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July 29, 2009

“The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Last night a reader of this site took the time to send me a link to an article I had somehow missed reading. It was written by Dr. Albert Mohler and discussed the subject of “confirmation bias.” Dr. Mohler traces an article written by Michael Shermer of Scientific American as he discusses a study based on this topic. Schermer discusses “A recent brain-imaging study [that] shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias.”

As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions. Psychologist Drew Westen led the study, conducted at Emory University, and the team presented the results at the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men—half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats—were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

This is no great surprise, as experience shows all of us that we are much more willing to grant clemency to people whom we like and support than those with whom we disagree. What is particularly interesting about this study, though, is the source of the brain activity that formed these judgments. “The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and—once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable—the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.” What the researchers saw “was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” In other words, when people assessed the statements made by President Bush and John Kerry, they reacted with emotion rather than reason.

Like Dr. Mohler, I am “suspicious of all efforts to reduce human consciousness and cognitive activity to measurable or observable studies of the brain. There is a connection there, no doubt, but biological reductionism (and its close cousin, biological determinism) is a woefully inadequate explanation for human thinking and behavior.” To reduce human cognitive function, thinking, feeling and believing to mere imaging results is clearly inadequate in explaining the intricacies of the brain, the will and the heart. I don’t believe that we can ever neatly map out human reason or that we can ever solve how and why humans love, feel and believe. And yet there is likely some truth in the results of this study, for we are no doubt prone to make judgments based more on emotion than reason. Michael Shermer says, “The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process.” In other words, confirmation bias can show itself in any number of situations.

Dr. Mohler writes, “We are unquestionably inclined to seek evidence that confirms our bias and to discard or discount evidence to the contrary. There may be biological evidence of this fact (indeed I assume there must be such evidence), but the main factor behind this problem, from a human perspective, is the Fall. The corruption of the race involves the corruption of our cognitive abilities. Confirmation bias is just one more evidence of the Fall; one more reminder that we are fallen creatures whose minds are not only finite, but corrupted. The human mind is truly amazing, but we all have to deal with conflicted thinking, limited knowledge, fragile memory, and emotional influences.”

When we affirm the doctrine of the fallenness of man, we affirm that through the Fall we have been corrupted in every way. The depravity of man extends to every area of his being so that nothing remains untouched. We are unable to use our minds without allowing emotion to interfere with reason. Clearly this poses a threat to intellectual integrity. “The reality of confirmation bias and its threat to intellectual integrity is one reason that Christian thinkers must read widely and think carefully.” Christians bear the responsibility of knowing their sin and thus knowing their proclivity for all manner of sin—even the sin of confirmation bias. For if we are able to admit that confirmation bias is a result of the Fall, we must also admit that it likely comes naturally to fallen men and women and that we are all likely to slip into it from time to time. I did not have to think long or hard before seeing areas where I am prone to make snap judgments and to allow emotion to override more measured reason. And, as the subject of discernment has been much on my mind in recent days, I also see how people to seek to be discerning may be particularly prone to this bias.

Here is an application Dr. Mohler drew from his reflections on the subject: In order to avoid confirmation bias “We must not limit ourselves to reading material from those who agree with us, fellow Christians who share a common worldview and perspective. Instead, we have to ‘read the opposition’ as well — and read opposing viewpoints with fairness and care.” If we are to avoid this bias, we must deliberately stretch ourselves. As I read this I thought back to the review I posted just a couple of weeks ago about the book While Europe Slept which was written by a homosexual. When I posted that review, several people questioned the validity of reading and reviewing such a book. These questions arise often when I read and review books that are written by unbelievers or by those who write from a liberal Christian perspective. Yet I think these books are important, for it is all too easy to delude ourselves, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, into thinking that we are fair and unbiased when the reality may be far different. I believe, like Dr. Mohler, that it is important that we read the opposition. I believe that there is nothing to fear in doing so, provided that a person is well-grounded in the truths of Scripture.

John Calvin, in his Institutes wrote “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” We can look outside the Christian bookstores for truth. We would not look outside a Christian worldview to find eternal truths, but we may still find truths outside the church and perhaps even truths to which Christians are oblivious. To ignore or to reject these truths, especially on the basis of confirmation bias, would be to dishonor God, the very source, the fountain, of truth.

