August 31, 2006

“I Belong to God”

Category: Catechism,Theology :: Permalink

It may be easy for people to forget today, but in the time of the Reformation (and for some time after) the Reformed churches didn’t all subscribe to one confession of faith or one catechism.  Local pastors produced catechisms, not intending them to be the final statement of theology for their congregation but simply intending them to be good teaching tools for the congregation and, in particular, for its children.

Those days are largely gone.  Today, in Reformed circles, the catechism is the Heidelberg Catechism.  In Presbyterian circles, it’s the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  I can’t say I care much for the latter, though I do appreciate the way it begins (“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever”).  I do have a great love for the former, and especially the first question and answer (“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”).  But at the same time, I wish that men were still writing confessions of faith and producing catechisms today, correcting some errors in previous ones, incorporating some more recent insights, and warmly instructing today’s young people.

One man who is tackling that job (perhaps in the spirit of Jordan translating Leviticus: see the previous blog entry) is Rich Lusk.  Here’s his catechism: “I Belong to God: A Covenantal Catechism.”  I haven’t read it in detail, but it looks good and I particularly appreciate its attention to redemptive history and its inclusion of typology, even in its explanation of the Lord’s Supper.  Good stuff.  I look forward to spending some more time with it in the near future.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:49 am | Discuss (3)
August 28, 2006

Psalm 5

Category: Bible - OT - Psalms :: Permalink

Every Sunday, our congregation recites a psalm antiphonally.  I’ll say a line or two and the congregation responds with the next line or two.  Eventually, we’d like to learn to chant all the psalms (vigorously!), but that’s a long-term project.  For now, we’re reciting them responsively.

And every week, I’ve been trying to use a translation that’s as accurate as I can get and as close to the original syntax as I can get and still have it be understandable in English.  It’s been an interesting project so far.  I keep discovering that a lot of English translations miss things in the text or even mistranslate.  For instance, the NKJV, one of the most literal translations out there, frequently translates the word “rock” as “strength”!  Of course, all the translations I’ve looked at mistranslate the names of the offerings (e.g., “burnt offering” instead of “Ascension”) and have “LORD” (in capital letters) instead of “Yahweh.”

I certainly wouldn’t claim that my translations are necessarily the best.  But I appreciate what James Jordan wrote about his translation of Leviticus:

Of course, I’m not a Hebrew scholar, and I’m not the best person to do this.  But Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy has taught me that if I wait for the right person to do it, it will never be done, because the right persons generally don’t see the need to do it.  Thus, the thing to do is put out the best translation I can do, warts and all, and hope that it makes some “right person” irritated enough to do a better job himself!

So, imperfect though these translations are, I thought I would post them to invite your feedback so that I can make improvements for our next time through the Psalms.  Unfortunately, I can’t (at this moment, at least) seem to find my translations of Psalms 1-4.  But here is Psalm 5:

PSALM 5

For the director.
For flutes.
A Psalm.
By David.

To my words give ear, Yahweh;
Consider my groaning.
Heed the voice of my cry, my King and my God,
For to you I pray.
Yahweh, in the morning you hear my voice;
In the morning I lay it before you – and I watch,

Because you are not a Mighty One who takes pleasure in wickedness;
Not with you will evil sojourn.
The arrogant will not stand before your eyes;
You hate all who make trouble.
You destroy those who speak falsehood;
A man of bloodshed and deceit Yahweh abhors.

But as for me, in the abundance of your loyalty I will enter your house;
I will bow toward your holy temple in fear of you.

Yahweh, lead me in your righteousness because of my enemies.
Make your way straight before my face,
Because there is in his mouth nothing reliable;
Their inward part is destruction.
An open tomb is their throat;
Their tongue they make smooth.
Hold them guilty, God!
Let them fall by their own schemes!
In the abundance of their transgressions, cast them out
Because they are rebellious against you.

