Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The end of democracy?

Is democracy coming to an end soon? There has been a spate of articles in newspapers recently about the possible demise of democracy. The authors who are asking the questions are not demagogues but noted scholars and serious pundits.

One of these scholars is Stein Ringen, who is an emeritus professor at Oxford University and the author of “Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obedience.” In an insightful article in The Washington Post he begins with a warning:
It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That constitution proved marvelously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, fought off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.
Two paragraphs later, Ringen turns to the United States and Britain, which are the main focus of the article.
The second democratic experiment is approaching 250 years. It has been as successful as the first. But the lesson from Athens is that success does not breed success. Democracy is not the default. It is a form of government that must be created with determination and that will disintegrate unless nurtured. In the United States and Britain, democracy is disintegrating when it should be nurtured by leadership. If the lights go out in the model democracies, they will not stay on elsewhere.

Democracy is under threat today as never before not only in the United States and Britain but also many other Western countries. The reasons for this and how it is being accomplished are as varied as the countries involved. Nevertheless, there are some similarities among the factors that are undermining democratic institutions everywhere.

Democracy involves more than voting at election time. It means having input in the governing process. That is where democracy is failing especially today. Many people no longer bother to vote. In Canada in the last federal election only 61% cast a ballot.

Even then, votes are manipulated by those who have money. They control the candidates. It is not so much candidates who are in search of money but money is in search of candidates. The moneyed class (the 1% of the Occupy Movement) not only control the media at election time but they control the politicians afterwards.

Ordinary voters have little or no influence. Their role is simply to cast their votes, which in increasing numbers they refuse to do. After that many, if they do vote, are not interested any further in politics. Young people are especially turned off by the electoral process. Small wonder that democracy is threatened.

In this post I will not analyze all these reasons, since that would take too long. but I do want to signal the extent of the problem, which is now endemic. Democracy is under attack all over the globe.

Last year, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a report by a group of distinguished academics. The report begins:
Democracy is in trouble. The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.
According to the authors, in Europe, there "is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy." In the United States, they add, "lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day." And even Canada is not immune, they claim: "Canadians worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister."

More than a year after this report, The Canadian government introduced a "Fair Elections Act" that seeks to improve the Canada Election Act, but it is not fair at all, as many critics have pointed out. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has amassed unprecedented power to his office, even though he was elected by only about 25% of the total population (40% of the 61% turnout). Yet he has interpreted his mandate to mean that he can make such sweeping changes that future governments will find it very difficult in the future to undo them. 

In 2014 elections have already been held or will be held in countries as widely scattered as Afghanistan, India, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Turkey, Quebec, and Europe. Some of them are merely local, but others are general elections.

Every year some elections are more or less honest, but many others are fraudulent. Because of fraud even that semblance of democracy is removed. Voting has then become a worthless exercise that serves merely as a window dressing.

Electoral reform is sorely needed in many countries that claim they are democracies. The first-past-the-post system is very bad, but even proportional representation is no guarantee of electoral fairness, as is evident in some European countries.

A level-playing field is needed in which money does not buy elections and influence on governments. Both the US and Canada have opened the door to increased spending by the rich and powerful during elections. It is idealistic to assume that spending limits will rectify the problem, but it is a necessary, although not sufficient, step.

A way must be found to reduce voter apathy and encourage greater involvement of ordinary people in the political process. A stronger civil society can help in promoting such involvement.The use of "bread and circuses" is still to common in many countries. People have to realize that apathy will soon spell the end of democracy.

Ancient Athens is only one historical example. There are many others. I pray that the US, Canada, and many other countries will not follow the same path. The 250 years that Stein Ringen writes about will soon be up for the US. Other countries may follow.

Democracy is too precious to lose. Recall Winston Churchill's famous dictum: "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (from a British House of Commons speech on Nov. 11, 1947).

Churchill had just lost the election. When he heard the news, he remarked about the British people, "They have a perfect right to kick me out. That is democracy." 

He had reason to be be bitter, but he retained his sense of humor. When offered the Order of the Garter, he asked "Why should I accept the Order of the Garter, when the British people have just given me the Order of the Boot?" 
Such humor should inspire us today to do what we can to protect democracy. Democracy is indeed too precious to lose.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Holy Week and an unholy world

I had hoped to publish this post before the end of Holy Week, but that is no longer possible with the arrival of my daughter, together with her four children, from Massachusetts. They are here for a week to celebrate Easter with us and enjoy Toronto. I thank God for both my descendants and the miracle of Easter.

That we live in an unholy world is apparent to all of us. One only needs to read newspapers or watch TV to be rudely reminded of this reality. The massacres by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the dissection of Ukraine by Russia, the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner, the sinking of a South Korean ferry, and the senseless killing of five students by a fellow student in Calgary, are only a few recent examples that occur to me.