July 22, 2009

A couple of summers ago my parents paid us a rare summer visit. Usually they come to visit in fall or winter, but this year they came in summer. Because my dad is only truly resting when he is hard at work, I asked him to help me with several projects around the house. These were either projects that I had not had time to attend to, or projects for which I would have to rely upon his expertise. As always, dad was glad to pitch in and to do what needed to be done. So while my mother spent as much time as she could with Aileen and the kids, dad and I got to work. On Saturday we installed a new air conditioner, something that turned out to be far easier said than done and that quickly consumed much of the day. The end result, though, was just what we had hoped for and was just in time to carry us through a couple of days of uncomfortable heat and humidity. Having taken care of this, we decided to attack the lawns and gardens. We laid sod in the backyard and planted perennials in the flower beds. We transformed the outside of our home.

Dad is a career landscaper and has a great love for rocks, trees, plants and flowers. I have spent countless hours with my father, and used to work with him quite often when I was younger. He must have given up on me eventually because I would do a half-baked job of nearly everything he asked of me. When plants needed a soaking, I’d give them only a quick shower before finding something more interesting to do. When plants needed to be buried deep in the ground, I would leave their roots exposed to the elements. I am sure it was on a scalding hot Ontario summer day, when I was covered in dirt and dust and manure, that I resolved that I would work a desk job when I was older.

Though I had worked with dad so often, it was only recently that I realized something fundamental to his choice of vocation. We were driving along Highway 5, a highway that represents the northern border of the town of Oakville. On the south side of the highway is a bustling suburban environment. Houses reach almost to the side of the road and there are newly-built gas stations on almost every corner. There are enough restaurants, Wal-Marts and big box stores to support a thriving community. In true Canadian style, the neighborhoods are predominantly flat and boring. The trees have been torn down, the valleys have been filled in, and the houses are often so close that a person could easily leap from roof-to-roof. Sometimes a single majestic, lonely tree stands at the entrance to a neighborhood with a sign underneath reading “Oak Trails.”

That is the south side of Highway 5. The opposite side, the north side, is everything that the south is not. Fields of corn and wheat border the highway. Many fields that have long laid fallow, stretch as far as the eye can see, passing into the distance. There are rolling hills and small forests. The occasional valley, with a stream running through it, cuts across the landscape. Cows graze and horses run.

On one side of Highway 5 is progress. A city thrives there, a city filled with men and women who commute into Toronto, the nerve center of Canada. These people choose to live in Oakville, the wealthiest city in Canada. They run the banks and own the businesses that drive our economy. Their demand for more houses, bigger houses, push the borders of Oakville ever further north. They push the borders toward the other side of Highway 5, the side that is nothing. Or that is what most of us see. Where we see nothing, dad sees beauty.

As we were driving along the highway, making our way to an eclectic, disorganized but well-stocked garden center that you would not notice unless you where it was, I heard dad cry, “Oh, look at that beautiful chestnut! Wow! Look at it!” I turned my head and saw a tree, standing tall and proud, rising above a field of grass. I’d like to describe it in more detail, but that is all I saw. A tree. But where I saw only a tree, I knew that dad saw something so much more. A few minutes later he pointed towards the urban sprawl and said, “Right down that road there used to be the biggest poplar in all of Ontario. It was six feet across at its base. I bet it’s long gone by now.”

For dad this is a tragedy. For many of us, a huge poplar tree is an annoyance. Its roots lift our sidewalks, disturb our gardens and tear into our foundations. Its massive trunk and swaying branches block our review or shade too much of our backyard. And so we cut it down and tear it apart. After all, it’s only a tree. But to dad it is more. It is an object of tremendous beauty.

I wish that I could see beauty the way dad does. I wish that I could delight in the simple, natural beauty of a chestnut tree. But all I see, even when I look closely, is a tree. I can describe it using adjectives—big, thick, leafy, round—but not in any adjectives that really capture the essence of its beauty. And that’s because I see only a tree.

