Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Wonder

Almost two thousand years ago, a remarkable child was born. But even before he was born, his mother was told by a heavenly visitor that her son wasn’t going to be a normal human being—he would be the son of God. There were supernatural signs surrounding his birth and as a child, he showed himself to be a prodigy. In later years he performed miracles to demonstrate that he wasn’t a mere mortal and his followers believed him to be divine. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. Eventually, his enemies tried him before the Roman authorities because of his subversive ideas. Some people claimed to have seen him alive after he’d ascended to Heaven, and this convinced them that there was life after death. Some of his followers went on to write books about him.

His name was Apollonius of Tyrana.

Professor Bart D. Erhman, New Testament Scholar, and head of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, teaches about this pagan philosopher—a worshiper of the Greek gods. Apollonius and Jesus lived during the 1st century of the Common Era, each having followers who thought the other was a hoax. As strange as such events sound to us today, people in the ancient world were familiar with stories about divine men who had a connection with the divine realm.

Tom Harpur, theologian and former religion editor of The Toronto Star, has a radical take on the subject in his controversial book The Pagan Christ. He claims there was no such historical figure as Jesus Christ and that his entire existence is a fabrication, based on Egyptian mythology. Harpur writes, “The compilers of the New Testament missed the point entirely that the whole thing was meant allegorically.” He goes on to say, “What all of this means is that the manger of the Christmas story existed in Egyptian mythology as the birthplace of the messiah, or anointed one.”

How do these insights affect people’s beliefs about the birth of Jesus?

Harvard graduate, Christian author and pastor, Dr. Mark D. Roberts, says in his blog series The Birth of Jesus: Hype or History?, “If I didn’t think this really happened, if I thought that the early Christians invented this crazy idea, then I wouldn’t be able to preach the good news on Christmas Eve, or at any other time either.” He continues, “This isn’t just a nice story made up by some creative early Christians. It’s the true story of what God has actually done “for us and our salvation.”

There are over a billion Christians in the world today, many who believe in the literal virgin birth along with the angels, the wise men, and the star of Bethlehem. Every Christmas the Nativity story is presented in all its glory at church pageants and on stages like Radio City, where live animals feed into the spectacle. Priests and Ministers preach about the birth of Jesus, often conflating the accounts of the Gospels, which tell different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story.

The former Prime Minister of Britain and devout Catholic, Tony Blair, recently debated the prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens in Toronto about whether religion is good for society. Tony Blair claims religion inspires people to do good. Hitchens says it’s all bunk and very destructive (but he does have a Christmas tree in his home).

Whichever way we look at it, we cannot deny that Christianity has influenced Western Civilization more than any other religious or political institution in the world. Whether we believe that an anointed child was born in a stable that day, or that the seed of a new religion was planted around that time, we cannot avoid the message that the Christmas season brings—peace, love and goodwill to all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Kindles for Kids: will they read more?

Some kids love to read. Some kids hate it. My two teenage sons fall somewhere in between. Electronics, on the other hand, engage them more than a book ever could.

Give them the internet, their iPods, and video games, and they are as alert as a hungry fox eyeing its prey, but give them a novel, especially one that’s been assigned to them at school, and they suddenly become weary like they’ve just had a long, hard day.

The fact is boys are generally less avid readers than girls, particularly when it comes to literature. This is not a good thing and it definitely will not help them get into university or college.

According to a study on Canadian Adolescent Boys and Literacy “Boys are often disadvantaged in academic literacy as a result of current curricular emphases, teacher text and topic choices, and lack of availability and acceptability of texts that match their interests...they don’t like to read, some don’t read very well, and a growing percentage of boys are “failing” at school.”

How can educators and parents encourage boys to read more books? Providing them with more gender appropriate choices definitely helps as does letting them make their own selections.

But will boys go to the library or a book store and sift through various titles before they find one that appeals to them? Not likely. Would they peruse the choices available on an electronic reader? Much more likely, I think. Many of the books are free and some new titles cost less than $5.

Not everyone can afford an eReader. And I’m sure it would not be at the top of a teenager’s Christmas wish list. Considering how quick parents are to fork out Christmas funds on other electronic gadgets and video games (the new Call of Duty game for Xbox costs over $70, including tax), would it not be expedient for them to make the extra $70 investment in a device that might inspire reading rather than raging in a war game?

Some people may not agree. The novelty will wear off and the teen will end up losing it, misplacing it, or breaking it, objectors might say. But cell phones and iPods are more likely to meet such a fate.

A skeptic could also argue that kids who don’t read books will not start to read now simply because they have a new way to do it. I’d argue that with over 750,000 books in the electronic library, even a stubborn non-reading teenage boy would find something of interest.

Almost everyone would prefer to have an iPad. You can download books as well as use the internet, watch YouTube videos, TV shows, and podcasts. Given a choice between the various applications, we can guess where a boy’s attention would be directed. And the price—almost $800 can be a deterrent in itself.

