Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Triumph of the Philistine

I have recently been reading The Chronicles of Wasted Time, the memoirs of the curmudgeonly British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. I was first introduced to Muggeridge over twenty years ago by my maternal grandmother, who lent me his Jesus Rediscovered a few months after I announced my intention to study theology. Muggeridge, who had been raised in an agnostic, socialist home – his father was a Labour MP – and who married into the leading family of the Fabian Left – his wife was the niece of Beatrice Webb – grew disillusioned with Marxism, seeing the reality of Stalinist state-terrorism first hand as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow in the early 1930s and later in life converted to Roman Catholicism. I picked up a copy of his memoirs in a used book store over ten years ago and was inspired to finally read them when I came across Anthony Powell’s recollections of Muggeridge in his own four volume autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling. In The Green Stick, the first volume of The Chronicles of Wasted Time, I found the following interesting observation:

As I see it, in the twentieth century the genius of man has gone into science and the resultant technology, leaving the field of mysticism and imaginative art and literature almost entirely to charlatans and sick or obsessed minds. The result has been that, whereas in the last half century more progress has been made in the exploration of man’s material circumstances, and in the application of the knowledge thereby gained, than in the whole of the rest of recorded time, the corresponding contribution to art and literature has been negligible and derisory. The circumstances of the age are just not conducive to such activities, and those who nonetheless pursue them tend to become unhinged or junkies or alcoholics, if not all three. (pp. 208-209)

Muggeridge does not elaborate further on this at any great length – unless the theme of belonging to a doomed civilization in its dying days that underlies his entire autobiography is regarded as such an elaboration. It seems to me that it is an observation that deserves further consideration.

There are those, of course, who would contest Muggeridge’s assessment of the state of art and literature in the twentieth century. I am not one of those, and would say that if anything, he understated his case and that in the twenty-first century in which we now live, things are abysmally worse. Consider poetry, as just one example. English poetry of all sorts and levels flourished in the nineteenth century. It was the century of Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, of Shelly, Keats and Byron, of Scott and the Brownings, of Swinburne, Macauley, and Tennyson. Kipling and Housman survived into the twentieth century, the early decades of which gave us Auden and Owen, Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Frost. Since World War II, however, English poetry has come to resemble nothing so much as the title of Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Wasteland”. The fact that the late Maya Angelou is today considered to be a great poet is all the evidence we need to show that English poetry has gone from its zenith to its nadir within less than a hundred years.

If man’s twentieth century achievements in the realm of science and technology are linked, as Muggeridge suggests, with the decline and degradation of arts and literature, the question that then arises is one of how the two are related to each other. Are science and art somehow mutually incompatible with one another? Are the mental facilities of man so limited as to allow him to only achieve in one of these two areas at a time?

I think that it is to be explained by the shift in the way the Western world understands civilization. Traditional Western civilization was built upon the idea that human activity is directed towards certain ends. Some of these ends are defined by material needs and desires such as the need for food, clothing and shelter. Others are goods which are transcendent, which exist in a higher realm beyond that perceived through the senses. The ends of human activity are not equal but arranged in a hierarchy of importance in which the transcendent goods – goodness itself, truth, beauty, justice, etc., are higher and more important than the lower, material goods. Therefore, whether a society is civilized or not, and the level of its civilization, is determined by the extent of its pursuit of these higher goods, of which its arts and literature are indispensable indicators.

The foundation of this way of looking at things – the idea that there is something beyond the world as perceived through the senses – has been subjected to a steady process of erosion for almost a thousand years beginning with William of Ockham’s denial of the reality of universals. The less men came to believe in a world beyond the material, the less important the higher goods became to them and the more important the lower goods. Hence man turned his efforts more and more towards science, the means whereby he gains knowledge of and mastery over the physical world and so obtains his every material desire.

In a very real sense, the eclipse of art and literature by science and technology represents the triumph of the spirit of the philistine. I do not mean philistine in the literal sense of the people that ancient Israel fought against but in the metaphorical sense. The metaphorical philistine is the man who looks for nothing in life, beyond material security, other than the comforts and amusements, themselves material, that distract him. He sees no purpose in schooling beyond getting a job, and no purpose in higher education beyond getting a better paying job. He sees no need for a higher life of the mind and spirit for himself, and responds to those who seek such for themselves, with scorn and derision.

In previous centuries, philistinism was associated with certain versions of Protestantism. The Protestant Reformation had begun with Martin Luther re-asserting the Pauline doctrine that salvation is God reaching down to man in Christ and giving us His grace to be received through faith. Some Protestants drew from this the conclusion that all human pursuit of higher goods was “religion” and offensive to God and sought to purge their churches and often their lands of it. English Puritanism, which cancelled liturgy, smashed church organs, and stripped churches of beauty and decoration in the name of “simplicity”, which judged art not by the standards of aesthetics but of a very Pharisaic morality, is an obvious example of this.

The basic essence of philistinism, however, is materialism rather than Protestant theology. That human intellect has been poured into science and technology in the twentieth century at the expense of the arts and literature represents the ultimate triumph of philistinism, its having conquered its ancient enemy, the life of the mind, and forced it to pay tribute. Meanwhile, the world of arts and literature has been taken over by those so aptly described by Muggeridge as “charlatans and sick or obsessed minds” as to make the philistine seem more appealing. While the man who sees no point in the paintings of Michelangelo, El Greco, Titian and Poussin, the plays of Shakespeare and Racine, or the verse of Donne, Dryden, Goethe and Baudelaire, and treats those who do as objects of ridicule, was obviously a fool, there is something to be said for the man who sees no point in trying to read the unreadable verse of Angelou, the woman who cannot sit through a production of an Ensler play, and the person, man or woman, who, unable to make the insane equation of nihilistic subversion with aesthetic value, walks away in disgust from most of which is produced as “art” today. So perhaps even the cloud of the triumph of philistinism has its silver lining.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Portrait of a Canadian Storyteller

Robertson Davies: Man of Myth by Judith Skelton Grant, Toronto, Penguin Books, 1994, 788 pp.