I think that when dad sees a tree, he must see the tree’s Creator. He must see something more than the color and the shape. Maybe he sees God’s providence in a tree that has stood for fifty years. A hundred years. A tree that has offered shelter to generation after generation. Or maybe that tree is simply a beautiful work of art. Maybe that tree is a manifestation of the Artist who sculpted it in such a way to tell us something about Himself. That tree stands as a reminder of the great Creator. I don’t really know what dad sees in those trees. I never thought to ask him. But I wish I could see whatever he sees.

Highway 5 seems almost a parable to me. On one side is progress and on the other is nature. On one side is ugliness and on the other is beauty. I tend towards what is ugly but progressive. I tend to see urban sprawl as a sign of Canada’s progress as our population grows and our economy strengthens. But dad prefers natural beauty, even at the expense of progress. He sees the tragedy of a great tree falling and the tragedy of beauty being torn away only to be replaced by ugliness.

There is a reason that many of the fields north of Highway 5 lie fallow. Many of those fields, perhaps even all of them, have been purchased by developers. Oakville will soon have reached the limits of its growth. With Lake Ontario removing the possibility of southward growth, and with other cities to the east and the west, there is only one way for the city to move. Already the city is beginning to leap across the highway and this “progress” will continue for the foreseeable future. Trees will be cut down and trucked away to nearby mills. Hills will be flattened and the soil will be poured into the valleys. Sewers will cut into the fields and roads will be laid. Houses, schools and stores will spring up.

That chestnut tree is going to be a casualty of progress. Perhaps it will be left standing at the entrance to a neighborhood of million dollar houses where it will languish in the hard clay. Eventually it will die. I won’t even notice. Dad will lament the loss of such beauty. I’ll wish that I could too.


I’m on vacation so you’re getting a repeat today. I first posted this back in ‘06, I believe.

July 20, 2009

I am on vacation this week—at home but taking a break from the web design that keeps me busy day after day. Sometimes I relax by writing; other times I relax by not writing. I don’t know yet whether this vacation will see more of the former or the latter. My plans for today involve taking my son to swimming lessons, heading to Ikea to look at some living room furniture to replace the now-tattered couches we’ve had since we got married (useless fact—we live exactly equidistant from two Ikeas, both of which are 22.4 kilometers away), taking the car for an oil change and spending a bit of time reading. It sounds like the makings of an okay day.

Today I wanted to share just a short reflection on something I read in the Bible—a little reflection on Jeremiah 25:9. Here are verses 8 and 9:

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.

What always stands out to me in these verses are the words “my servant Nebuchadnezzar.” If you’ve read the account of King Nebuchadnezzar as it is found in the book of Daniel, you’ll know that he was not a man who submitted his life to God. While at a point he was forced to acknowledge that Daniel’s God was the true God, he never submitted to his authority and acknowledged him as the only God. The Bible gives us little reason to hope that Nebuchadnezzar ever turned from his sin and cast himself upon the Lord.

Despite Nebuchadnezzar’s sinfulness and his rejection of God, we see that God calls him a servant—his servant. Now we are accustomed to thinking of God’s servants in the way Paul speaks of himself—a bond servant dedicated to the ministry of Jesus Christ. Yet here we find an unrepentant man, unregenerate man also being called a servant. I guess this should come as no surprise. Jesus Himself spoke of “wicked servants” in his parables, showing that there are two types of servants, the willing and the unwilling. In either case, this person is subject to God and must bow before his authority, whether he wishes to or not.

So the question for you and for me is this: will we be God’s willing servant? Will we be the kind of servants who bow before God as master and seek to lovingly and obediently carry out his will? Or will we be among those wicked and evil servants who are subject to God, but who refuse to acknowledge his superiority? Will we be submissive as servants should be or will we seek to usurp the role of the Master?

God help us to be faithful, submissive, willing servants.

July 13, 2009

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about endorsements (or blurbs, if you prefer)—the little lines and paragraphs you see on the back of a book giving you good reasons why you really ought to read it. I have done this as I’ve gone through a process of defining my ministry, what I will give time to and what I will not give time to. Endorsements, when done right, take a lot of time and often for very limited results. So I have wanted to figure out the circumstances in which it makes sense for me to go through the effort of providing them. I thought I’d share just a bit of what I’ve come up with.

