leftover seasonal message

[I just remembered that in a rather sober mood just under a year ago, I wrote a post which I didn’t ever get round to publishing. Rather than updating anything, I’m releasing it now virtually untouched. I’m not going to wish anyone a merry Christmas :) but I do of course hope that if anyone’s thoughts do turn to the incarnation, even for the most artificial of reasons, some good effect will come of considering the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, his redemptive purpose in coming to the earth, and his expected glorious return.]

I caught the end of an anecdote on Classic FM’s evening concert one night I was working late before the end of the year – it involved a composer whose name I missed saying that when he would die and be called to give account to God for what he had done with his life, he would hand him the score of his Te Deum, and be sure that God would judge him with compassion.

This story appalled me for a good few seconds, before I remembered I still had a thesis to write and returned to pondering the relevance of spoonerisms for investigating phonological representations. Maybe it’s not such an uncommon way of thinking about judgment, but is it not completely absurd to think that any one single thing that you have produced in your life will be enough to give you a pass in the day of judgment, even if it was very beautiful and did make you famous and does perhaps do people some good when they listen to it. Whoever the composer was, it’s safe to say that his music was not immune from criticism even from his fellow composers (even if it was very beautiful), never mind in the analysis that God himself would make of it, who sees with precision all the flaws in all the best aspects of every human production.

And undermining his optimism much more fundamentally was the even greater absurdity of putting a piece of music in the balances on the other side of a life’s worth of sin and guilt. Surely God has compassion of a nature and to a degree that we constantly underestimate and disbelieve, but when he comes to judge the earth, there is a standard which he has published, which he will judge people by – and compassion will not override justice when he measures people up against that standard. There is of course a solution, provided in the gospel, for the crushing problem that we cannot begin to live up to his standard and have no way of making up for that failure ourselves and would really rather not be bound by it anyway – but that solution does not include any good or beautiful or beneficial thing that we have ever produced. How can a life’s worth of sin and guilt and shortcoming and failure be compensated for by any one-off?

It can’t even be compensated for by a person putting their utmost into moral or ethical or religious activities, no matter how many mitigating factors it might be possible to scrape together to excuse the faults and shortcomings which will inevitably emerge in the course of these activities. In the judgment, the compassionate judge of all the earth will do what’s right, inflexibly and unflinchingly, and unless we can have recourse to the perfect obedience and lack of imperfection of someone else to stand in for our own, there’s no way that justice will be served in our own personal case.

That is to say, there is an Advocate with the Father, whose life and death lived up to God’s standard exactly, and his person and work are available to anyone to make use of, this side of the judgment. Failing to accept the offer that reflects God’s compassion now, will be the most telling piece of evidence against us in his judgment later – but his offer explicitly excludes any contribution of ours to the case which he will make on our behalf (even supposing it seemed as magnificent to us as whoever’s Te Deum it was in the first place). ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling’ – the obedience and death of Christ is an eloquent plea, and the only one which will be accepted when the Father of Mercies comes to judge, but if it won’t do for us, there’s not much use pinning any hopes to anything of our own in his place.


highland guilt

An article which might be of interest in some quarters – replace “Dutch” with “Highland” and swap in your own favourite teuchterish quirks, and this piece of editorialising speaks very pointedly to … (- well, if you know that’s fine, otherwise no need to name names :) )

Quoted in full from the Confessional Outhouse.

Dutch Guilt: An Editorial on an Editorial

Yesterday I received the latest issue of the Banner magazine, the official publication of my denomination. Guest editor Gary Mulder wants to offer a lesson in popular existentialism (“A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s in Water”).

Starting with the observation that “missional” has become a buzzword in the hipper expressions of the church-elite, and not particularly guarded about what that may entail, Mulder takes up the issue of cultural dissonance in the Christian Reformed Church. This caught my eye, since I at once have active membership in the CRC and am fairly well removed from what it means to be Dutch Reformed, emphasis on the Dutch. And my wife is as much a cultural mutt as me. (While she can point to her maternal grandmother’s immigration from Scotland, and I to my paternal great-grandfather’s trek from Eastern Europe, it more or less goes a whiter shade of pale after that.) We have often bemused at the ways in which we are not exactly all-in-the-family. My personal favorite is to suggest an initial “Van” to our surname (Zrimec) in order to prevent its very common slaughtering. And like the day Zechariah was given his speech back, the pronunciation rolls off the Dutch tongue.

True enough, my blonde-haired, blue-eyed and plain-vanilla-white-bread persona goes a long way in the interests of assimilation. Yet, the rearing in secular unbelief, as well as being third-generation Slavanian, seem to go even further at winning the day…or losing, as the case may be. If the concentric circles that keep me simultaneously in and out are real, I very much get what Mulder is putting is finger on here.