First published twenty years ago, Judith Skelton Grant’s Robertson Davies: Man of Myth is the definitive biography of its subject. Written in the last decade of its subject’s life and with his co-operation is an exhaustive portrait of the man who is usually and deservedly thought of as our country’s most distinguished man of letters.

It is as the author of three popular and critically acclaimed trilogies of novels that Robertson Davies is most widely known. His career was a multi-faceted one, however, and Grant presents us with each facet in intricate detail. From his childhood, Davies’ earliest ambition was to be a stage actor, an ambition he actively pursued through participation in many and various amateur productions during his student days and which was ultimately rewarded with Tyrone Guthrie invited him to join the Old Vic Company after his graduation from Balliol College in Oxford with a Bachelor of Letters degree. It was during his two years with the Old Vic Company, where Australian Brenda Newbold, later Mrs. Robertson Davies, was stage manager, that Davies’ realized that his future did not lie in acting and turned his ambition towards playwriting.

It was with the intention of becoming a playwright that Davies returned to Canada with his new bride in 1940 and over the course of his life he did write, direct, and produce many plays. To pay the bills, he began writing columns for his father’s newspapers, the Kingston Whig-Standard and the Peterborough Examiner, under the pen-name Samuel Marchbanks. He created this nom de plume by combining the first name of his great-grandfather with the maiden name of his great-grandmother. Under this name, Davies’ wrote the column which ostensibly dealt with literary, artistic, and other cultural criticism, as a witty and erudite, eccentric curmudgeon. The column became very popular and during the years Davies’ wrote it the journalistic facet of his career expanded as he became literary editor of Saturday Night and then the editor of the Peterborough Examiner.

Davies continued to edit his father’s newspaper until 1962 when he took on a new and more illustrious position as Master of the newly founded Massey College at the University of Toronto. During his time as editor, however, he had also written his first trilogy, the Salterton trilogy. He had been writing plays all along but his efforts had not met with the response he was looking for, either in Canada or abroad, and he decided to try his hand at a new genre. He drew inspiration from his stage experience for the first novel, which is the story of an amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and from his experience as an editor for the second novel, which tells of the consequences than ensue when a man submits a false engagement announcement to the newspaper in a malicious effort to embarrass both the editor and the couple named. The trilogy is named after Salterton, the city in which the first two novels and much of the third are set. Salterton is a fictional depiction of Kingston, to which Davies’ family had moved after living in the villages of Thamesville and Renfrew, and where Davies’ had studied at Queens College after graduating from “Canada’s Eton”, the Upper Canada College (1) and before applying to Balliol. Each of these places and institutions makes its way into Davies’ novels in one form or another – Thamesville becomes the “Deptford” of his second trilogy, Renfrew becomes the “Blairlogie” of the third trilogy, while Upper Canada College becomes the Colborne College that appears in the second and third trilogies.

Although the first trilogy sold well and firmly established his reputation as a novelist it was the second trilogy that won him international acclaim. Davies had a recurring vision in which two boys on a village street in winter, one throwing a snowball that contained a rock. In his novel Fifth Business, this vision becomes an incident in which the snowball hits a pregnant woman instead of the intended target, and the narrator of the novel, the boy who the snowball missed, traces the impact of the snowball through his own life and the lives of the woman hit, her son, and the boy who threw the snowball. Further consequences of the incident are discussed in the second novel, in which the son of the boy who threw the snowball undergoes Jungian psychoanalysis in Switzerland, and the third in which the son of the woman hit by the snowball, tells the story of his life and how he became the master magician Magnus Eisengrim.

Davies’ wrote this trilogy while he was Master of Massey College, a position for which he was personally chosen by Vincent Massey, life-long Canadian diplomat, the first Canadian born Governor General, and heir of the family that had made its fortune in farm equipment. Massey and Davies, both of whom had been to Balliol, had similar ideas as to what the residential graduate college should be. Davies was a popular Master and remained in the position for twenty years until his retirement in 1982 after which he wrote his third and final trilogy, in which Massey College appears as “The College of St. John and the Holy Ghost”, or “Spook.”

It was during the years that Davies wrote this third trilogy that Grant researched and wrote his biography and this influenced both the trilogy and the biography. In Grant’s biography, the Salterton and Deptford trilogies have a chapter each, whereas the Cornish trilogy is given one chapter per novel. Meanwhile in the trilogy itself, the character of Simon Darcourt is engaged in writing the biography of the late Francis Cornish.

In her biography of Davies, Grant explores the man Robertson Davies, and the influences that made him who he was. His father, Rupert, had left his native Wales while a young man, and came to Canada where, starting out as a typesetter, he became a successful newspaper publisher and editor, and eventually a Senator. In Canada, Rupert met and married Florence McKay, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, ultimately of Scottish and Dutch extraction. Grant gives a detailed account of both family lines, including the ancestral stories that later made their way into Davies’ writings, as well as the strained relationship between Rupert and Florence, and later between mother and son, that was to have a huge impact upon his writing – think of the relationships Solly Bridgewater and Dunstan Ramsay have with their mothers in the first two trilogies.

Rupert and Florence, who met in a Congregationalist Church and later brought their family up in the Presbyterian Church, practiced a severe, Puritan, form of Calvinism. Robertson rejected this form of theology and was confirmed in the Anglican Church at Christ Church Cathedral by the Bishop of Oxford while he was a student at Balliol. The Calvinism he rejected while acknowledging its lingering influence, the traditions and ceremonies of Anglicanism, and his own idiosyncratic and somewhat heterodox theology, can be found throughout his writings, both under his own name and as Samuel Marchbanks.

He was not a very political person, especially in the partisan sense of the word. At various times Grant describes him as a “small l liberal” and a “small c conservative” and he came from perhaps the last generation in which it would make sense to apply both of these terms to the same person simultaneously. His father, who was appointed to the Senate upon the recommendation of Mackenzie King, was a Liberal, the party for which Davies usually voted. His liberalism can be seen in the anarchistic individualism on display in his writings as Samuel Marchbanks, and his conservatism in his love for ceremony, ritual, and tradition, as well as his contempt for the cult of the “common man”. Through his father’s press credentials he was able to be present at the coronation of King George VI, which took place in his Oxford days, and Grant quotes him as having written in the Whig-Standard that the event made him “a Monarchist for life” commenting that “He is still a monarchist, valuing the Crown as a tradition and symbol of permanency that stands above temporary governments”, an admirably conservative sentiment.