There are many more. Just think of the Boston Marathon bombings last year or the ongoing turmoil in Syria, where millions of refugees have fled the country because of the long-lasting civil war. I was reminded of these refugees when I witnessed a Syrian family begging in Istanbul. Later I saw other Syrian refugees in that city. There are an estimated million refugees in Turkey. There are as many as well in other neighboring countries, like Lebanon. What is is the rest of the world of the world doing to help end the strife in Syria? Very little, sad to say.

The world is also standing on the sidelines as Ukraine is being dismembered. Sanctions are of little value when countries like Britain, France, and Germany are all reluctant for various reasons to put real teeth into such punitive measures. We can only pray that diplomacy may yet stop the Russian advance, but the early signs already point to a negative  response on the part of those who are occupying building in eastern Ukraine to the agreement signed in Geneva by Russia. The protesters have said that Russian foreign minister "did not sign anything for us."

Thus it is good to learn that appearances can be deceiving, and that reality is not as it seems. That is what Holy Week teaches us. The Christian world has again celebrated Holy Week. One of the lessons of Holy Week is that Christians are forced to focus their attention, at least temporarily, on on another reality -- a reality that faith alone allows them to see.

Technically, every day of every week is holy. Holy Week is, therefore, no more holy than any other. But this week is traditionally called Holy Week. Also, the world is not always unholy, but here I am using the word "world" as a short form for the evil that exists in the world.

An unholy world: civil war in Ukraine

I admit that I am a news-nut. I pay more attention to current events than is perhaps good for me. Such a diet serves only to depress people, as my wife often reminds me. Holy Week, however, has the potential to drag people away from a depressing reality and provide them with a glimpse of a new and better world, one where sin no longer reigns and death has been conquered. I need that glimpse, as do all Christian believers.

Holy Week, which culminates with Easter, drags me away from TV and radio for a while. For a few brief hours every day I could live in a new world, one that will become a full reality for me after my death, when I too will experience the resurrection that Christ has made possible. That is what Holy Week does for me and countless other Christians. Weekly church services can do that too, but Holy Week does it in an especially profound and poignant way.

This year all Christians in the world celebrated Easter on the same date. That happens only rarely. The dating of Easter is a complex subject. Briefly, the early church fathers wished to keep the observance of Easter as soon as possible after the Jewish Passover, because Christ`s death, burial, and resurrection had happened after that event. But the Passover is movable, and thus Easter is also movable.

The Western and Eastern churches tend to use different calendars and have different ways of calculating the date of Easter. Thus the dates rarely coincide. Last year they were five weeks apart and next year they will be separated by a week. But this year they coincide, as they did in 2007, 2010 and 2011, and will again in 2017. Thus Holy Week also coincides for the two traditions.

The church services during Holy Week all focus on Christ`s passion and death, ending with his burial. These are somber days, illustrated vividly by Tenebrae services where lights in the church are slowly dimmed until only one candle signifying Christ is left. I attended several such services during this Holy Week. That has been my custom ever since I lived in Moscow. Every night, in fact, was marked by worship.
Christ`s resurrection marks a new beginning for humanity and indeed all of creation. It is thus a joyous event -- the most joyous one in the ecclesiastical calendar. Easter is the highlight of the Christian year, for me; I am sure most adult Christians would agree. Children, for obvious reasons, may vote for Christmas, but the older generation prefers Easter.

From the somberness of Holy Week to the joyfulness of Easter Christians everywhere can participate in a drama that dispels, however, briefly, the cruel reality of the unholy world in which all of us exist. I say this not to proselytize anyone but only to testify to my own experience and that of other Christians all over the globe.

Those who do not participate in this drama, even if they are Christian believers, may never experience that feeling, since it is only through faith and actual participation that a new and better reality becomes apparent. The unholy world disappears for a while, and it is replaced by a vision of a transcendent reality. That this unholy world reappears repeatedly is an indication of the already and not yet nature of that transcendent reality: it is here, but not fully yet. One day all of us will experience that reality.

I am holding a poster for the Good Friday walk

On Good Friday I participated in this drama in an unusual way. I joined the Ecumenical Good Friday Walk for Justice. At the various stations of the cross the walkers were confronted with various injustices. We heard stories about about how an unholy world treats the environment and other humans. A reading of Matthew`s account of the passion of Christ put this misuse of the creation into sharp relief. We felt we were indeed walking with Jesus, as we sang lustily on the streets of Toronto. It concluded with a simple meal of bread and vegetarian soup served in Holy Trinity Anglican Church, which abuts the Eaton Centre.

