Monday, August 31, 2009

A masochistic religion

From Bagehot's notebook:

Watching football, particularly but not only in the flesh, has obvious similarities with religious worship. There are rituals, there are chants, there are regular seats and neighbours, as there might be in more orthodox places of prayer, plus the elusive sense of community that churches or synagogues can provide. And football, like many religions, works on a principle of deferred (sometimes endlessly deferred) gratification, promising but withholding a heaven of success reached by most supporters only very rarely. The scarifying waiting, with all its failures and disappointments, is not incidental to the attraction: it is, I think, much of the point. It is an exquisite and addictive form of self-punishment.

He's writing about soccer, but I think much the same could be said about American football. Or rooting for the Cubs.

T.H.L. Parker's Calvin

Here are a couple more excerpts from Portrait of Calvin by T.H.L. Parker:

On Calvin at home:

It is strange to realize that for most of his life Calvin's house was full of young children. No doubt the womenfolk protected both him and the children from one another, but at any rate he passed his life, not in the seclusion of a monastery or in humanistic quiet but in the midst of the pleasures and worries of domesticity. The Institutes was not written in an ivory tower, but against the background of teething troubles. (p. 80)

On Calvin's greatest disappointment:

Switzerland, Germany, England, France, Poland also, Italy, and the Netherlands—to all these countries Calvin spoke with an almost apostolic voice. They might not always like what he had to say, but they paid heed to his opinion. He had accomplished much for the Churches. In Switzerland and France, the Protestant Churches were united. But the greatest prize of all eluded his grasp. The union of all the Churches of the Reformation which he, with Cranmer, so greatly desired, was not to be.

The great Protestant Council was once so close, provoked by the convening of the Council of Trent. Bullinger had written to Cranmer, urging that England should not send a delegate to the Council of Trent. He replied that the King had never thought of doing so, but added that he had recommended that "His Majesty grant his assistance, that in England, or elsewhere, there might be convoked a synod of the most learned and excellent persons, in which provision might be made for the purity of the Church doctrine, and especially for an agreement upon the sacramentarian controversy." On the same day he wrote in similar terms to Calvin, who replied that he would cross ten seas to attend such a council.

But when Cranmer invited Melanchthon, the scheme shipwrecked, for his fear of the long journey was augmented when he consulted the stars, of which he was a hopeful student. The Reformed Churches stayed apart, and Calvin's desire has yet to be fulfilled: "Would that the union between all Christ's Churches upon earth were such, that the angels in heaven might join their song of praise." (pp. 123-124)

Calvin in England, working with Cranmer to unite the churches of the Reformation -- it's one of the tantalizing "what if's?" of church history. This little book is a splendid introduction to the life and thought of John Calvin. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Good thoughts in preparation for the Lord's Day

Kevin DeYoung writes:

No doubt some Christians need to be shaken out of their lethargy. I try to do that every Sunday morning and evening. But there are also a whole bunch of Christians who need to be set free from their performance-minded, law-keeping, world-changing, participate-with-God-in-recreating-the-cosmos shackles. I promise you, some of the best people in your churches are getting tired. They don’t need another rah-rah pep talk. They don’t need to hear more statistics and more stories Sunday after Sunday about how bad everything is in the world. They need to hear about Christ’s death and resurrection. They need to hear how we are justified by faith apart from works of the law. They need to hear the old, old story once more. Because the secret of the gospel is that we actually do more when we hear less about all we need to do for God and hear more about all that God has already done for us. [emphasis mine]

Friday, August 28, 2009

Whit Stillman on WNYC

For someone who's made only three films—the last one coming 10 years ago—writer/director Whit Stillman still generates a lot of discussion. I've never actually seen his last film (The Last Days of Disco) because it hasn't been easily available on home video for years. Thanks to Criterion that's now changed. Stillman was recently a guest on the Leonard Lopate Show talking about the revival of interest in Last Days.

This isn't the first time Stillman and his movies have been featured on Friday is for film. See here and here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Frum on the healthcare fight

I've been intentionally avoiding the healthcare debate. For one thing I was on vacation for two weeks and blissfully insulated from news stories about "death panels" and clips of seniors on Medicare angrily denouncing "government-run healthcare." Also, it just makes me plain mad -- and I don't like being mad. Yes, the exploding cost of healthcare and health insurance is a sore subject for my family.