Practically, here is how endorsements usually work. Several months before a book actually shows up on store shelves (often as much as six months before) an author or publisher (or sometimes an agent or other representative) will contact people whose name and endorsement have the potential to help readers decide to purchase a book. If these people agree they will receive a copy of the manuscript, either in electronic format or, more commonly, printed on 8.5 x 11. They will have a certain period to read the book and provide their endorsement of it. Sometimes these endorsements must be provided on official forms while other times they can be informally emailed through. Of those asked, only a few will accept the manuscript and of those usually only a few will actually provide an endorsement; so sometimes, when you see a long list of endorsements for a book, it may be that the author was hedging his bets, so to speak, and had the good luck of having everybody actually come through. Endorsements are provided based on a draft copy of the manuscript so it is possible that the text may change between the writing of an endorsement and the publication of the book.

As you would expect, endorsements are volunteer efforts (except, I’m sure, in exceptional and unethical circumstances). However, there can be some “tit-for-tat” in endorsements where one person feels obliged, for one reason or another, to provide an endorsement. Perhaps there is some kind of reciprocation for endorsing a book or speaking at a conference. Also, if you read closely, you will sometimes see that a single endorsement, written in general terms more about the author than his book, may be used on multiple titles. It may even be just a line or two taken from an article that is completely unrelated to this book or any other.

A good bit of thought goes into the arrangement of the endorsements on the back cover and in the first few pages of the book. The biggest names will go first and will appear on the back cover; the lesser-known names or the ones least likely to be meaningful to the target audience will appear at the bottom of the back cover or perhaps only inside the book.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about endorsements:

Endorsements matter. I would gladly forgo endorsements for my books, but I don’t think my publisher would be pleased with me if I did so. Potential readers do look at the back cover of a book to see who has endorsed it, though I am quite convinced that they look more for the name than the actual words. I have a certain number of names I look for and, if one of them happens to have endorsed that book, it immediately interests me in a way it might otherwise not. So endorsements do sell books and, therefore, they do have value. I consider them a necessary evil.

We endorse books and authors. Because endorsements matter, authors have to be very careful with who and what they endorse. Ultimately we endorse authors as much as their books (and perhaps more than their books). In just a few lines it is difficult to draw the kind of distinction that might say, “I disagree with this person’s core beliefs but do think this book is worth reading.” Instead, we see the name of the author, the name of the endorser, and draw a line from one to the other. Hence, if I am going to endorse a book, I have to agree with the vast majority of the book and 100% of the core theology. But I also have to appreciate the author and his ministry. As much as I might like to, I cannot neatly separate the two because those who see the endorsement will not neatly separate the two.

Quality is important. So many Christian books really have very little to say that is not derived from other books and so many others are poorly written. I want to encourage quality by providing endorsements for books that are genuinely well-written and objectively good. There are a couple of books I endorsed early on for which I would no longer provide an endorsement because the quality was just not there. One particular book has done more to shape my philosophy (and theology) of endorsements more than any other. I read the book again, after it had been printed, and was really embarrassed at what I had put my name to. I want my name on a book to have value and will no longer endorse books that do not display good quality.

It is no great honor. Being asked to endorse a book is not necessarily any great honor. The very nature of endorsements tend to mean that the requests are of the “what you can do for me” variety. That sounds terrible, but there is some truth to it. I am not asked to endorse books because people like me; I am asked because my name may help a few people decide to purchase it. I remain grateful for requests to endorse books, humbled even, but I also know that it is no occasion for pride.

It is okay to say no. I politely refuse the majority of the endorsement requests I receive. I feel no obligation to anyone to endorse his book (and neither do I expect him to feel obliged to endorse anything I write) and this gives me the freedom to say no. Nor do I feel that it’s part of my “core ministry.” Therefore I don’t want it to dominate my time (which it could). I do write a fair number, but this is just a small part of what I could write. I suspect the same is true of most people. When I do write endorsements, I prefer to focus on books that have fewer rather than more endorsements (or potential endorsements). When a person sends me a manuscript, I often ask how many endorsements they already have or expect to get. If that number is more than four or five, I typically explain that I will instead focus on books that have received little attention.