This event too provided a glimpse of that new transcendent reality when we stood shoulder-to-shoulder with our aboriginal brothers and sisters, as well as those from countries like the Philippines, who bear the brunt of these injustices.

My commemoration of Good Friday concluded with Duruflé`s Requiem, performed by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. This year I could compare that work with Fauré s version that I heard on Palm Sunday. Both pieces are beautiful; both usher the listener briefly into another reality, yet I admit that I prefer Fauré. That is the power of music, especially the music of Holy Week and Easter.

This post has become more personal than I had intended when I began. I had hoped to send it off before Easter, but that was impossible, with four small children running around the house. In addition, I received word that my mother is dying, so I had to travel to Ottawa to be with her.

I have five siblings, and we are sharing the burden of providing round-the-clock care for her. We started doing taking turns on Easter Sunday. Together with my youngest brother, I have taken the midnight through 4 am shift. But this is the least we can for our mother.

I say all this to illustrate how an unholy world keeps impinging itself on us. Death is the last enemy, and it is especially cruel. Yet the joy of Easter provides us with a renewed hope. Christ's resurrection is the promise of our own resurrection and that of those whom we love.

As the culmination of Holy Week, Easter reminds us that the reality that an unholy world presents us is not lasting, but it is transitory. There is another, better reality, one that is intended for every Christian. People like my mother can experience that immediately; others of us may have to wait a while. But the promise is there. God is faithful. He always keeps his promises.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Noah: the movie (2014)

I am back from an extensive trip to Europe, where I visited Amsterdam, Prague, and Istanbul, which is where I saw the Noah film. The viewing prompted this post. I hope to make more regular postings again.

Banned by some Muslims and panned by some Christians, Noah, which was released on March 28, is doing well at the box office. This movie is now showing in theaters all over the world, although as I am writing this, it still had not recouped its cost of $125 million.

I saw it in Istanbul, which is appropriate since Turkey shares with Armenia the honor of hosting Mount Ararat, the mountain where Noah's Ark is reputed to have landed after the flood had receded somewhat.

Some Muslims do not want to see this movie because it depicts Noah, who is a prophet and thus a sacred figure in Islam. Prophets do not share the same weaknesses that most mortals do. Similarly, some Christians are very critical of this film, regarding it as blasphemous and a distortion of the biblical story in Genesis 6-9.

These Christians are partially right. Noah is not blasphemous, but it is a distortion of the Genesis account. It is the writer and director, Darren Aronofsky's, interpretation of the story of of Noah and the Flood. He has made more than a few changes, as anyone who has read the biblical story realizes. But this is his account, which bears only a passing resemblance to the biblical one.

Darren Aronofsky

As some critics have pointed out, Aronofsky has stirred in ideas from earlier film versions of Noah's story, plus bits from other religions and mythologies, including kabbalism and pre-Christian gnosticism.

Aronofsky has thrown in flashbacks to earlier parts of the Old Testament, including Adam and Eve's ejection from the Garden of Eden, and Cain's slaying of his brother Abel. Some flashbacks are helpful, but not all.

The film's most visually inventive sequence is a self-contained, time-lapse retelling of the birth of the universe, as the Big Bang. Unlike the other flashbacks, which help to explain what led God to want to destroy the human race through a flood, this episode adds little to the Noah story, except to explain the opening screed, "In the beginning there was nothing . . .", which is a departure from the biblical, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

God is never mentioned in this film by name. He is simply called "The Creator." God does not speak directly to Noah, but through a series of mysterious dreams. Noah does not seem to fully understand why God is sending a flood to destroy the human race but wants to preserve Noah and a boatload of animals in the Ark.

Noah thinks all along that when his sons die that will be the end for humanity, although the animals will be have been saved. In fact, Noah's understanding of salvation is extremely limited, as the scene where he wants to kill his grandchildren is aborted only when he realizes his love for them. His discovery of love for them is wonderful, but it misses the real purpose of the Ark, which was to preserve humanity because of God's great love for them.

Russell Crowe

In this film Noah is portrayed as an eco-warrior who hides his 600 years very well. Aronofsky's concern for the environment, which is perhaps his chief motive for this production, is admirable, but unfortunately his grasp of the biblical story is minimal. Aronofsky has admitted as much when he has called his pet project, "the least biblical 'biblical' film ever."

In this film there are echoes of some of his earlier works, like Pi and The Fountain, as well as evidence of blatant imitations from other notable films, such as Lord of the RingsWaterworld, Galaxy Quest, and Transformers, just to mention a few.

Russell Crowe, who plays Noah, does not come across as genuine. His performance stands in striking contrast to the stellar effort displayed by Jennifer Connelly, who portrays Naameh, Noah's wife. Her devotion and anguish for her spouse help to lend Noah some human qualities. Without her, Noah would be a cardboard character. But because of her, there is grace in a film that displays little grace otherwise.