Davies was a man of broad classical and humanist learning, with immense knowledge of many arcane subjects. This provided him with ample resources, in addition to his own experiences and those of his forebears, to draw upon as a writer. It also formed his view of what constituted civilization that it was something more than what laws and markets provide. Grant quotes him as saying “Only greatness in the things of the mind and spirit brings lasting reputation” and describes both his belief in Canada’s artistic and cultural potential and his frustration that so few of his countrymen shared his vision. Nevertheless, he continued to do what he could both as writer and educator, to contribute to the artistic and cultural life of Canada and we are a richer nation for it.

Robertson Davies’ novels are well worth reading and for those who wish to know more about the man behind them, there is no better place to turn than to Judith Skelton Grant’s marvelous biography.

(1) The principal of Upper Canada College at the time was W. L. Grant, the son-in-law of another famous Canadian educator George Parkin, brother-in-law of Vincent Massey whom Davies would come to regard as a kind of spiritual father, father of conservative philosopher George Grant and grandfather of liberal philosopher Michael Ignatieff. I do not know if Judith Skelton Grant is related to this family, but she writes of W. L. Grant as being very influential on and supportive of Davies. She also records a dance to which Davies took Grant's daughter Allison (who would become Michael Ignatieff's mother) as his date.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Cave of Our Own Construction

Addicted to Distraction by Bruce G. Charlton, Buckingham, United Kingdom, University of Buckingham Press, 2014, 163 pp., £10

Among traditionalists, reactionaries, paleoconservatives and the rest of us who comprise what is usually called “the Right” it is customary, when the mass media is discussed, to maintain that it is heavily biased towards the Left. Our progressive opponents deride this claim, pointing to the television news channels, radio talk shows, and printed publications that offer an editorial perspective that is widely thought of as being “conservative”. In response we might point out that such media outlets offer a “neoconservative” perspective which is actually a form of liberalism – it is all about how democracy, capitalism and individualism are the hope and salvation of mankind, to be brought to the uttermost corners of the world by the force of the American military if necessary. A defense of actual conservative ideas and institutions, from a perspective that is critical of the modern assumptions that neoconservatives shared with the progressive and liberal Left is avoided by the media like the plague.

Recently, however, I encountered the following sentence which offers a rather different assessment of the relationship between the mass media and the Left:

Leftism is the Mass Media, and the Mass Media is Leftism, inseparable, the same thing: this of course means that Leftism (in its modern form) depends utterly on the continuation of the Mass Media (depends on itself!), stands or falls with the Mass Media. (bold indicates italics in original)

This remarkable sentence can be found on pages 26 to 27 of a fascinating new book entitled Addicted to Distraction. The author is Dr. Bruce G. Charlton, a physician and psychiatrist who is Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham. He is also a Christian and a prominent blogger in that right-wing sector of the internet known as the “Orthosphere” in the broader sense of the term that includes not just the website by that name but various others with a similar right-wing, traditionalist Christian perspective, including Dr. Charlton’s own site, where the term was originally coined, and this one.

The quoted sentence would elicit from many, probably most, people the response that it confuses the distinction between that which is neutral – in this case the technology of large-scale communication – and that which is charged – the thoughts and words conveyed by that technology. This is a conditioned response, one which is made without much if any thought being put into it, and it raises the question of how valid this distinction actually is. Canada’s greatest conservative philosopher, George Grant, did not think it was valid and devoted much of his thought and writing to demonstrating that technology was anything but neutral. It was another Canadian of Grant’s generation, a pioneer in the study of media communications named Marshal McLuhan, who famously remarked that “the medium is the message” and it is from the launching pad of this insight of McLuhan’s that Dr. Charlton’s own reflections on the nature of the mass media take off.

This does not mean that the mass media that he equates with the Left consists merely of communications technology. Dr. Charlton distinguishes between two senses of the expression mass media. There is the technology itself – print, radio, television, internet, etc – and then there is the system into which all this technology is integrated, the “unified network of communications”. It is the latter which is the focus of his discussion.

Another important distinction he makes is between the Old Left and the New Left. The Old Marxist Left of the trades unions and socialist parties was revolutionary but it was also utopian and visionary. It sought to overthrow the institutions of the existing order but with the idea that it would replace them with a new order that would be a Paradise on earth. The New Left is the Left of “Permanent Revolution” or “perpetual opposition”, which Dr. Charlton describes as the idea that:

The true revolutionary – such as the avant garde artist or radical intellectual – was intrinsically subversive; and would always be in revolt against whoever was in power, changing sides as necessary to achieve this. (p. 18)

If the New Left is always seeking to subvert, oppose, and to overthrow then its agenda is entirely negative. It seeks nothing but destruction and is essentially nihilistic. This, Dr. Charlton argues, is also the essential nature of the mass media.

He describes several specific techniques by which the mass media subverts the good. For example, when Anders Brevik killed all those kids in Norway a couple of years ago the media initially reported that he was a right-wing Christian. Brevik was not a professing Christian at all but the initial reports that contained the falsehood created a far deeper impression than subsequent retractions. Dr. Charlton calls this “first strike framing”, a technique whereby the media subverts something positive – in this case Christianity – by creating a false association in the first reports of an atrocity from which the lasting visceral response is derived. (pp. 71-75)

The subversiveness of the mass media does not lie merely in certain techniques, however. Nor is it to be found in some cabal of conspirators who pull the levels of the media behind the scenes, Dr. Charlton insists, but in the very nature of the system itself. The mass media, as he describes it, is an integrated network of communications technology that has so permeated society that it envelops and surrounds us. It generates a pseudoreality of image and opinion that distracts us from the real world in which we live. The images and opinions it generates are subject to change at any moment and may completely contradict those that preceded them but are presented to us as absolute truths disagreement with which renders a person a dangerous, crazy, outsider. This combination of short-term absolutism with long-term complete relativism, Dr. Charlton labels “Opinionated Relativism”. By distracting us from the real world, common sense, and personal experience and bombarding us with dogmatic but ever-changing opinions and images it subverts our confidence in that which is true, good, and beautiful. His characterization of it as evil and demonic seems entirely appropriate.