Back to the eReader. The price of the Amazon Kindle has already come down from last year’s US $189 to $139 while its Canadian counterpart, the Kobo, sells for CAN $149. The Sony Pocket Reader, another alternative, but more pricey, costs CAN $179.

I asked two of my fourteen-year-old's friends when they last read a book outside of school. One said a few years ago, the other said in the summer. (To be fair, they were all playing scrabble when I asked them this.) Would they read more if they had an electronic reader? They both said yes...they think so.

Teachers may be restricted by the curriculum, but if parents are pro-active and make reading choices more accessible to their kids, perhaps it will show up in the grades. And who knows, before long, we may see eReaders in the classroom (with text books costing $100 each, the thought is not a huge stretch).

If it takes a Kindle to kindle an interest in reading, I say, forget those video games or latest gadgets and invest in an eReader for your son. By the way, I’m sure the girls would be happy to receive one too.

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Conversation with Maurizio Bevilacqua

Maurizio Bevilacqua, the new mayor of Vaughan, has big plans for his city. With 64% of the vote in October’s municipal election, his constituents have given him their blessing to take the reins and make things happen. Situated just north of Toronto, Vaughan is one of the fastest growing communities in Canada.

Mr. Bevilacqua brings 22 years of federal political experience to the table including several cabinet posts, and he is no stranger to landslide victories. Now 50, he’s gathered plenty of tools throughout his career to help him build the city he envisions.

“Politics is my calling,” Mr. Bevilacqua says. “It’s a people business. Whether I’m working as an MP or mayor, everything is are a manifestation of all the experiences that you’ve had, negative or positive.” Whether he’s bringing experiences from the soccer field or from the federal cabinet, he intends to use all that he’s accumulated in his new role. “People are the same wherever you go, they are just motivated by different goals and objectives. In city building, you bring in the collective, you analyze what they need to do, and then you drive it hard.”

Why leave a successful federal path to manage a city with a population of about 280,000? “To go to the place where my skills would better represent the people that I serve,” Mr. Bevilacqua says. “There was a need in the city of Vaughan for new leadership—there was a void in leadership—and I felt I could fill that void given my experience.” He believes that people feel closer to the mayor than to their Member of Parliament, who sits in Ottawa and deals with issues that may not directly relate to their constituents.

Another factor that influenced Mr. Bevilacqua’s decision to run for mayor is the declining role of the federal government versus the cities. With greater decision making authority having been passed on to the provinces in recent years, an MP does not have as much control over the future of their constituency as in the past. But the mayor has increasing influence over everyday life and Mr. Bevilacqua’s role will be “more proactive”; for example, getting transit into the city, bringing in new business, creating jobs, and building infrastructure.

“Cities have become more and more important to regional economies,” he says, and he wants to exercise a role in the greater Toronto area. The city of Vaughan is his priority, but he also intends to establish the GTA as a very important regional economy in the North American context.

Mr. Bevilacqua thinks that the strengths of Vaughan have been overshadowed by the allegations of corruption and infighting, and it is now time to highlight all the good things about the city. For example, Vaughan is ten minutes away from the international gateway (Pearson Int’l Airport), it has a strong manufacturing base, the population is highly educated—well above the provincial average, it is an affluent and generous community, there is a high level of employment, it has one of the highest reserves per capita in the province, and the standard of living and quality of life are phenomenal. According to Mr. Bevilacqua, most Torontonians know little about Vaughan, and what they do perceive is unfavourable due to the negative distortions reported by the media.

One of his main priorities is to show the world what Vaughan is all about and to get rid of the negative preconceptions. He is on a mission to rebrand and to create a world class city. By 2031 the population is expected to have grown beyond 400,000 and he sees the goal of bringing Vaughan to a world class level as “the ultimate reality.”

What does this mean? He says there are three realities in life: a distorted reality, an objective reality, and an ultimate reality. “A distorted reality about the city of Vaughan is that it is ‘a city above the law’; the objective reality would be that there are newspaper articles that actually indicate that and endorse that; my ultimate reality is that the city can become a beacon of character and integrity. In my first term, if I can transform the image of the city within Canada, first and foremost, then I’ve done a great job for the people.” He will start by delivering his state of the city address to Toronto. “You’ve gotta go where you want to change the image,” he says.

As far as leadership goes, Mr. Bevilacqua plans to bring positive energy to his new role. In his campaign he did not resort to attacks on his opponents, which is why he thinks he won by such a landslide. He refused to talk about what went wrong with the city in the past and he never attacked a single candidate. “There are certain universal laws that are eternal truths,” he says. “Human decency will always be repaid. The energy you emit is the energy you get back.”

Mr. Bevilacqua brings a different tone and a different approach to council and though he recognizes that he can’t change the culture overnight, he is up for the challenge.