Notes on Christianity
and Ideas

Issue 11
December 1999

Published by Theodore Plantinga

In this issue ....

Maggie Vandermeer, a Redeemer College student, reflects on the concept of reincarnation within the context of a short story. Click here to read "The Visionary Gleam: A Story about Reincarnation"

A recent college graduate swims against the stream as she proposes a return to modesty in order to save real sexuality. Myodicy investigates. Click here to read "Difference, Modesty and Sexuality."

The people need a greater voice in Quebec's future in relation to the rest of Canada. How can we give them such a voice? Click here to read "Just Say No: Reflections on a Referendum."


Don't take the term literally. I don't plan to turn pages for you. If I inform you of a website, I will simply pass on the address. But for the most part I will comment here on materials in the world of the printed page -- brief book notes, observations about periodicals, and perhaps a comment on an event.

Making the news. The internet is changing the world. News organizations, in their quest for "scoops," find themselves under ever greater pressure because of the existence of websites on which the latest discovery or revelation can be published. The one-week cycle of a typical weekly newsmagazine can seem an eternity. When is a story fit to print? When has it been sufficiently thoroughly checked out and researched? Newsmagazines must always keep a wary eye on the websites of their various competitors. Under all the pressure, reporters even feel the urge to get involved in the events they cover and hurry things along -- not just reporting the news, but actually making it.

Considerations such as these were quite a factor in the circumstances under which the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal story was made public in early 1998. A Newsweek reporter named Michael Isikoff, whose patient investigation of the Paula Jones lawsuit against President Clinton had a great deal to do with blowing the whistle on Clinton's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, makes this clear in a fascinating memoir entitled, appropriately, Uncovering Clinton (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999).

Will we ever have time for reflection again, as we consider public affairs and the elected leaders who influence them so heavily? Or will the ever greater competition among news organizations leave us no peace? Isikoff's book is both sobering and engaging. It deserves to be read by all who are interested in how journalism (today's garbled account of what happened) gradually becomes history.

Hard on the right. Here in Ontario, where Myodicy is published, we had an election some months ago, with the result that the notorious (in the eyes of many) Mike Harris government was re-elected. Some were surprised; I was not. Neither was I surprised to see Harris elected in the first place back in 1995: I predicted it, even though the polls and pundits declared the Liberal Party the sure victor. Between 1995 and 1999 we heard many assurances that everyone hates the Harris government, and that it would get its just deserts when it went before the electorate again. Well, it didn't happen. It appears that lots of people want to be hard on the right, but don't quite know how.

Among them is Brooke Jeffrey, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal, and a one-time Liberal candidate in a federal campaign who wound up losing to what she took to be a singularly undistinguished Reform candidate. Jeffrey has published a rather lengthy attack on the right entitled Hard Right Turn: The New Face of Neo-Conservatism in Canada (Toronto HarperCollins, 1999, 470 pages). The theme is that Mike Harris (Ontario's Conservative premier) and Ralph Klein (Alberta's Conservative premier) and their political associates are a band of ignorant jerks. Much of the book has an ad hominem flavor. Occasionally we get an admission that there is some shrewdness in these two controversial premiers; after all, they do manage to beat their opponents at the polls.

The book is a little stronger when it comes to discussing Preston Manning and the Reform Party of Canada. Even adherents of the right have to admit that its performance to date has been disappointing, and that its long-term future is doubtful. Manning is easier to lampoon than Harris.

For those who persevere to the very end of the book, there is a timely warning: "... the continued failure of liberal politicians to take the threat of neo-conservatism seriously -- not only in terms of political power, but in light of its potential to disrupt the political culture of the country -- could result in a lengthy period of social unrest and the deterioration of the key values of compassion and tolerance that have distinguished Canadian society in the twentieth century." But Jeffrey does not help us with this challenge, which she poses in her second-last sentence. May the torch be passed to others, because the debate she calls for is needed. But I suspect we will not see it starting until the ad hominem attacks are ended. There's more to Harris and Klein and company than some of their contemptuous critics are willing to admit in public.