And let all those who take refuge in you rejoice!
Forever let them shout for joy,
And cover them.
And let those who love your name exult in you,
Because you bless the righteous man, Yahweh;
Like a shield, with favor you surround him.

[Updated: February 2009]

Posted by John Barach @ 11:16 pm | Discuss (0)

Getting the Love You Want

Category: Marriage :: Permalink

Years ago, when I lived in Lethbridge and was still unmarried, I frequented Brewster’s, a microbrewery and pub.  One of the regulars was a man — I think he taught at the college or university, I think his last name was “English,” and I know he himself was English — who used to alternate years in which he allowed himself to drink beer and years in which he didn’t.  There were exceptions, of course.  For instance, if he was “out of jurisdiction,” as he called it — which usually meant if he was in England — then he wasn’t bound by the rule.  But this was his regular practice.  I, of course, ran into him only on his “on” year.

The reason I mention him now is that, way back then, he mentioned to me once how valuable he had found a book by Harville Hendrix entitled Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.  Since then, I’ve seen it in used bookstores and at the Goodwill and haven’t bought it.  But a few weeks back I did finally pick it up from the library.

It’s a mixed bag.  Hendrix presents a lot of psychological stuff that I find questionable.  I haven’t considered it worth reading in depth, so I’m only skimming.  But some of what he says is worthwhile.

For instance, he describes the difference between what he calls an “unconscious marriage” and a “conscious marriage” (pp. 90-92).  Among the characteristics of a “conscious marriage” are these: 

You take responsibility for communicating your needs and desires to your partner.  In an unconscious marriage, you cling to the childhood belief that your partner automatically intuits your needs.  In a conscious marriage, you accept the fact that, in order to understand each other, you have to develop clear channels of communication….

You learn to value your partner’s needs and wishes as highly as you value your own.  In an unconscious marriage, you assume that your partner’s role in life is to take care of your needs magically.  In a conscious marriage, you let go of this narcissistic view and divert more and more of your energy to meeting your partner’s needs….

You accept the difficulty of creating a good marriage.  In an unconscious marriage, you believe that the way to have a good marriage is to pick the right partner.  In a conscious marriage you realize you have to be the right partner.  As you gain a more realistic view of love relationships, you realize that a good marriage requires commitment, discipline, and the courage to grow and change; marriage is hard work.

All quite basic stuff, right?  Yes, but it’s still good to be reminded of it. 

The last point, in particular, is something that I think singles need to hear.  We tend to think that the most important thing is finding the right partner.  Certainly that’s important.  But if that’s our main focus, we’re going to be terribly disappointed when our partner doesn’t act the way we think he should (“This isn’t the woman I married!  What have I done!  I’ve made a terrible mistake!”  Now what!”).  Having the right partner, as Hendrix says, isn’t as important as being the right partner.

Along this line, Hendrix tells the story of a man named Walter who complained about not having any friends.  He’d been looking and looking, but he couldn’t find them.  Hendrix thought he was being childish: 

He was locked into a view of the world that went something like this: wandering around the world were people on whose foreheads were stamped the words “Friend of Walter,” and his job was merely to search until he found them (p. 93).

Hendrix finally told him that the reason he didn’t have any friends was because there were no friends out there: “All people in the world are strangers.  If you want a friend, you’re going to have to go out and make one!” (p. 94).

So, too, with love.  We don’t want to work at it and take responsibility for it.  We simply want to “fall in love” and “live happily ever after” (p. 93).  And then, when we discover that our spouse doesn’t make is “happy ever after” we “fall out of love” instead of acting like grown-ups and working at love.  “We are slow to comprehend that, in order to be loved, we must first become lovers” (p. 95).

Reading further, I see that some of what Hendrix prescribes for healing marriages looks quite practical and helpful.  So, Dr. English (if that was your name), for this book recommendation which I didn’t take too seriously at first, I’d buy you a pint of good ale.  Except that I think 2006 is an “off” year for you….