Now that the Obama administration seems to be backing away from a public option (the one thing that would put the fear of God in the insurance industry) there's talk that Congress may simply try to pass a bill that contains only those non-controversial measures almost everyone agrees on. If that happens I'm guessing it would spell the end of any hope for meaningful reform this time around, and it would probably be seen as a defeat for Obama and a victory for conservatives—at least the sort of fearmongering conservatives that dominate the public discourse these days.

One of the dissenters from this newish brand of conservatism is David Frum. Although according to Rush, Beck, etc. he's not a real conservative because he doesn't always agree with them, I think Frum has a better handle on what it's going to take to bring the party of Lincoln, TR and Ronald Reagan back from the political wilderness. He understands that merely being against something is no substitute for a positive agenda. Recently on his New Majority website Frum asked his fellow Republicans the question: "What if we win the healthcare fight?" Here's his answer:

For some, the answer is obvious: beat back the president’s proposals, defeat the House bill, stand back and wait for 1994 to repeat itself.

The problem is that if we do that… we’ll still have the present healthcare system. Meaning that we’ll have (1) flat-lining wages, (2) exploding Medicaid and Medicare costs and thus immense pressure for future tax increases, (3) small businesses and self-employed individuals priced out of the insurance market, and (4) a lot of uninsured or underinsured people imposing costs on hospitals and local governments.

We’ll have entrenched and perpetuated some of the most irrational features of a hugely costly and under-performing system, at the expense of entrepreneurs and risk-takers, exactly the people the Republican party exists to champion.

Not a good outcome.

Even worse will be the way this fight is won: basically by convincing older Americans already covered by a government health program, Medicare, that Obama’s reform plans will reduce their coverage. In other words, we’ll have sent a powerful message to the entire political system to avoid at all hazards any tinkering with Medicare except to make it more generous for the already covered.

If we win, we’ll trumpet the success as a great triumph for liberty and individualism. Really though it will be a triumph for inertia. To the extent that anybody in the conservative world still aspires to any kind of future reform and improvement of America’s ossified government, that should be a very ashy victory indeed.

Well said!

A timely reminder of oft-forgotten martyrs

@ The Heidelblog

Monday, August 24, 2009

In the genes?

In the final chapter of Original Sin: A Cultural History author Alan Jacobs looks at how genetics, and its evil cousin eugenics, have affected the debate over original sin. As an aside, I was surprised to learn that the first forced sterilization law in the U.S. was passed in 1907, in of all places, Indiana. More to the point of Jacobs narrative however is an experiment carried out by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University in the 1970s. Zimbardo built a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology department, then recruited students who were randomly assigned the role of either prisoners or guards. The results of the study became the basis of a later book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. What were those results? By day two the students playing the role of guards had begun to mistreat the "prisoners." By day six the mistreatment had escalated into a reign of terror such that what was intended to be a two week study had to be cut short. Zimbardo concluded that "at the start of this experiment, there were no differences between the two groups, less than a week later, there were no similarities between them." To Zimbardo this was evidence of "situationism" -- place a "good" person in the right conditions and they could become a sadist. Abu Ghraib anyone?

Does the situationist thesis hold water? Well, yes and no. As Jacobs points out, it depends on a virtual emptying of meaning of the words "good" and "evil".

He [Zimbardo] presents his key question in this way: "What happens when you put good people in an evil place?" And notice his book's subtitle: "Understanding How Good People Turn Evil." But on what grounds does he say that the people were good? Simply because they had not—to his knowledge, which was extremely limited, if not nonexistent—done anything especially foul before being assigned the role of a prison guard? Long ago John Milton wrote, "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." But Zimbardo does just that; he is happy to call people "good" who may simply have not had the opportunity to do noticeable evil. (p. 252)

A few years before The Lucifer Effect cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argued in his book The Blank Slate that the human propensity to violence makes perfect sense when viewed in evolutionary terms. Pinker: "violence is not a primitive, irrational urge. . . it is a near-inevitable outcome of the dynamic of self-interested, rational social organisms." For Pinker human nature is both the problem and the potential solution. Only time will tell which half of our divided self wins out. What Jacobs found most interesting was the tack taken by some of Pinker's critics. The worst thing they could say about his arguments were that they sounded suspiciously like the long-discredited doctrine of original sin. English author Richard Webster remarked that "instead of putting forward a new theory, Pinker ends by reaffirming an old one. Although the register in which he writes is very different from that of John Wesley . . . the underlying gospel which he preaches is in reality little different. . . . For what he too calls upon us to recognize is the bestial nature of mankind and the limitations which go with that bestial nature." (p. 257)

