Troubled in Toronto?

Did the Middle Ages just appear on the streets of Toronto?

Last week, Muslims around the world observed the day (“Yom”) of Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. For most members of Islam’s second-largest group, the Party of Ali (or “Shiat Ali”—which gives us “Shia” Islam), this is a day of deep mourning. For on this day, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, the son of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, was slain with most of his family and followers at the Battle of Karbala in what is now Iraq.

This grandson, Husayn (also transliterated “Hussein” and “Hussain”), Shiites take to have been the rightful governor of Islam at the time as he was the leading male descendant of the Prophet. The majority of Muslims (“Sunni”), however, have not recognized patrilineal leadership but instead maintain the tradition of each caliph (or, later, the believing community) appointing a capable successor. These traditions—Sunnis make up almost 90 per cent of global Islam, while the Shia dominate in Iran and are otherwise a minority constituting almost all of the remaining 10 per cent worldwide—have rivalled each other ever since.

Ashura is thus a day of deep mourning for Shiite Muslims (and some Sunni). Most other Muslims celebrate it as, coincidentally, the day that Noah left the Ark, Moses and the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh at the Red Sea, and Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina to begin the eventual global spread of Islam. (Islam is rife with such coincident dates that show the beautiful symmetry of divine providence.)

The customary sad songs and sermons of Ashura have sometimes, however, been accompanied by the self-flagellation of those longing both to identify with the suffering of Husayn and, according to some traditions, atone for their sins. “One tear for Husayn on Ashura takes away a hundred sins,” according to one proverb. This was the scene this year in Toronto as dozens of men took off their shirts, struck themselves repeatedly on their chests, and cried “Ya Husayn” in the company of other believers.

This sight apparently disturbed some Torontonians, enough that the Toronto Sun ran an alarmed story about it and sought assurances from Toronto mayoral hopefuls that such demonstrations would be outlawed on the grounds that they are so clearly…un-Canadian. The only candidate who directly answered was the provocative Faith Goldy, who is reported as replying, “The roots of this cultural practice have no connection to Canada while the spectacle itself is profoundly incongruent with Canadian Values [sic]. Mass demonstrations wherein shirtless men self-flagellate have no place on our shared publicly funded streets.”

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News Flash: Dog Doesn’t Bite Man

Exactly zero news agencies would bother reporting that a local man encountered a dog who didn’t bite him, as he had feared it would, but gave him a friendly lick on the hand instead. Yet friendliness has shown up recently where one might not expect to find it: between Christians in public.

The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is an international fellowship of Reformed Christians committed to effective preaching, evangelism, missions, and cultural engagement. It is also marked by its fierce defense of gender differentiation (men are to lead churches and homes), its high-profile leaders (such as pastor Tim Keller, scholar Don Carson, and political leader Russell Moore), and its vigorous vigilance over what it takes to be correct doctrine.

Recently, Ontario pastor and author Paul Carver, a member of the Canadian board of TGC, interviewed Bruxy Cavey, senior pastor of one of Canada’s largest churches, The Meeting House, also in southern Ontario. The express goal was to clarify Cavey’s teaching—issued in a plethora of books, podcasts, weblogs, and sermons—for those in TGC who were concerned that Cavey was well beyond the pale.

One might have expected a hostile give-and-take as a flinty Calvinist took on an equally unapologetic Mennonite. But Carver is no Dutch uncle, nor is Cavey your typical Amish elder. The result is not the lurid Grand Inquisition one might have anticipated.

Carver is clearly a thoughtful and civil interrogator, determined to understand, not condemn, what he hears. For his part, Cavey—who looks like a hipster cross between Willie Nelson and Santa Claus—demonstrates a keen theological mind. He nicely articulates where his views differ from Carver’s (as they apparently do only rarely, according to the first two interviews) and where they are in fact pretty much the same, if expressed with Cavey’s characteristic creativity and élan.

The result is one of those benign rarities in public discourse today: a “civil and respectful dialogue” (as TGC puts it) that models a serious attempt both to understand suspicious ideas and to find common ground.

Meanwhile, Prof. Jason Byassee of the Vancouver School of Theology, a theological seminary of mainline Canadian Protestantism (United, Anglican, and Presbyterian), was recently given space by Canada’s leading journalist in religion and ethics, Douglas Todd of The Vancouver Sun, to give a very positive review of the recent book by local megachurch pastor Ken Shigematsu.

What’s this? A Presbyterian theological professor saying nice things about the work of an evangelical preacher?

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The Bad News in the Bad News

Hurricane Florence is devastating America’s east coast while super-typhoon Mangkhut lays waste to the northern Philippines.

Religious believers wonder where God is in all of this, while skeptics scoff that such calamities clearly prove the foolishness of belief in an all-good, all-powerful Being.

There’s plenty of foolish belief to go around, however. Believing that human beings can be rallied to work together to solve major problems, such as those thrown up by Florence and Mangkhut, for example.

Many people fervently believe that we need to convince the world of the reality of severe and increasing climate change. Once convinced of that inconvenient truth, the world then needs to be convinced to take one or more of several drastic steps in order to slow and even reverse it.

Massive cutbacks in the use of fossil fuels—which would almost certainly stop the economic development of most of the world’s population. Massive investment in renewable energy sources, which would hamper every other economy as well. Massive changes in the production, use, and disposal of pretty much everything, from water to garbage. And massive technologies to alter the very weather, with unforeseeable risks built in (it is the weather we would be altering, after all).

Are we surprised at the lack of buy-in to such unfathomably costly schemes?

Some people focus on smaller-scale, but still gigantic, human initiatives. If we look back a year to Hurricane Maria, how has the Caribbean fared since then?

Let’s focus on the most privileged of Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico, a protectorate of the richest country on earth, the United States. And we find that America’s Chief Executive denies the extent of the catastrophe while the island remains mired in damage, depression, and despair. Remember: that’s the best-case scenario, being an actual part of the United States, and yet Puerto Rico is still a disaster zone.

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