So what do we do about it?

While Dr. Charlton does not proffer a plan as to how the mass media system can be defeated as a whole – he indicates that the system will have to collapse on its own before there can be a large scale return to reality – he offers some helpful suggestions as to how we can deal with it as individuals. We are addicted to the false reality the mass media presents us, he argues, and rather than try to wean ourselves off of it, for those who think that they can pick out what is good from the mass media are the most deceived and deluded, we ought to quit it cold turkey. While the process of “detoxing”, by which we stop seeking out, paying attention to, and believing the media and turn our attention back towards reality is one that will involve failure – for we are immersed in the media in societies where everybody is an addict – there is hope, he says, at least for the Christian, because reality is superior to the falsehoods of the media.

Addicted to Distraction is a short book but one that is packed with insights the surface of which I have only begun to scratch in this review. I heartily recommend it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Dr. Bob Jones or: How I Learned to Stop Zionizing and Love the Palestinians

In the late summer of 1990 Saddam Hussein ordered his Iraqi forces to invade and conquer the small country of Kuwait. This initiated a crisis that led to a coalition of nations coming together under American leadership to drive Hussein back into Iraq. The campaign, “Operation Desert Storm”, began in the middle of January 1991 and was over by the end of February.

One nation that very much wanted to participate in the coalition but was actively and intensely persuaded not to do so by US President George H. W. Bush was Israel. Bush’s reasons for not wanting Israel to actively participate were simple and sound – her presence would break the coalition, as all of America’s other allies in the region would desert her and possibly align themselves with Hussein. Saddam Hussein, knowing this, launched Scud missiles in the direction of Israel, hoping to provoke an attack from the Israeli government, then headed by the belligerent Yitzhak Shamir.

Shamir resented Bush’s insistence that the coalition’s operation against Hussein ought to take precedence over Israel’s immediate right of retaliation and I remember sympathizing with him. I was a fourteen year old teenager at the time and, although not yet a Christian believer – I would place my faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour later that summer – I was a firm Zionist, on what I thought were Scriptural grounds. My Zionist would intensify after I accepted Christ and remained strong through high school and my first three years at Providence College in Otterburne. Indeed, I remember a heated debate at Saturday morning brunch one morning, early in my first semester at Providence, in which a friend who was in his last semester and I, both argued for Israel and the Jews, against another friend, a student in the seminary with whom we were sitting.

My main theological influences in the early years of my Christian walk had come from fundamentalism, a form of conservative Protestantism that had admirably fought for Scriptural authority and the historic teachings of Christianity on matters such as the Trinity, deity, virgin birth, miracles and literal bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, against the unbelief that had swept the churches in the form of liberalism or modernism. Fundamentalism itself, however, had been largely influenced by a system of Scriptural interpretation called dispensationalism that had started with the Plymouth Brethren in England in the nineteenth century, and through the influence of the Scofield Reference Bible had spread throughout other Protestant denominations. Purporting to be more literal than other systems that relied upon historical exegetical traditions, dispensationalism divided Scriptural history into a series of ages, in which man was tested by God under a particular arrangement, each time failing and being judged. We are living in the Age of Grace,
dispensationalists taught, that is a parenthesis in the Age of Law. The Age of Grace will end with the church being removed from earth in the rapture, after which God will finish His dealings with national Israel, pour out His wrath upon the world in the judgement of the Great Tribulation, which will end with Christ returning to establish His kingdom of earth, which He will rule from Jerusalem for a thousand years.

While still a “fundamentalist” in the sense of having a high view of Scriptural authority and no use for the apostasy and unbelief that is liberalism or modernism my theology has grown much more “high church” as I have developed a greater appreciation for the importance of church tradition in interpretation of Scripture. I am no longer a dispensationalist. Yet oddly enough, it was from a man who was an uncompromising adherent of the form of theology I described in the previous paragraph, that I first learned to question the Christian ultra-Zionism that so frequently appeals to this form of interpreting the Scriptures for support.

Dr. Bob Jones Jr. was the son of the famous Methodist evangelist who founded a fundamentalist Christian college that later grew into the institution that well deserves its reputation as the “World’s Most Unusual University”. When it evolved into a university upon moving to its current campus in Greenville, South Carolina, the second Dr. Bob Jones took over the presidency from his father, and under his administration it gained an emphasis on fine arts and high culture that is itself unusual for the type of fundamentalism it espouses. He was himself a Shakespearean scholar and actor, talents which he put to use in developing the university’s fine arts department, which also includes a professional opera association, and after the Second World War he started the collection of Baroque and other religious art now housed in the university’s renowned art gallery.

When I was in my third year of studies at Providence College, I read his memoirs entitled Cornbread and Caviar, which had been published in 1985 by the publishing arm of Bob Jones University. I love reading autobiographies, a genre which fundamentalists excel in, and of fundamentalist autobiographies, Cornbread and Caviar was the crème de la crème. From cover to cover it is filled with fascinating and amusing anecdotes as well as uncompromising, straightforward, commentary on the political and religious issues of the day, backed with the wisdom of the ages and old-fashioned common sense.

The thirteenth chapter is entitled “The Middle East”, in which Dr. Jones tells stories about his many visits to the region, and the interesting people, Jewish, Muslim and Christian, that he had encountered there. In the course of doing so he comments on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Theologically, he was an uncompromising dispensationalist, and he relates a conversation with former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, in which he compared Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War to Gideon’s victory in the book of Judges, and “pointed out to him that some day when they recognize the Messiah, they will have all the land from ‘the river of Egypt’ to the Euphrates”. (p.139) Nevertheless, he displayed an even-handed fairness towards both sides in the conflict, that I had never before seen encountered in the writings of someone from his theological perspective.