Not all endorsements are equal. As I read more and more books, I quickly learn the people whose endorsements mean more to me than others. For example, when I see Mark Dever’s name on a book, it tells me a lot about that book—it is a valuable endorsement. I know that Mark puts a lot of thought into his endorsements and that he is very careful with what he puts his name to. I have learned to trust him. There are other names I see that tell me little and would do little to convince me to buy that book. There are a few who will convince me not to buy that book. This is true for most serious readers, I am sure, no matter the genre they prefer to read.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

But let me ask you: how important are endorsements to you when you consider purchasing a book? Are you often persuaded to buy a book based on the blurbs on the back cover? Or do you just ignore them and try to judge the book on its own merits?

July 08, 2009

A little while ago my friend Ian loaned me the PBS DVD series The Story of India This six-part series, which runs about six hours, simply tells the story of India from ancient times until roughly the time of Indian Independence. It is a good documentary, even if the host’s excessive exuberance toward all things Indian is a little bit hard to take after a while. “Oh, isn’t that wonderful! Fantastic! Remarkable! Unbelievable! Stupendous!”

As one would have to expect for a series focusing on the history and culture of India, this film devoted a good bit of attention to Indian religion. And, as you know, India is a hotbed of religious fervor where Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and nearly every other religion you can imagine coexist, at times peacefully and at times through great bloodshed. As much as the history of India is the history of faiths existing together in peace, it is equally a story of the battle for dominance of one faith or another. The documentary devoted a good bit of attention to the various means of religious expression, from Muslims venerating the tomb of a sufi to Jains pouring out their offerings to a statue of Gomateshwara to Hindus bowing low before their ancient deities. The idolatry, portrayed so vividly in full-color and wide screen is quite shocking. India represents a fascinating collision of the first world with the third world, of the ancient with the modern. Somehow it seems that this form of idolatry should have been left in the past; have we not evolved or developed or matured beyond bowing before gods of wood and bronze? Yet here are countless millions of men and women who are every bit as devoted to their gods as were the enemies of the Israelites of old.

As I watched these people venerate their gods I felt pity for them and I felt gratitude to God for his grace in saving me from such idolatry, such sinful adulation of Satan. I suppose that may sound arrogant; I do not mean it that way. Here were men and women bowing low before gods who were so clearly made in their own image—gods who were not good and righteous and perfect and omnipotent, but gods who are so often petty and perplexed and perverted—gods who are so very human. There is no transcendence here; there is little to distinguish these gods from those who worship them. These people are, in a very real sense, worshiping themselves. They create gods who are very much like themselves and then prostrate themselves before such pathetic deities. Rarely have I seen such a vivid picture of the idolatry that dwells within the human heart.

Yesterday the world memorialized Michael Jackson. The numbers are still being tabulated but there is little doubt that millions, probably hundreds of millions, watched at least a portion of the memorial service. How many did so, as did I, merely out a morbid sense of curiosity, probably cannot be calculated.

Jackson’s service was an representation of just the kind of pluralism that has marked India. Everybody involved wanted to invoke God’s name, as you’re supposed to do when remembering a loved one, but it was clear that most of them invoked a god made in their own image. Even those who spoke of Jesus or who prayed to Jesus did so without any clear reference to the Jesus of the Bible. They spoke of a Jesus who accepts all and even (or perhaps especially) those who had rejected him. Never did Michael Jackson give any evidence of putting his faith in Jesus Christ, yet those who watched were assured, time and again, that he was now safe in the presence of the Lord, waiting there for the rest of us to arrive. Words and phrases invoked God and used the Christian lexicon but without any reference to the gospel, the true gospel, the gospel that saves. Lost men declared to other lost men untruths about the god they wish for, not the God who is.

During the singing of the old song We Are the World, those who watched saw religious symbols from all faiths spinning across a video screen, blurring, blending their lies to the already blind.

Together as One

All faiths are the same, don’t you know? Why dwell on such petty distinctions? God is whoever you want him (or her or it) to be. We are the world. We are god.

What surprised me more than anything was the genuine grief, the genuine mourning, of those who attended the memorial service. Of course his brothers and sister and daughter were distraught, but so too were many of the fans who so loved him. On the radio I heard an interview with a woman from Toronto who attended a screening of the service. She told how when she heard of Jackson’s death she collapsed and was inconsolable, at least until she could go to a tattoo parlor and have “Gone too soon” tattooed onto her body; that was the beginning of the healing process. She had brought her young son to the memorial service so he could see his mother’s love for this man she so venerated. All across North America, all across the world, there are similar stories of worship. Can we call it anything other than worship? I don’t think this is too strong a word. For many people, Jackson was a god; for many people celebrity is idolatry.