But since one of the things the Dutch Reformed and I share is the fact that we are both Caucasianittes I feel rather confident to confess on both our parts a vulnerability to “white guilt.” I tend to think this accounts for all the African-American spirituals in the gray Psalter Hymnal, as well as the multi-cultural tinge of the CRC in general. Speak with most ethnic minorities and they will tell you how easy it is to spot white guilt in our ranks. I don’t doubt that; it makes sense. Those who are outside certain sociological demographics tend to often times be the better barometers on another’s foibles. In the same way, the white guilt black Americans discern amongst us white folks finds its parallel in the way those of us perfectly un-Dutch might discern it amongst Dutch Reformed folks. So as I read Mulder’s editorial I get a sense of what it must be like for black folks to watch us white folks do social penance:

“I recently re-read the editorial by former Banner editor Andrew Kuyvenhoven titled, ‘It’s Time to Burn the Wooden Shoes’ (Nov.3, 1980). He says that, for immigrants, taking along some of the traditions they grew up with is a legitimate part of the immigration process. But he also notes that if the church becomes ‘our church for our people,’ this ‘ethnic exclusivism becomes sinful’…Yet often we’re unaware of how we hurt people by how we show our ethnicity…Those of us in churches made up primarily of a single ethnic and/or cultural group may not be aware of how we show our ethnicity or culture…When we play ‘Dutch bingo,’ we exclude people. When joke about the many people whose last name starts with a ‘Van,’ we exclude people.”

This rather Pollyanna self-flagellation is actually quite common in my circles, and it brings into rather bright relief the misguided spirit of the CRC. They are very aware of their entrenched culturalism. They are aware of how it seems to frustrate the universalistic nature of the church whose program rightly transcends tribe, tongue and nation. This is to their credit. But like the 21st century descendant of plantation sires who admits freely to a held-over institutional racism, they really don’t know what to do about it. So they flail and fall over themselves, thinking it has something to do with a card game and certain jokes. Worse, instead of employing a churchly means to correct the problem they simply repeat the very culturalism they mean to dismantle. There is never any conscientiousness, for example, to recover the confessional forms or Reformation history that transcends particular times and places. Rather the answer is to simply parrot religious versions multi-culturalism and the weirdly therapeutic language of “hurting people.” The great equalizer isn’t so much Christianity according to the Reformation as it is to celebrate all the colors of Benetton.

Mulder bids an awkward outreach the way a well-meaning suburbanite goads his son to seek out the lone black kid who just moved into the cul-de-sac:

“If you attend a church made up of people who have mostly Dutch roots, try to find a non-Dutch person in the congregation who is open to talking with you about this issue.”

Well, all right, as long as you asked. First, in the interests of familial civility, I should point out the great debt I owe to the Dutch Reformed among whom we have moved for the last decade or so. Finding the Reformation on paper is one thing, but finding a living body of Reformed believers is quite another to say the least.

That said, families are nothing if not able to get real with each other about their evident dysfunctions. So, if you really want to be “serious about being a missional church” and to be “much more intentional about identifying and eradicating the ways [your] ethnic roots make it difficult for people to become part of [you],” you might consider the whole phenomenon of Christian day schooling. I know that’s a big one. But until the Dutch Reformed begin to grasp that their educational enterprise is less a way to “cultivate the Christian life” (Wolterstorff) than a carried over project at a particular cultural cohesion, your claim to be “serious” may be overstating things a bit. You can’t help actually being Dutch, nor should you. But education is a powerful cultural tool to keep certain people in and others out. You can keep your card games and jokes about names. They don’t bother this outsider much at all.

But if you are really taking requests, and the day schooling is too much too fathom, I would also suggest exorcising your Reformed narcissism (“I am Reformed; I think x; therefore x is Reformed”) and contemplating a more honest re-discovery of the Protestant Reformation. Coming to the Reformation as deliberately as I have, it seems to me you have assumed way too much about what it means to be Reformed, resting more on cultural indicators than on churchly ones. I appreciate your polite offer to brainstorm over coffee “about the subtle ways your ethnicity or culture might exclude people,” as well as your sunny visions of “people from all cultures and socio-economic groups” inhabiting the denomination one day. But, frankly, it’s all a bit too polite, not a little patronizing and misses the point entirely.


If the words “RAE results” mean anything to you, do take a minute to visit Language Log to see Geoff Pullum raving about how Edinburgh’s Linguistics and English Language department fared.

It might also be worth noting that the staff of 20 at Queen Margaret University’s Speech Science Research Centre (which I’m also linked with) achieved some highly respectable results, being rated highly in the ‘internationally excellent’ category and also as ‘world-leading’.