After praising the Jordanians (under which term he seems to include the Palestinians) as “the most gentle of people and most faithful of friends” he wrote:

I know God’s promise to Abraham still holds good, and there is blessing for those who bless his descendants and curses for those who curse them. I know too, however, that they are back in the land today, many of them in unbelief and agnosticism, some in atheism, and almost all in rebellion against God’s law. I do not know a more ungodly nation than Israel…I admire the wonderful development, the rich farms, the towering forests, and the sturdy cities which have sprung up since the beginning of the Jewish state of Israel. At the same time, I lament the fact that they are so hostile to Christian missions and so intolerant of Israeli Jews who are converted to Christ. I lament the unkind treatment and arrogance which they have so often shown to the Arabs. I can well understand the resentment of the Jordanians and certainly cannot blame them for it. If you talk to any well-educated Arab and to any honest Jew, you will hear tales of atrocity and cruelty perpetrated upon the Arabs in the land of Israel. It is hard to realize how a people who have been so persecuted and cruelly treated themselves through the years can show so little kindness and gentleness towards those whose lands they have overrun. (pp. 138-139)

He spoke well of Teddy Kollek, King Hussein of Jordan, David Ben Gurion, and Moshe Dayan, his encounters with each of whom he recollected, before going on to blast “a group of self-styled Fundamentalists” (Jerry Falwell was the leader of this group, although his name is not mentioned) for telling Menachem Begin “that the Fundamentalists of America stood behind him in all of his policies and unqualifiedly supported him”. (p. 140) He wrote:

At the same time these men slobbered over Begin and his government, that government was persecuting Christian Arabs and Jews who had been won to Christ. A godly Arab on the West Bank, married to an American missionary and the only man on the city council of Ramallah who was not a Socialist or a Communist, was picked up in the middle of the night and tortured by Begin’s government. That man is now facing a hip operation necessitated very largely by his treatment by the Israeli government. People who are interested in the gospel and welfare of their Christian brethren in Israel might well rejoice in the fact that Menachem Begin is no longer in power, though his successor is as vile a man as Begin. (p. 141)

He then revealed just what sort of a man Begin was – as was Yitzhak Shamir, clearly whom he had in mind when he wrote “some of the men still in power”:

What the press does not tell you very often is that Begin and some of the men still in power were terrorists; that they murdered British soldiers during the time of the British occupation of Palestine; that Begin blew up the King David Hotel, killing the British soldiers whose headquarters was there; and that he and his companions in Irgun (a terrorist organization) slaughtered in one night a whole Arab village of some 200 to 300 people, including infants, pregnant women, and crippled old people.

I had not heard of any of this before, but I later confirmed that everything he said here was in fact the case.

He then told where the bottom line was for him “I have a great love for both Jews and Arabs, but I hate tyranny, terrorism, and violence just as much on the part of Jewish government as I do on the part of an Arab government”.

In the concluding paragraphs of the section from the chapter that I have been quoting, he ridicules as folly the idea that we should not rebuke the Israeli government for its wickedness when the prophets were sent to the kings of Israel and Judah to do just that, the silliness of American ambassadors who think they can bring peace to the region, and the arrogance of Israeli rabbis “and their rabble followers” who hate Christianity and Christian missions, but:

demand from this country [The United States] financial and military support. They want us to supply them arms, munitions, and aircraft while they would deny us the right to send missionaries to Israel to win Jews for Christ. (p. 142)

This was very different from the moral Manichaeism that I had previously encountered in dispensationalist writings about Israel. I recognized immediately that it was a more balanced, common-sensical, and Scriptural approach and once I confirmed that everything he had said about Israel’s persecution of Christians and Begin and Shamir’s terrorist origins was factual – and it was – I became far less willing to automatically excuse everything Israel did, and far more sympathetic to the sufferings of the Arabs. Since then, my theology has moved away from dispensationalism and towards church tradition (although hopefully not away from Scriptures in the process) but I continue to be grateful to Dr. Jones for opening my eyes on this issue, particularly in the present crisis when it has become clear to me that some of Israel’s “Christian” supporters would continue to support and justify Israel in anything she does up to and including the point of genocide against the Palestinian Arabs.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Real Threat to Israel – and to the Rest of Us

Since the latest round in the Israel/Palestine conflict we have seen a phenomenon arise that is cause for great concern. “Protest rallies” have been held against Israel that would be better described as riots than peaceful demonstrations. Recently in Calgary, for example, an anti-Israeli mob gathered on the steps of the Alberta city’s City Hall to protest Israel’s airstrikes. What, exactly, they thought the city of Alberta could do about it, is unclear. At any rate, the “demonstration” broke out into violence as the mob turned on a small handful of Israel supporters who, perhaps unwisely, were also present. Several of them were injured and hospitalized as a result. Mercifully, nobody was killed.

The Calgary riot is far from being the only example. The same thing has happened in other major Canadian cities such as Toronto and across the rest of the Western world. Indeed, while this sort of things is new to us for the most part here in Canada, in some countries, such as France, it is both old hat and far more extreme. The riots in France have been aptly compared to the Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Nazi Germany in 1938 in which Jewish homes, synagogues, and stores were vandalized and ransacked. The biggest difference between the two events was that in 2014 Paris, the rioters who were smashing windows and attacking Jews were not Aryan supremacists but Arabs who mixed praises to Allah, with their gutter level, Nazi-era, anti-Semitism.

This sort of thing does a huge disservice to the Palestinian Arabs living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank in whose name these protests are ostensibly being held. So, of course, does the actions of Hamas, the despicable terrorist group that hurls rockets at civilian neighbourhoods in Israel from launchers that it hides in schools, nurseries, and hospitals in an utterly evil attempt to maximize the deaths of non-combatants on both sides (for the most part ineffective when it comes to Israeli citizens). This is not what I wish to focus on here, however.

The fact that we are experiencing this sort of nonsense throughout the West is indicative of a much deeper problem, one which very few commentators seem willing to address. Some go out of their way to avoid addressing it. Arthur Weinreb, for example, recently writing in the neo-conservative Canadian Free Press, said that the police and not pro-Palestinian protestors were the problem. Now much of what he said is valid. In a country like Canada, peaceful protests and demonstrations are and should be legal, and it is the job of the police to ensure that when they occur they occur in a lawful and orderly fashion and do not breakdown into violent riots of this sort. The police seem to have abdicated that responsibility to a certain degree in the case of Calgary.