Posted by John Barach @ 8:23 pm | Discuss (2)
August 23, 2006

The Consequences of Indifference

Category: Politics :: Permalink

Robert Putnam says that when people drop out of civic life, it is increasingly dominated by extremists (Bowling Alone, p. 342). After all, those who are passionate about issues don’t drop out. If someone is passionate about abortion — pro or con — he is more likely to vote, write letters to politicians, join a lobby group, run for office himself, and so forth. If someone doesn’t care about that or any other issue enough to motivate him to get involved, he’ll drop out, leaving the field in the hands of those who care strongly.

Strange policies may be passed because the guy who wants them shows up at the meeting. He speaks up. He presents the case. He strives to get elected himself or to get his friends elected. He gets his friends worked up so that they show up, too. And there may not be enough people who are passionately opposed to his position to outvote them.

But, more than that, there aren’t enough people who will say, “Hey, this issue just doesn’t grab me. It doesn’t strike me as the most important thing we could do or the best cause on which to spend our money.” People who are indifferent can be persuaded to become passionate. They can sometimes stand in the way of good decisions (e.g., a law against abortion) as much as in the way of bad ones. But they can also be a good balance so that extremists don’t have the field to themselves. “If you want me to vote your way, you have to persuade me first.”

Politics, Putnam is saying, is too important to be left in the hands of the passionate.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:58 pm | Discuss (0)

Observations from Bowling Alone

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

Some more stuff that interested me in Robert Putnam‘s Bowling Alone:

* Putnam writes, “Fund-raising typically means friend-raising” (p. 121).  That’s true for churches as much as for any other organization.

* In passing, talking about various possible causes for the current social disengagement, Putnam throws this in: “The sixties (most of which actually happened in the seventies)” (p. 187).

* It was disturbing to me to read (p. 352) that in 1987, 46% of those surveyed were opposed to interracial dating.  That figure dropped to 23% by 1999, but still: Almost half of the people surveyed in the States held this view as recently as 1987!  Similarly, in 1963, 61% of those surveyed would have supported laws against interracial marriage.  In 1998, however, only 11% did.  That indicates some change for the better, but it’s still sad.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:56 pm | Discuss (1)
August 22, 2006

Television and Social Capital

Category: Miscellaneous,Television :: Permalink

One of the chapters in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone deals with the impact of technology — and television in particular — on social capital, the bonds which tie a society together and which have been replaced in this generation by increasing civic disengagement and isolation.

What has brought about this disengagement?  There’s no one answer, Putnam says.  But a lot of the blame can be placed on television (or at least television as it is often used).  He quotes T. S. Eliot on TV: “It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome” (New York Post, Sept. 29, 1963, cited on p. 217).

The biggest consequence of television, Putnam claims, is that it brings us home (p. 223), so that we’re not involved as much with other people besides (perhaps) our own families.  We can’t be out on Tuesday night!  American Idol is on!  In fact, the American Idol results are on Wednesdays and we don’t want to miss that eitiher.  Besides, Law and Order is on Wednesdays.  And so forth.

Putnam is not claiming, of course, that television benefits family life; rather, television tends to isolate us from our families, too.  Because not everyone wants to watch the same show, many families now have more than on TV on at a time.

In fact, Putnam also suggests that channel surfing may be linked to superficial friendships (p. 226).  Don’t like the guy you’re talking to?  Switch channels.

(Putnam doesn’t discuss the internet, largely because the book was written several years ago, but I suspect that the internet exacerbates this problem.  Just as we channel surf, we surf the web, jumping from page to page, link to link, and so we surf our friends also.  In fact, it’s my impression that there’s something about the internet which breaks down our ability to concentrate.  It’s easy to surf; it’s much harder — or at least for me, I think — to read something online in any depth.  I wonder if researchers will start to see that the internet disrupts our ability to read — or concentrate at all — for sustained periods of time.  Does the internet give us all a case of Attention Deficit Disorder?)