(Now I better go and do some work.)

forget i said anything

Right, I said I wouldn’t be back till after the weekend, but this is what I’m going to be thinking about in the meantime.

Which of these positions would you be more inclined to agree with?

* most believers are regenerated in infancy (or before they’re born),


* most believers are not regenerated until they’re much older (childhood, teens, or after)

I obviously won’t be able to read your thoughtful responses till I get back but I would love to take a quick survey of your instant reactions to this question.

going quiet

This is my first time trying out the new dashboard – and an apology for the scarcity of posts here. I’m going to be away from the computer on and off for the next few days. Definitely don’t expect to hear from me tomorrow, and don’t be surprised if I fail to post anything before the weekend – I’m supposed to be doing  a presentation at the start of next week and unfortunately the data analysis is still ongoing. (So basically: chances are it will be quiet here until the middle of next week.)

Meantime, did you know that lords from the House of Lords have a blog?

monday night

A debate was organised the other night by edmedethics – ‘Abortion in the 21st century – the medicine, the ethics and the law.’ Mrs Ann Furedi (Chief Executive of BPAS, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) presented the case that abortion provision is not only pragmatically defensible but ethically justifiable; Prof John Wyatt (professor of neonatal pediatrics at UCL) argued that there was ‘nearly always’ a better alternative to abortion.

The points of agreement between the two speakers were remarkable. Furedi pointed out that women who come to abortion clinics are “never” there to exercise “their political right to choose” – they would often have done anything to avoid being there, and it’s never an easy decision. As she also said, “we all want to work really hard to avoid abortions” – the rising rate of abortions is undoubtedly a concern, she said, as undergoing the procedure is “unpleasant, stressful, and usually distressing.”

The main disagreement therefore focused on what, in practical terms, should be the options available to a woman who did not feel she could continue with a pregnancy. Furedi argued that women should not be compelled to continue with a pregnancy against their will – the option to end it should always be available. Wyatt argued that there is always a better alternative. It might not be an easy alternative, he said, but there was nearly always a better alternative. He focused on the situtations and pressures that give rise to women’s feeling that there is no alternative but to end the pregnancy. In contrast to Furedi’s emphasis on the value of individual autonomy, he said that many women have an abortion not so much as a triumph of personal autonomy but precisely because they don’t see an alternative – under what influences, he asked, are women making these choices? – especially when their apparently autonomous decisions so often seem to serve other people’s interests.

Wyatt also mentioned the concept of the image of God. Furedi had argued for a distinction between ‘biological’ life and life that somehow “matters” – life that is conscious, self-aware, self-valuing, for example. But rather than making a division between those who have self-awareness and those who don’t, Wyatt pointed to the Judaeo-Christian principle that all human life is special – humans have intrinsic value whether they are self-aware and self-valuing or not. In considering ‘abortion in the 21st century,’ therefore, his question was how as a society we can best support each other to value and preserve all human life.

Questions from the floor were generally thoughtful, but I was particularly struck by one brave soul who suggested that the problem lies somewhat prior to the pregnancy itself – surely society should recognise, she offered, that sex is not an end in itself but does have consequences. This was shot down by Furedi, who pointed out that that’s simply not how society sees things today. But Wyatt did concur that there is a “murky, seedy side to our permissive society” – unwanted pregnancy is not the only consequence of risk-free casual promiscuity – there are questions about relationships, and people’s (especially women’s) self-worth and self-esteem, as significant social pressures which make up the context in which unwanted pregnancies occur.

What came across clearly was the concern of both speakers to deal compassionately with women in difficult circumstances and a recognition (on both sides, I felt) that abortion is not something to reach for as an easy way of solving people’s problems. The discussion was characterised by great courtesy and mutual respect, without the speakers compromising on the plain presentation and robust defence of controversial principles. And, somewhat similar to the (albeit rather less valuable) discussion on “assisted dying” last week, what distinguishes the practical response of both sides is in the perceived need they target – the unwanted pregnancy, or the circumstances which make it unwanted. Providing women (and couples) with the support they need in order not to go through with unpleasant procedures to terminate pregnancies would, surely, be a mark of a healthier and more caring society.

special offer


I know you’ll all be really, really excited to hear that – for a limited period only – the journal Phonology is making a select handful of outstanding articles available for free download until the end of this month!

Choose from Clements’ ‘Geometry of phonological features,’ Keating’s ‘Underspecification in phonetics,’ and Browman and Goldstein’s classic ‘Towards an articulatory phonology’ – among other goodies – here.

(Via Phonoloblog; pic stolen from the pure genius Facebook group.)