution and of minimizing the environmental risks to our descendants.

10 March 2013

Relevant religion and human desires

Sometimes it takes a nonbeliever to speak truth to believers. This time it comes from the "not even religious" George Jonas in Canada's National Post: Searching for one-size-fits-all religion. Amidst calls from some Roman Catholics that the new Pope toe their own line rather than lead them into truth, Jonas mentions the minor character Helene Bezuhov in Leo Tolstoy's famous novel, War and Peace.
Exquisitely drawn, like all of Tolstoy’s creations, once you make the Countess Bezuhov’s acquaintance, you can’t quite forget her. Helene is married to Pierre Bezuhov, one of the leading characters in the novel, but she doesn’t feel suited to him and hopes to contract a more agreeable marriage. Maybe even two marriages. She contemplates marrying an older prince first, and then, after he dies, perhaps saying yes to a much younger applicant.

Helene is beautiful. Her arms and shoulders are the marvel of Moscow. She doesn’t lack rich and socially prominent suitors, but she belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. Divorce being unthinkable in that church at that time — during the Napoleonic wars — she converts to Roman Catholicism. Rome doesn’t permit divorce as such either, but the Pope can sometimes annul a marriage.

“According to her understanding,” writes Tolstoy, describing Helene, “the whole point of any religion was merely to provide recognized forms of propriety as a background for the satisfaction of human desires.” Then Tolstoy continues: “I imagine, (says Helene to her new Jesuit confessor) that having espoused the true faith I cannot be bound by any obligations laid upon me by a false religion.”

Helene would be reassured to know that her heritage lives on. Her standard is held up by men and women who, having acquired the liberty to do as they please, now demand religion to also applaud their moral choices. They want their churches, their priests, even the very Vicar of God, to approve and endorse what they do, or else they threaten him with irrelevance. God Himself becomes irrelevant unless he can be used to rubber stamp human desires – because, as Tolstoy points out, that’s what God is for, at least as far as Helene Bezuhov is concerned. That’s how it was in 1812 and that’s how it is in 2013.

If, on the other hand, genuine religion concerns the little matter of what is true and how we are to live in light of that truth, then whether that truth is relevant to and confirms our desires is beside the point. The martyrs of the church undoubtedly preferred to avoid suffering and preserve their lives, but they chose instead to accept their lot for the cause of Christ. Accordingly, we remember and celebrate their lives as signposts pointing to the coming kingdom.

In a world where so many of our brothers and sisters are still on the receiving end of persecution, martyrdom never loses its relevance, sad to say. Therefore, if we love God with all our hearts and glory in our salvation in Jesus Christ, we will do well to look to the likes of St. Stephen the Protomartyr and St. Polycarp of Smyrna rather than to the Helene Bezuhovs of this world.

09 March 2013

Publisher found

I am pleased to announce that my second book, provisionally titled, We Answer to Another: Authority, office and the image of God, will be published by Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock in Eugene, Oregon. Here is a brief abstract of the book:

Many observers tend to conflate authority and power, even when they give lip service to the difference between these two, by identifying authority with one or more of the various capacities at our disposal. Similarly many are inclined to view authority and freedom as, if not outright polarities, then dialectically related. By contrast, my argument is that authority is co-extensive with responsible agency and is resident in an office given us at creation. Moreover, when we encounter authority, we encounter nothing less than the image of God, which always points beyond itself. This central authoritative office is in turn manifested in a variety of offices related to the communities of which we are part.

Here is the table of contents as currently projected:


These details, including the title, are, of course, subject to modification. I will keep readers posted on the progress of the book as it makes its way through the publication process. Stay tuned.


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