All this calls to mind G.K. Chesterton's aphorism about original sin being the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically proved. When avowed secularists come to views of human nature that sound more like John Wesley than Jean Rousseau one is reminded of the endurance of that ancient riddle: unde hoc malum "Where does all this evil come from?" But to grapple with the riddle—as the bloody 20th century forced serious men and women to do—indeed to accept the pessimistic anthropology of St. Paul and Augustine (as even someone like Richard Dawkins seems to do in naturalistic terms) without also accepting the accompanying doctrines of redemption and grace is to live—in Jacobs' words—"in a dark, dark place."

Thank God that we can say, with Paul, "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more!"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

An American treasure

Knoebels Amusement Resort - Elysburg, PA

A hopeful doctrine for the putz in all of us

One of the books I read on our just concluded vacation is Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs. This is a superb book by a superb writer and historian! Jacobs (an English prof at Wheaton) has also written a well-regarded biography of C.S. Lewis called The Narnian. Professor Jacobs takes the reader on a tour that begins in the Garden and concludes in the early years of our own century. Along the way we get illuminating portraits of some of the major theologians, philosophers and poets that have defended (Milton, Pascal, Wesley, etc.) or condemned (Pelagius, Rousseau, Finney, etc.) this enduring Christian doctrine, as well as minor figures like George "Bad to the Bone" Thorogood, and Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing who believed that the psychotics he studied were the "normal" people because they saw the world and themselves as they truly are. This is history in the vein of Paul Johnson -- scholarly, accessible, and always readable. Jacobs demonstrates that the history of ideas is often more fascinating than the history of nations.

Not surprisingly the figure that dominates Jacobs' narrative—appearing and reappearing—is the African bishop from Hippo. Augustine's epic battles with Pelagius (and others) framed the debate over original sin in ways that continue to echo for good and ill today. Here's a taste:

In the time of Pelagius and Augustine, Christianity had settled into its comfortable place as the official religion of the Roman Empire. In many parts of the Roman world Christianity had become as "normal" and "natural" as it is in America's Bible Belt today. No doubt the spiritual and moral standards for the Christian life had relaxed quite a bit since the days of persecution, when even the hint of Christian faith could cost a person his or her life; no doubt some restored tension, some call for a renewal of holiness, was surely needed. But Pelagianism, like many zealous movements of moral and spiritual reform, writes a recipe for profound anxiety. Its original word of encouragement ("You can do it!") immediately yields to the self-doubting question: "But am I doing it?" It makes a rigorous asceticism the only true Christian life—as Brown [Augustine biographer Peter Brown] points out, "Pelagius wanted every Christian to be a monk"—and condemns even the most determined ascetic to constant self-scrutiny, a kind of self-scrutiny that can never yield a clear acquittal. You might have missed something; and in any case you could sin in the next five minutes and watch your whole house of cards crash down.

By contrast, Augustine's emphasis on the universal depravity of human nature—seen by so many then and now as an insult to human dignity—is curiously liberating. . . . Pelagianism is a creed for heroes, but Augustine's emphasis on original sin and the consequent absolute dependence of every one of us on the grace of God gives hope to the waverer, the backslider, the slacker, the putz, the schlemiel. We're all in the same boat as Mister Holier-than-Thou over there, saved only by the grace that comes to us in Holy Baptism. Peter Brown once more: "Paradoxically, therefore, it is Augustine, with his harsh emphasis on baptism as the only way to salvation, who appears as the advocate of moral tolerance: for within the exclusive fold of the Catholic church he could find room for a whole spectrum of human failings." This will not be the last time that the dark word of our "primeval contagion" brings a paradoxical light. (pp. 53-54)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

He ascended into heaven

He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
- The Apostles' Creed

Commenting on this line here's J.I. Packer's typically concise explanation of what Heaven means in the Bible. No, it's not the place in the clouds where we don togas and play golden harps, it's something much much grander.