Yesterday we saw idolatry of a whole different order yet idolatry that is so similar to what I saw in The Story of India. There are some who, in their idolatry, bow low before gods of wood and stone and burnished bronze. There are others who, in their idolatry, live vicariously through celebrities and who bow low before the spirit of the age. Michael Jackson’s funeral, where God’s name was invoked and where Jesus’ name was supposedly held high, was as vivid an expression of idolatry as was the footage of hordes of Indian Hindus dancing with joy and veneration before their statues. One is a base idolatry, the other is sophisticated and proper. Both are the same ancient sin, the same ancient rebellion against the one true God.

July 01, 2009

It is Canada Day today and I’m taking the day off. My kids have been begging go to a ball game so a bit later on I’ll be taking them to see the Jays play the Rays. It seemed that on Canada Day it would make sense to write a little bit about Canada’s national anthem.

Canada may be unique as a nation that has two official national anthems. I was too lazy to do the legwork to find if there are any other nations with two, but I suspect there are not. To add to the strangeness, both of Canada’s anthems are entitled “O Canada.” Many people erroneously spell “O” as “Oh.” In reality the “O” is used as a vocative to apostrophize Canada and rather than as an exclamation. But most people prefer it as an exclamation.

O Canada was proclaimed to be Canada’s official anthem on July 1, 1980 (July 1 being Canada Day). Yet it was first sung almost exactly 100 years earlier. The music was composed by Calixa Lavallée who at that time was a well-known composer. But, as we know, popularity is fleeting and I’d guess you do not have any of his albums in your collection. The lyrics were written in French. Though it was well received on the occasion it was first performed, it had little immediate impact beyond that evening. Here is the song as it was first composed. For those who do not speak French, I’ve included a rough English translation:

Ô Canada  Terre de nos aïeux,
Ton front est ceint de fleurons glorieux 
Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix;
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits.
Et ta valeur de foi trempée
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits;
Protégera nos foyers et nos droits.

O Canada! Home of our ancestors,
Your brow is wreathed with glorious garlands!
Just as your arm knows how to wield the sword,
It also knows how to bear the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats.
And your valour steeped in faith
Will protect our homes and our rights;
Will protect our homes and our rights.

In 1908, Dr. Thomas Bedford Richardson, a Toronto doctor, completed a translation into English. A quick look at the lyrics will show why we no longer use this particular version.

O Canada! Our fathers’ land of old
Thy brow is crown’d with leaves of red and gold.
Beneath the shade of the Holy Cross
Thy children own their birth
No stains thy glorious annals gloss
Since valour shield thy hearth.
Almighty God! On thee we call
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall,
Defend our rights, forfend this nation’s thrall.

“Forfend this nation’s thrall?” I’m sure God is eager and willing to do that, but I can’t recall the last time I used either “forfend” or “thrall”, which incidentally mean “ward off” and “slavery” or “bondage.”

That same year Robert Stanley Weir, a lawyer living in Montreal, penned another adaptation that eventually formed the basis for the song as we know it today.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love thou dost in us command.
We see thee rising fair, dear land,
The True North, strong and free;
And stand on guard, O Canada,
We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! O Canada!
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.
O Canada! We stand on guard for thee.

The version that was official adopted in 1980 is quite similar.

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

Thus we have two official national anthems, one written in French and one in English. It must be noted that the lyrics of these songs, even when translated to the same language, bear little resemblance to each other. Beyond the first two words there is little correlation in language or underlying themes. It is also interesting to note that while the songs are written in different languages, they were also written by men of different theological backgrounds. The English version is Protestant and emphasizes hard work and duty. The French version, written by a Roman Catholic, emphasizes history and national glory.

Today it is common for performances of the anthem to mix the French and English versions of the song. This leads to a rather interesting mixture of thoughts that actually makes the song seem quite militaristic.