In the end, Putnam concludes that television watching is “the single most consistant predictor of civic disengagement” (p. 231).  The more you watch TV, the less engaged you’ll be in your society.  In fact, the more you watch TV, the more likely you are to give the other driver the finger, too (p. 233).  TV makes us aware of problems … but less likely to do anything about them (p. 242).

In this connection, he quotes an Amish man speaking about “how the Amish know which technological inventions to admit and which to shun”:

We can almost always tell if a change will bring good or bad tidings.  Certain things we definitely do not want, like the television and the radio.  They would destroy our visiting practices.  We would stay at home with the television or radio rather than meet with other people.  The visiting practices are important because of the closeness of the people.  How can we care for the neighbor if we do not visit them or know what is going on in their lives? (cited pp. 234-235).

I’m not Amish or Amishly-inclined.  I enjoy TV and radio, watch movies — and read books, for that matter.  But I can see the point this Amish man is making.

I mention books, by the way, because, as Jim Jordan points out in one of his lectures, reading is one of the most anti-social inventions of all time.  When you watch TV, at least you can do that with other people present, but when you’re reading, you lower your head, shut the other people out, and retreat into your own world.  Everything the Amish man says about television here could be said about books, in fact.  If you’re racing through your Dean Koontz novel to see how everything works out, you won’t be inclined to visit with your neighbor.

Nevertheless, I can grant the Amish man’s point only to some degree.  It still seems possible to watch television and listen to the radio — and read books — judiciously.  I admit that many people don’t, but one can limit television watching to a show or two, to read in the evening after everyone else has gone home, to make a point of getting involved in the community and visiting fellow church members and chatting with your neighbours at least sometime during the week, even if you don’t do it on the one or two evenings when your favorite show is on.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:41 pm | Discuss (3)
August 21, 2006

Dullsville?

Category: Politics :: Permalink

Robert Putnam talks about how, in the last third of the 20th century, interest in politics has been waning among the rising generation (Bowling Alone, pp. 35-36).  Those who grew up in the first two-thirds of the century are, generally, more interested in politics than those who grew up in the last third.

I have to admit that that’s certainly true of me.  While certain issues interest me, I find most things having to do with government — municipal or federal — pretty dull.

Perhaps part of that is the sense that there’s little I can do to change things.  Growing up in Alberta I was aware that once Quebec and Ontario voted, the whole thing was over and how I voted in Alberta wasn’t likely to affect the final outcome.  Add to that a sense that in voting I would simply be choosing (to borrow a phrase from someone) “the least objectionable among a field of undesirables.”

I suppose you could also take into consideration my general dislike of meetings.  I recall an episode of the Canadian comedy series Wayne and Schuster, in which they played Hollywood consultants called in to help the TV show ”This Week in Parliament” improve its ratings (which, they pointed out, were lower than those of the little dot that stays on your TV after you turn it off).  Certainly I’d rather watch that little dot than subject myself to watching a debate in parliament!

But to top everything off, I simply find other areas of life far more interesting.  Given the choice, I’d rather read a novel than a newspaper.  If I do read a newspaper (or World magazine, for that matter), I’m more interested in the comics and the entertainment news (movie reviews, book reviews, music reviews) than in the news of the world or anything having to do with the government of the country.

All of this makes me wonder a bit about Putnam’s positive program (if you’ll pardon the alliteration).  I’m interested in the growth of what he calls “social capital,” but I can’t say that I feel much desire to get involved in politics or to read about current events in the newspaper.  Is this a flaw in my character?  Or am I correct to sense that there are more important things — and certainly more enjoyable things — than politics and the operations of the government and its debates?  How important is it really that I keep up with world news when there’s a Raymond Chandler novel calling to me?

Posted by John Barach @ 11:13 pm | Discuss (4)
August 19, 2006

Good Gossip?

Category: Ethics,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

Robert Putnam on the social benefits of close-knit communities and their gossip: “Dense social ties facilitate gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation — an essential foundation for trust in a complex society” (Bowling Alone, p. 21).