Weinreb attributes this abdication to political correctness on the part of the police, an unwillingness to investigate Muslims. That may very well be the case but placing all the blame on the police and virtually exonerating the protestors is itself a form of political correctness. For the elephant in the room here, the issue which commentators are unwilling to touch, is the fact that these riots would not be a problem were it not for liberal, multicultural, policies that encourage mass immigration from the Third World while discouraging assimilation to the established cultures, institutions, and ways of Western countries.

Forty one years ago, a distinguished writer in the country that has seen the worst of these riots, addressed this issue in a prophetic novel. In The Camp of the Saints, Jean Raspail, a traditionalist French Catholic and royalist, depicts Western civilization on the verge of collapse, threatened by an invasion of Third World immigrants armed with nothing but their own wretchedness, against which the West, weakened by generations of liberal guilt, finds itself powerless to resist. When European countries close their consulates, ending a program whereby impoverished parents in India could improve the lots of their children by putting them up for adoption in Europe, a horde of millions of the poorest of the poor, climb aboard an armada of decrepit ships in heed to the words of an unlikely prophet, who declares that the day has come for “Buddha and Allah” and all the Hindu gods to cross the seas and take for themselves the kingdom of the “nice little god of the Christians”, and set sail for the coast of France where they are due to arrive on Easter morning. The French media, in a frenzy of self-loathing, propagate the welcoming of the armada, which they dub the “last chance for mankind”, uttering banalities like “we are all from the Ganges now”. When France fails to summon up sufficient will to live in order to resist this invasion, the rest of the West falls too. Towards the end of the novel, the Grand Rabbi is depicted as joining in the surge of antiracist sentiment that dooms France and the West, “in spite of the fact that Israel herself was doomed not to survive it.”

Raspail, although the armada he depicts is laden with Hindus from India, showed a great deal of insight into the true nature of the threat that Western countries, including Israel, face. Needless to say, in a West dominated by liberalism, his insights have gone ignored. This is true of mainstream conservatives as much as anybody else for they have opted to concentrate on military threats that are for the most part non-existent. As the Cold War drew to an end and the Soviet Union collapsed Francis Fukuyama argued that the world was progressing towards an “end of history” in the form of universal, liberal, capitalist democracy. More realistically, Samuel P. Huntington argued that history would continue to be shaped by the “clash of civilizations”, with the next clash being between the America-led West and the Islamic world.

Since the jihadist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, this clash has been mostly conceived of in military terms. The knee-jerk tendency is to think of the threat in terms of terrorist bombs and the solution in terms of high-tech military hardware, wreaking death and destruction upon Arab and Muslim countries or alternatively, imposing liberalism, feminism, and democracy upon them (one result of which was the electoral victories of Hamas). It would make more sense to think of the threat in demographic terms, as Patrick J. Buchanan did in The Death of the West. In this 2002 book, Buchanan argued that Israel could be seen as a metaphor or microcosm of the West as a whole. Noting the high fertility rates of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, as well as in the surrounding Arab countries, he pointed out that over the next twenty-five years her population, including both Jews and Arabs, could be predicted to grow by 2.1 million while her neighbours would grow by 62.2 million, while the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel herself would grow to 25 million, vastly outnumbering the number of Jewish Israelis. In the long run, this and not Hamas’ rockets, is what threatens Israel’s existence. Similarly, it is the low fertility rates of Western countries, combined with the mass immigration of people with much higher fertility rates, that threatens Western civilization – or what is left of it – and which is importing into the West, a problem with jihadist violence that we otherwise would not have to put up with.

Of course liberals will have nothing to do with any proposals that take that diagnosis of the problem into account and neither will mainstream conservatives. A couple of years ago, the man who is now being spoken of as likely to succeed Stephen Harper as leader of the Conservative Party and possibly Prime Minister of Canada, Jason Kenney, banned Serbian-American scholar Dr. Srdja Trifkovic from entering Canada. Dr. Trifkovic’s strategy for victory in the war against jihadism is a combination of keeping the jihadists out of Western countries while letting them be in their own countries, a refreshing opposite strategy to that of George W. Bush and one which rests squarely on the diagnosis of the problem that we have just considered. Mr. Kenney, however, appears to prefer the failed strategy of appeasing them here, while bombing them to death over there. So problems of this sort are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Moral Clarity

Suppose one morning you were to go to the bank to pay your bills, deposit a cheque, and take out some cash. While you are waiting in line for a teller a man in a ski mask with a gun comes in, orders you and everyone else onto the ground, and demands that the teller fill his backpack with money. With his cash-laden pack on his back he is about to make his escape when he sees that police cars have arrived on the street outside and he cannot escape the building without coming into their line of fire. The person who had been in line ahead of you is a visibly pregnant woman whom the robber grabs and holds in front of him, pointing his gun to her head as he demands that the police back off and let him escape.

Imagine that after that an officer steps forwards from behind the police lines, draws his revolver from his holster, aims it directly at the pregnant woman and shoots, killing her, her unborn child, and the robber with a single shot. Asked to explain his actions, the officer says that the robber was an evil man and needed to be stopped, that he had shown his callous disregard for innocent life by holding the pregnant woman hostage and if allowed to go free would undoubtedly do the same thing again to other people. Therefore the officer had decided, in the heat of the situation, to use lethal force to put the robber down. When asked about shooting the woman he says “it’s a tragedy, yes, but I’m not to blame. It was the robber who put her there so that I could not shoot him without shooting her too. He’s to blame not me”.

Would you expect his supervisors to accept that explanation? Would you expect the public and the courts to accept it? How about you, would you accept it yourself?