O Canada! Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
Just as your arm knows how to wield the sword,
It also knows how to bear the cross;
Your history is an epic
Of the most brilliant feats.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

In recent years the song has come under attack from various parties who claim that the anthem is either sexist or too religious. Some have suggested removing the words “in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command.” Others have suggested ways of removing the references to God. So far these suggestions have met with resistance, but it is likely only a matter of time before the changes are made. After all, this is the nation that has legalized homosexual marriage and has decriminalized marijuana. We’re on the forefront of political correctness.

In How To Be A Canadian, Will and Ian Ferguson suggest that a defining characteristic of Canadians is that they do not know their own anthem. Certainly they do not loudly sing it with pride as do our American neighbours (as I noted last night when I was at the ball game—barely a person there bothered to sing along). “First lesson as a newcomer to Canada: Whatever you do, do not learn the words to ‘O Canada’! Nothing will mark you as an outsider more quickly. Canadians don’t know the words to their national anthem, and neither should you.”

June 29, 2009

Earlier this morning I finished up Richard J. Evans’ The Third Reich at War, a very long, very thorough, very interesting tracing of the rise and fall of German military might from 1939 to 1945. More than just another account of the Second World War, this book looks to battles, but also to atrocities and to the German home front. It provides an overall perspective on the German experience of war, from the men on the front lines, to the Jews in concentration camps, to the men and women who lived in the cities and worked in the factories. It goes so far as to look at German art and music during the war. It is, in a word, thorough.

Whenever I read about Germany in the Second World War, I am amazed that so many normal people, people not unlike you and me, were involved in acts of astounding evil. While many Germans disagreed with the wholesale extermination of Jews and Gypsies and people with mental disabilities, few had the will or courage to voice their disagreements. Many were complicit in these crimes, many others were actively involved, even if they did not fully support the ideology behind them. We read of otherwise ordinary men who murdered hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of helpless people. We read of monsters who found joy in torture and mutilation. We read of doctors, sworn to protect human life, who instead took the opportunity to carry out barbarous experiments on young children, torturing them and killing them with no apparent attack of conscience. Surely Satan had a field day in Germany in those days.

As I read about these crimes, these atrocities, my heart cries out for justice. This is a natural cry, I think, and a good one. Yet so often it seems that these people got away with their crimes. Hitler, the mastermind of it all, died in 1945, but did so at his own hand. A bullet to the head hardly seems to satisfy the demands of justice based on the lives of 6 million Jews and countless millions of other lives destroyed in the war he began. It almost seems that he got away with it. Or Josef Mengele who carried out ruthless medical experiments at Auschwitz and, who after the war, escaped to South America where he lived in relative peace until he died of a stroke in 1979. Where is the justice in this? Did he get away with it?

When we read in the Bible that the law of God is written on our hearts, surely this is some of what we mean—that we have a sense of justice and that we want this sense of justice to be served, to be satisfied. We also know from Scripture that justice will be served. Indeed, it must be served. And we want it to be served. Justice is “the quality of being just or fair;” it is “judgment involved in the determination of rights and the assignment of rewards and punishments.” But it is more. A Christian definition of justice goes further. Justice is the due reward or punishment for an act. God must punish evil. We know this. We tremble at this thought. Or we ought to.

God must punish evil. When we come to know Jesus Christ, we are shocked at the reality that He willingly paid the penalty for the sins of all who would believe in Him, even those who have committed unimaginable sins. When I believed in Him I saw that He suffered for me. I deserve to be punished for all those things I’ve done to forsake Him. But Jesus, through His great mercy, accepted this punishment on my behalf. Justice has been served.

But those who do not turn to Him must be punished for their own sin. And it is here that we see how justice will be served. The sin of even a man as blatantly evil as Adolph Eichmann, who relentlessly hunted down Jews throughout the Reich, differs from mine only in degree. He and I are both sinners through and through. We are both sinners in thought, word and deed. But God has seen fit to extend grace to restrain me from doing all of the evil I’d otherwise so love to do. And He has accepted Jesus’ work on the cross on my behalf. Justice has already been served on my behalf. But for those who do not turn to Christ, justice is still in the future. Justice hovers just over the horizon.