Putting evil in its place. America is the land of the healthy-minded who think positively and see no barriers on the road ahead. A number of religious communities native to the United States reflect this cheery and optimistic attitude. Among them is Christian Science, which is nicely described in a recent book as follows: "Its metaphysics are an amalgam of mystical Eastern thought and primitive Christianity, with its emphasis on healing, updated with nineteenth-century notions of Science as pure and all-powerful. It blends the concepts of the material world as unreal, the Maya of the Bhagavad-Gita (via New England Transcendentalism) with the idea of Christ as a `Scientist,' and healing as a `Science' that can be `demonstrated.' It is quintessentially American in both its spirituality and its pragmatism."

Yes, but does it actually work? Publications sponsored by the Christian Science movement say it does; disillusioned dropouts say the opposite. One critic is Barbara Wilson, whose fascinating memoir of her childhood incudes the words quoted above (p. 7; see also p. 110). Her book is called Blue Windows: A Christian Science Childhood (New York: Picador USA, 1997). She writes: "I was raised like Candide to believe that all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds, but like Job, I found out differently. My education in fear and suffering was thorough." [p. 335]

The tidy universe in which evil is unreal seems to admit of cracks in which other influences intrude. Writes Wilson, expounding the unstable Christian Science ontology: "Something lies outside the boundaries of the sunny world we supposedly inhabit. Something is trying to get inside that watchtower where we must constantly be on guard. Something is always threatening us." [p. 133] Does that "Something" have a name? Not officially, for evil is unreal. But unofficially it is called "Malicious Animal Magnetism" (often abbreviated as "M.A.M.": see pp. 10, 149-50).

The problem is never really solved, according to Wilson: "Evil or error is a bad dream that can be forgotten, a carpet stain that can be removed. Yet even after error has been removed, and evil has been defined out of existence, there is something, inexplicable, something that remains." [p. 133] The inability to name that "Something," or to deal with it theologically and philosophically, leaves the rational inquirer unsatisfied. Wilson writes: "On the surface, and in most of its teaching, Christian Science is a monistic religion, asserting that God is good and that evil is an error or a lie. But M.A.M. puts Christian Science in the pluralistic camp. It makes room for something that is not part of God and with a power that comes from some other source. What source? Christian Science does not say." [pp. 138-9]

Wilson's book is not a theological or philosophical treatise. It is a very personal book about her own upbringing and break with Christian Science, with the heartbreaking story of her mother woven though it. Disease is not to be feared, yet it dominated the poor woman's life. Wilson's mother was caught in a struggle with God "over how she could be sick in a perfect world." [p. 197] But sick she was -- indeed, desperately ill. And she did not conquer her illness by invoking the power of mind over matter. She died of cancer. When someone was ill and then recovered, she would usually say: "It must have been all in his head." [p. 51] But her cancer was not in her head, and it got the best of her.

No end-of-term report? No, not as a separate item this time. Difficulties in my personal life are a factor in this decision not to comment on Redeemer affairs in this issue.

For the record, I taught two sections of Introduction to Philosophy, plus a class in Philosophy of History, plus a class in Modern Philosophy. The last class was really one too many, and the college did try to release me from the need to teach it, but this proved impossible. I wound up teaching the course as a hybrid between an independent study course and a regular lecture course. In the end there were too many students enrolled for me to be able to make of the course the modest extra chore I envisioned at the end of August when I made final plans for the term.

General information

This electronic journal is my way of keeping in touch with friends, colleagues, former students, and so forth. It does not have a regular publication schedule. Feel free to download it and pass it around. You may even wish to send me a comment; I do not guarantee a response to each communication. If you wish to repost anything in this journal, please let me know. If you care to print something in paper form, this can also be arranged, provided that I retain the copyright so that I will remain free in my use of the material. Please regard the materials in Myodicy as copyrighted by me, except in the case of articles written by someone else. What is written in Myodicy should not be regarded as reflecting any official position or policy of Redeemer College.

Theodore Plantinga
E-mail: [email protected]

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