I didn’t think so. Yet the police officer’s explanation is identical to the justification that the state of Israel and her many supporters and defenders expect us to accept with regards to her bombings in Gaza which have resulted in the deaths of several hundred Palestinian Arabs, almost all of whom have been children, women, and the elderly. Hamas, which has been firing rockets at Israel for over a month, starting when Israel was conducting a crackdown in the West Bank under the guise of a search for three kidnapped Israeli teenagers that the Netanyahu government knew were dead, fires these rockets from sites where Israeli retaliation would maximize these kind of casualties. It hides its rocket launchers in schools, in hospitals, in densely populated residential neighbourhoods in urban centres, and basically everywhere it can find where a retaliatory bomb would take out huge numbers of non-combatants. Hamas is like the robber, holding the pregnant woman in front of him. Actually, Hamas is worse than the robber, because where the robber in the illustration was merely using the woman to try and escape from the scene of his crime alive, Hamas actively wills the deaths of the innocent people it hides behind because it uses the deaths, injuries, and massive damage to civil infrastructure that Israel inflicts, to obtain international sympathy and material assistance as well as to feed the anti-Israeli hatred of its own supporters.

Yet suppose for some strange reason, the robber in the story actually wanted the pregnant woman to be shot. He is committing a very odd form of murder/suicide let us say. Would this bolster the policeman’s case or be an additional argument against it? Would it not increase the policeman’s culpability by making him complicit in the crime that was actually intended? Similarly, does not the fact that Hamas wants the death of hundreds of Palestinian women and children from which it can generate the capital it thrives on, and the fact that Israel knows this, provide amount to yet another reason why Israel should not bomb schools, hospitals, and residential neighbourhoods?

If it came down to a matter of whether we should be cheering for the police or for bank robbers, then obviously the sane answer is that we should be cheering for the police. That Hollywood often sends the opposite message is no argument against that for Hollywood is not even close to being sane. Likewise, if it came down to matter of whether we should be cheering for Israel or Hamas, Israel the legitimate state is to be cheered rather than Hamas the terrorist organization. The hypothetical situation does not boil down to a question of whom to cheer for, however, and neither does the question of Israel’s recent activities in Gaza.

Israel’ most strident defenders like to accuse those who criticize or condemn her actions of “moral equivalence”. What moral equivalence basically amounts to is taking a conflict and trying to make the two sides morally equal when one side is clearly in the right. One does not have to claim moral equivalence between policemen and bankrobbers, however, to understand that the actions of a policeman who shoots a pregnant woman to take down the robber who is holding her hostage are inexcusable.

As an ethical error, moral equivalence is a bit like the theological error called antinomianism. Antinomianism is the heresy that teaches that because we are justified by grace we are therefore freed from the responsibility of trying to live righteously. It is a real, definable, error, but nine times out of ten when someone accuses someone else of antinomianism, it is because he himself is guilty of the opposite error of legalism. Similarly, moral equivalence is an actual ethical error, but in many cases those who accuse others of it are themselves guilty of something that might be called moral Manichaeism, of insisting upon seeing all conflicts in dualistic terms, as between light and darkness or good and evil. There is a strong tendency towards moral Manichaeism among Israel’s defenders, especially those who cry “moral equivalence” every time somebody suggests that killing Palestinian women and children, blowing up hospitals and schools, and sending missiles through residential neighbourhoods might not be something other than a perfectly justifiable action.

Hamas’ actions place Israel in a difficult situation to be sure. Israel has a right and even a duty to protect her citizens and society from those that would do them harm. Tom Wilson at Commentary, recently took exception to those who acknowledge this right in theory, but seem to deny it in practice, and he has a good point. Saying that Israel has a right to defend herself doesn’t mean much if in practice you condemn everything she does. It is not helpful or legitimate, however, to argue that because Israel is the “good guy”, therefore whatever she does is by definition just. Policemen are “good guys” and robbers are “bad guys”, but that does not mean that the cop who shoots the pregnant hostage in order to take down the robber is justified in doing so. We may agree that Israel is the “good guy” and Hamas the “bad guy”, and that Israel is as justified in protecting her citizens from Hamas as a policeman is in protecting people from bank robbers, but we cannot extrapolate from this that Israel is justified in killing women and children to get at Hamas because Hamas is hiding behind them, any more than a policeman would be justified in shooting a hostage to get at a robber because the robber is hiding behind the hostage.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The People of God

Many Christians refer to the Jews as “God’s chosen people.” If, by this expression, they merely mean “the people whom God chose to form a covenant relationship through whom He gave the world its Saviour in His Son Jesus Christ” then it reflects Scriptural truth. Unfortunately, the usage of the expression suggests that more often than not it means something like “God’s favourites, whom He loves above all other people, the treatment of whom is the standard by which God judges everybody else, so you have better be nice to them and say nothing bad about them or God will get you”. This is not Scriptural truth but a doctrine of racial supremacism. Ironically, those who are most likely to use the expression in this way are those who pride themselves the most on following the Bible rather than “man-made tradition” and on interpreting it literally rather than figuratively.

When the expression as used in this manner is taken seriously and applied to world politics it has some truly terrible implications. We recently considered religious Zionism which, contrary to the orthodox teachings of both Judaism and Christianity, identifies the current state of Israel with the Restoration Israel prophesied in the Old Testament and so gives that state its unqualified support, encouraging our governments to do the same lest they lose God’s blessing and invite His wrath. Israel is to be preferred over the terrorist organizations with which she is perpetually at war, because she is a legitimate state representing a civilized society whereas they are irresponsible madmen who aim rockets at her civilian neighborhoods from bases they put in their own civilian neighbourhoods so that when she strikes back their own women and children are killed. That she takes their bait, however, is to be attributed to the fact that she is under the control of a radical, nationalist/expansionist, faction with a growing fringe element that increasingly uses the language of racial supremacy to justify their own cause and the language of extermination about their enemies. Under these circumstances, it is insane to offer her support without qualification or condition.

The problem with this concept goes much deeper than its political implications. Scripturally, it is correct to say that God made a covenant with the children of Israel, after rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, in which He agreed to be their God, and they agreed to be His people. In making this covenant, He went out of His way to demonstrate that He was and is not just another petty tribal deity like Baal, Chemosh, Moloch, Dagon, and every other idol that the other peoples of the ancient Near East worshipped, but rather the One true and living God of the whole world. The way many Christians seem to think of the relationship between God and the Jews, however, tends to reduce God to the level of one of these tribal deities.