We do not look forward to the punishment of another person with a sick glee. We do not rejoice in what they must suffer. But we do look forward to the fact that justice will finally be served. God will not and cannot allow sin to be unpunished. And while we are humbled by the grace that is ours through Christ, we still thank God that there will be justice. We do not have unlimited license to sin knowing that death allows us to escape just punishment. Instead we see that death is just the beginning, just the entrance, to the courtroom where justice will be served. Death is no escape.

June 26, 2009

So the king is dead. What a sad end to a sad life; a pathetic end to a pathetic life (by which I mean to use pathetic in its true sense as “arousing pity and sympathy). I don’t know that I have ever seen, in one man, such a combination of self-love and self-loathing, shocking narcissism combined with equally shocking self-hatred. Truly Michael Jackson was unparalleled.

Andrew Sullivan offered a few interesting thoughts.

There are two things to say about him. He was a musical genius; and he was an abused child. By abuse, I do not mean sexual abuse; I mean he was used brutally and callously for money, and clearly imprisoned by a tyrannical father. He had no real childhood and spent much of his later life struggling to get one. He was spiritually and psychologically raped at a very early age - and never recovered. Watching him change his race, his age, and almost his gender, you saw a tortured soul seeking what the rest of us take for granted: a normal life.

But he had no compass to find one; no real friends to support and advise him; and money and fame imprisoned him in the delusions of narcissism and self-indulgence. Of course, he bears responsibility for his bizarre life. But the damage done to him by his own family and then by all those motivated more by money and power than by faith and love was irreparable in the end. He died a while ago. He remained for so long a walking human shell.

I loved his music. His young voice was almost a miracle, his poise in retrospect eery, his joy, tempered by pain, often unbearably uplifting. He made the greatest music video of all time; and he made some of the greatest records of all time. He was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone.

I grieve for him; but I also grieve for the culture that created and destroyed him. That culture is ours’ and it is a lethal and brutal one: with fame and celebrity as its core values, with money as its sole motive, it chewed this child up and spat him out.

I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life. And I pray that such genius will not be so abused again.

From beginning to end, Jackson led a tortured life and he led much of it in full view of the public. As much as he was secretive, being whisked about behind masks and tinted windows, the sheer volume of cameras and the unending interest in his life meant that his every step was recorded. We saw him change his skin color, change his face, and almost change his gender. Through it all, we gasped at his obvious self-loathing, expressed in his desire to change everything he is and was and manifested in his increasingly bizarre behavior. He was a tortured soul and I doubt we can even imagine what was going on inside that increasingly twisted heart, that increasingly conflicted mind.

Michael Jackson was in so many ways a product of this sick celebrity culture (that he helped create) that will never rest satisfied until it has both created and then destroyed the newest celebrity. We want our celebrities to start strong and finish weak, to begin with a bang and then fizzle, pop and sputter, all for our enjoyment and entertainment (Susan Boyle stands as the most recent example of this). Jackson gave us so much to talk about, so much to enjoy. More than any other celebrity he embodied the “vanities” of Ecclesiastes. He was at one time known for what he did so well and then was known for being a freak; he was at one time fantastically wealthy and then utterly broke; he was once loved and then despised. He had it all and yet, it seemed, he had nothing. All of it was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Andrew Sullivan ended his reflection on Jackson by saying, “I hope he has the peace now he never had in his life.” I hope the same. Truly, I do. I never cared much for Michael Jackson. I listened to his music occasionally in life but, after losing my childhood collection of 45’s, I didn’t ever buy one of his songs or albums. But it was impossible to miss him completely as even decades after the peak of his fame, his face was often in the news and even a simple skim of the headlines would show that his strangeness was increasing year-by-year. Through all of this I haven’t ever hoped for much on his behalf. But I hope now that he has finally found peace. Sadly, though, his life showed no evidence that he had found the One who is peace, the one who offers true peace. And if that is the case, the true horror of it all is that Jackson will spend all of eternity in the same twisted mind that tortured him for most of the fifty years he was given here. Those fifty years seemed to drive him to the brink of utter insanity; the thought of an eternity in that state is too horrific to imagine. We may like to think that death inevitably brings peace to a tortured existence. But Scripture gives us no reason to find hope except in the One who offers hope by saying “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” May you find that rest today so you can enjoy that rest eternally.