Jennifer Connelly

This film is notable for its violence. Noah is shown hacking people to pieces before he enters the Ark. In this he is joined by "The Watchers," a race of fallen angels who had allied themselves with the descendants of Cain, but in the end helped Noah to build the Ark and defend it from those humans who desperately wanted to get on it to save themselves. The Watchers became encrusted with molten magma when they fell from heaven. Their lumbering makes them scary, but it also contributes much to making this film as preposterous as it is. They could better have been left out. After all, in the Bible Noah and his sons build the Ark without assistance from others.

Paramount Pictures pressured Aronofsky to re-edit this film to make it more presentable to Christians who might be offended by his departure from the biblical story, but the director refused. Thus we have a film that is entertaining in its own way, especially for those who enjoy violence and are not deterred by the superficiality of much of the acting. Yet this film does not deepen our understanding of what happened to Noah and his family. The distortions are so great that there is little of Genesis account that is still recognizable.

One of the most serious distortions relates to Noah's three sons, who in the Bible all have wives by the time of the flood. Aronofsky, instead, creates family conflict by denying that any of them had wives, though he does provide one for Shem by introducing an adopted daughter of Noah. She later marries him. How Noah and his family can then continue the human race is never explained. Perhaps it does not matter. Noah, as mentioned already, thought that the race would end with him and his family. That Shem's newly-born daughters could later have become wives for his brothers is too preposterous even to imagine. 

Aronofsky is one of the finest directors ever, but this film does not contribute to his legacy. The theological richness of the biblical story is lacking. Hence my profound disappointment -- a disappointment that is shared by many, I suspect. I watched this film avidly, but I left the theater feeling empty and disappointed.. 

Anthony Hopkins

This had been a waste of time, at least from my perspective, even though it had entertained me for a few hours, in 3-D, no less. Yet I did not learn anything I did not already know. Other viewers will probably be confused by the many distortions of the biblical story.

I am still waiting for a Noah film that is true to the Bible and at the same time is of great artistic merit. This film, sad to say, does not meet either of these criteria well. I expected much more from Aronofsky, after his earlier works. This film is thus a travesty. It may be a blockbuster, but it is not a truly great movie.

As a theological educator I am especially disappointed in this film. What could have been an opportunity to teach about God's love for humanity by sparing a remnant, instead becomes a mishmash of episodes from other films and a multitude of other stories. What should have taught the world about the biblical idea of salvation, has become a vehicle for making money. This is Aronofsky's film, however, not mine.

This is certainly not Hollywood at its best. I do not expect the major movie studios to become seminaries, but I would like them to be true to the original story as many Christians and Jews understand it. The story of Noah and the Ark has turned what could have been a great film into something that cheapens the story that has traditionally been understood. There are other weaknesses as well.

The acting of the major actors, such as Crowe, is substandard. Except for some of the women, much of the acting is poor. In only a few roles do the actors shine. Just think of Anthony Hopkins, who plays Methuselah, whose remaining passion in life (at the venerable age of 969) is looking for berries. It is a minor role, but well acted. When he does find them, it becomes almost a sacramental act.

Aronofsky, at least, did the Ark right. It was not a boat, but instead was a box that from the perspective of the Bible was controlled by God, since salvation is God's work. Also, Noah is not the hero in the biblical story but he is a rather weak man. Noah only becomes truly righteous late in life. For Aronofsky, Noah too has weaknesses, but he is the hero of this eponymous film.

Aronofsky concludes this film with the covenant that God makes with Noah. The rainbow is the sign that God gives of his promise not to destroy the human race again with a flood. 

So Aranofsky does not get everything wrong, but too much in this film is colored by his peculiar presentation of this amazing story. There are a few things that Christians can learn from some of his other sources, but most of them distort the story in ways that leave me disappointed.

I regret that I could not ask the other film viewers in the theater what they thought of this film. There were very few there that afternoon, and most were Muslims. Turkey is about 97% Muslim, with Christians making up only 0.2% of the population.

In conclusion, for Aronofsky the story of Noah is not that of salvation, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead it is a warning about a looming ecological disaster, which is a highly secularized view of salvation. There are many subtexts in this film that are interesting, but the biblical story has largely gotten lost amid all the other stories that Aronofsky is telling.

Maybe that is the greatest failing of this film: Aronfsky has too many stories to tell. Noah, the movie, is not the story I was looking for when I went to the theater, yet I must admit that it was not as bad as I had heard. That is maybe part of Aronofsky's genius: he is a great storyteller. Too bad he is not telling the biblical story as I, and many others, hoped to hear or, in this case, to view.