Given that some gossip is clearly destructive and sinful (e.g., talk aimed at tearing down someone else’s reputation) or at least not upbuilding, is there a place for other sorts of gossip?  I suspect so.

After all, there should be some mechanism in society for people to know, for instance, that you don’t want to have their daughter babysit your children but you can rely on her to be there anytime you need her or that if you buy a car from him you won’t likely get your money’s worth and so forth.  You wouldn’t want to ask some girl to babysit, have a catastrophe because of her incompetence, and then find out that all your friends knew it wouldn’t work out but didn’t tell you because “We don’t gossip.”

Perhaps instead of condemning “gossip” outright, it would be better to say that there are certain kinds of talk about other people that should be forbidden but other kinds of talk that are sometimes necessary and helpful to build trust and establish people’s reputations in society.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:45 pm | Discuss (2)
August 5, 2006

Bowling Alone 1

Category: Miscellaneous,Politics :: Permalink

I think it was Mark Driscoll‘s The Radical Reformission which first pointed me to Robert Putnam‘s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.   I’m now about halfway through it.  It’s not the most exciting reading — analysis of statistics probably bores most people, in fact — but it is important reading (or at least skimming) for pastors.

Bowling Alone is about the decline in social capital in the past few decades.  While physical capital includes things such as money and property, social capital has to do with networks, connections between people, bonds of reciprocity and trust.

In the first section of the book, Putnam examines political and civic involvement, religious participation, workplace relationships, informal social gatherings, volunteering and philanthropy and more.  Time and again, he finds the same pattern: a gradual increase in the early part of the 20th century, with a dip around the time of the depression, followed by a steep increase after the war, but culminating in an increasingly rapid decrease beginning in the 70s and speeding up from about 1980 on.

And again and again, the changes don’t appear to be related to education or finances or ethnic background or geographic location.  Rather, they are generational.  The generation(s) that came of age more recently than the 70s have less interest in politics, church attendance, social gatherings, volunteering, and so forth than previous generations did.

There are, of course, lots of new organizations, but many have relatively few members and few have local chapters.  Many “clubs” and “associations” and “organizations” are actually nothing more than mailing lists.  You don’t attend meetings or discuss issues.  You simply send in your donation and you join the organization which then mails you info about the group and the occasional demand for more money.

Interestingly, Putnam points out that “religious” people tend to be more involved, though they often get involved in their own circles and not so much in the society around them.  But those who aren’t interested in being involved in the activities of the church and in its community are less and less likely to attend, so that there is an increasingly clear polarization between believers and unbelievers (p. 74).

I plan to write more about this book, but if this first taste interests you I’d recommend tracking the book down in a library and skimming it.  I don’t think it’s worth your time for a detailed, leisurely read nor do I know if I’d want to own the book.  But if you’re a pastor,you ought to read this one because part of your calling is to draw hurting isolated people into a warm, loving community and that involves understanding not only that people around you are isolated and withdrawn but also why they are that way and how that can change.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:25 pm | Discuss (4)

Scoop

Category: Movies :: Permalink

Yesterday afternoon, Moriah’s mom watched Aletheia (thanks, Mom!) while Moriah and I went to Ashland to see Scoop, the latest film from Woody Allen.  It’s a mystery-comedy, something Allen has done before, often in between more serious projects.  It was clunky at times.  Allen’s character was embarrassingly grating at times and Scarlett Johannsen, it seemed to me, didn’t always seem to be able to make her funny lines work.  The ending, too, disappointed me.

Still, it was fun in its way, though not up to the level of The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and far below Manhattan Murder Mystery, which I consider the funniest Woody Allen movie I’ve seen.  The best line in Scoop?  “I was born in the Hebrew persuasion, but when I got older I converted to Narcissism.”

We realized that we haven’t been out to see a movie together since the day we got engaged (The Return of the King).  Yesterday was fun and we’ll probably do that more often.  Any movies out right now that you particularly recommend?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:09 pm | Discuss (2)