That God is the one true and living God and not just another idol is a doctrine established from the very first words of the Torah in which God is declared to have created the heavens and the earth – including all things which the heathen nations worshipped as gods, such as the sun, moon, and stars. The first promise of redemption in the Torah, is made not to the patriarchs of the nation Israel, but to the mother of all living (Gen. 3:15).

Therefore, when God called Abram to leave his country and go west to Canaan, promising to make a great nation out of his descendants, He said “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”. (Gen. 12:3) a promise He reiterates when Abram, now Abraham, passes the test of his faith when he is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. (Gen. 22:18). He further repeated this promise to Isaac (Genesis 26:4) and Jacob (Genesis 28:14). To each of the patriarchs of Israel, the promise that their descendants would be made into a great nation was linked with the promise that all of the peoples of the world would thereby be blessed. God’s purpose, therefore, in bringing this nation into being and entering into covenant with them, was much larger than the nation itself, but pertained to the whole world.

After God delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, He brought them into the wilderness of Sinai and presented them with an offer. If they obeyed Him and kept His covenant, He would in turn make them a kingdom of priests and holy nation (Ex. 19:1-6). This offer was accepted and the terms of the covenant were handed down to Moses, beginning with the famous Ten Commandments which begin by prohibiting the worship of any other gods and the making of idols. These were announced to the Israelites by Moses, then written down in a book and read to the Israelites, who each time agreed to the terms, and the covenant was sealed with the blood of a sacrifice. (Ex. 24:1-8).

The overarching theme of the covenant, the details of which continue to be spelled out throughout Exodus and Leviticus and which are reiterated in Deuteronomy on the eve of entry into the Promised Land, is that God is not like the gods of the other nations, and therefore Israel is not to be like those other nations. The gods of the other nations lead their worshippers into practices the true and living God considers abhorrent, therefore Israel is not to worship those idols, or commit those practices, but is to keep herself separate and holy. To further the distance between her and the idolatrous nations, she is given detailed instructions on where and how to worship God, her own priesthood, and a set of ceremonial and dietary instructions.

Yet when we come to the prophetic literature of the Old Testament we find that it is filled with promises of a day when the nations of the world would flock to Jerusalem to learn the ways of God (Michah 4:2, Zechariah 8:22) and the Temple in Jerusalem would be a house of prayer to all people (Isaiah 56:7). Most significantly, it is prophesied that God would raise up priests and Levites out of every nation (Isaiah 66:20-21), indicating that in this day, all peoples would be God’s people.

The literature that contains these promises was addressed to the nation at the time when she was facing imminent judgement, in the form of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, after a history of violating the covenant by worshipping idols and following after the practices of the heathen. The promises are connected to the message of hope contained within these prophecies of doom – that God would break the cycle of rebellion and judgement, by sending a final deliverer, the Messiah, Who would make good on all the promises God had ever made to Israel and her patriarchs, would establish a new covenant in which His laws would be written on their hearts, and would restore them to the land promised to their forefathers.

Judaism is still looking for that Messiah, but Christians know that He has already come, and furthermore, that He has established the new covenant by the blood of His sacrifice on the cross, a fact of which we are reminded each time we come to the Lord’s Supper and hear the words with which the Lord instituted the sacrament on the eve of His crucifixion. How does this affect our understanding of the old covenant, and the people with whom God made that covenant?

There is much confusion about this due to a number of errors that have sprung up. One new doctrine, very popular among North American evangelicals, teaches that the present age in which God is working through the Church, is a parenthesis in His dealing with Israel which will be resumed after the Church is removed in the rapture. Another doctrine, teaches that God has rejected His ancient people, just as they rejected His Messiah, and that the Church has replaced Israel as the people of God. The truth, as traditionally understood, is more nuanced than either of these views.

God does not have two different covenants with two different peoples. The first covenant, the old covenant, was fulfilled by Jesus Christ, Who also established the new covenant. God’s people, are those with whom He has a covenant relationship, and since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, such a relationship is through the new covenant.

The new covenant offers salvation from sin through the grace of Jesus Christ to be received freely through faith. The offer is made to the whole world. Anybody can receive this grace by believing in Jesus, and when they do so they are made part of the people of God. This does not mean that God has replaced His old people, Israel, with a new people, the Church.

The Church is a continuation of Israel, not a replacement for it. This is clearly what St. Paul the Apostle teaches, when he writes that the ceremonial law, which separated Israel from the Gentiles, has been torn down so that believing Gentiles are no longer “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” but “fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:11-19). In the Book of Acts we see this unfold, as Christ commissions His disciples to take His Gospel, from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, then to the rest of the world (Acts 1:8), as the Gospel is taken to the Gentiles, and the dietary laws (Acts 10) and circumcision (Acts 15) are revealed or ruled to be unnecessary in the Church, the body of Christ in which the Gentiles are united with Israel, through faith in the Messiah. St. Paul uses the metaphor of an olive tree to illustrate how the Church is a continuation of Israel. Israel is the root and trunk of the olive tree, from which certain branches (unbelieving Jews) have been pruned, and into which wild branches (believing Gentiles) have been grafted (Rom. 11). The tree of Israel in this condition – unbelieving Jews cut off, believing Gentiles grafted in, is the Church.

When he uses this metaphor, St. Paul writes that the day will come in which the unbelieving bulk of the nation will believe and be grafted back into the tree (vv. 23-31). This clearly coincides with the Old Testament prophecies of the Final Restoration, and equally clearly makes the conversion of the unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ the necessary pre-condition for that Restoration. The unbelieving state of Israel in the Middle East today is therefore not that Restoration, although there are good grounds for supporting that state against her mortal enemies for other reasons.

Under the new covenant, a person who does not believe that Jesus is the Christ cannot claim a covenant relationship with God on the grounds of racial descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whereas a person who does believe that Jesus is the Christ, although ethnically a Gentile, has been made a full partaker of the commonwealth of Israel. That is the orthodox Christian doctrine on the subject, and there is no support in it for the kind of racial supremacism in which Arab life is treated as cheap and worthless compared to Jewish life, which supremacism is disturbingly becoming more prevalent among Israel’s governing class, and her supporters.