"Heaven" in the Bible means three things: 1. The endless, self-sustaining life of God. In this sense, God always dwelt "in heaven," even when there was no earth. 2. The state of angels or men as they share the life of God, whether in foretaste now or in fullness hereafter. In this sense, the Christian's reward, treasure, and inheritance are all "in heaven" and heaven is shorthand for the Christian's final hope. 3. The sky, which, being above us and more like infinity than anything else we know, is an emblem in space and time of God's eternal life, just as the rainbow is an emblem of his everlasting covenant.

Packer goes on to explain which meaning applies to how the gospel writers described Jesus' ascension (see Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, Acts 1:1-11).

What happened at the Ascension, then, was not that Jesus became a spaceman, but that his disciples were shown a sign, just as at the Transfiguration. . . . Jesus' final withdrawal from human sight, to rule till he returns in judgment, was presented to the disciples' outward eyes as a going up into heaven in sense 3. This should not puzzle us. Withdrawal had to take place somehow, and going up, down, or sideways, failing to appear or suddenly vanishing were the only possible ways.

Above quotes taken from Growing in Christ (pp. 63 & 64)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Quotable Kiarostami

I've recently begun to delve into the work of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Believe it or not Iranian/Persian cinema has a long and glorious history stretching back to the 1930s. Kiarostami is it's most prominent representative working today. The following is from an interview with Iranian film scholar Dr. Jamsheed Akrami.

It’s difficult to talk about the things that I like because you see them in my films. It’s easier for me to talk about things that I don’t like. What I don’t like, you don’t see in my films. I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don’t like in the movies.

I think a good film is one that has a lasting power, and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to your seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them.

I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.

Here's an example of what Kiarostami likes -- a long scene from his 1997 film Taste of Cherry about a seemingly well-off middle-aged man who drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to bury him after he's carried out a plan to commit suicide. His motives are never explained, and we never learn whether he carried out his plan.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A good place to stand

Tim Keller wrote Ministries of Mercy (P&R Publishing, 1989, Second Edition 1997) before he was the evangelical celebrity he is today. I think it's still the contemporary book to go to on mercy ministry and the church. It's been a few years since I read it, but something about the current political climate reminded me of the following quote. It's as true today as when he (and Schaeffer) first wrote it.

Our nation is becoming a mosaic of different groups, each with a unique complex of needs. Most churches are surrounded by growing numbers of the unemployed and underemployed, new immigrant populations, singles, divorced persons, unwed mothers, the elderly, prisoners, the dying, sick, and disabled. Poverty is on the rise, the percentage of the elderly in our society is exploding, ethnics are pouring into our country by the millions, and federal money for helping agencies, hospitals, and other such institutions is drying up. . . . Regardless of our political views, it is indisputable that millions of people who once looked to the government will now need service and aid from churches and other agencies. The church will be forced by demographics to see what the Bible has always said. Love cannot be only expressed through talk, but through word and deed (1 John 3:17).

While accomplishing that task, Francis Schaeffer said, Christians may be at times, "cobelligerents" with the Left or the Right, but never allies. "If there is social injustice, say there is social injustice. If we need order, say we need order. . . . But do not align yourself as though you are in either of these camps: You are an ally of neither. The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is different from either—totally different." (pp. 25-26, bold emphasis mine)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Movie families get the Olan Mills treatment

This is one of the coolest things I've come across in a while. These imaginary portraits of famous movie families are the work of artist Kirk Demarais. According to Creative Review, "Demarais' art stems primarily from his love of these particular films – where the family unit (functional or disfunctional) plays a large part in the story – and also his fascination with the photographic codes inherent in the construction of the 'family portrait'."

Here are two of my favorites:

See more portraits at Demarais' blog.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Meet Tennessean Wendell Potter, former PR exec at Cigna

White Horse Inn has a new website

Click on over!

Urban Meyer's definition of community

"It's Melrose. It's Bluewater Bay. It's Buchholz High School. It's watching Nate pitch Little League and it's no cow pasture. It's a big-time field at Diamond Sports Park. It's my church, Queen of Peace, where I know the priest now. It's Ballyhoo's, and they put me and my daughter at a corner table and we laugh. It's being out in a boat on Lake Santa Fe watching the sun set. It's a conglomeration of comfort. I can drive to my office in seven minutes. I can be at Bluewater Bay in 18 minutes if I hit the lights right."

The Gainesville Sun (Aug. 5, 2009)

I like that. I like that one of the reasons Meyer gives for loving Gainesville is that he has a church that he can call "my church", a church where he knows the priest and the priest knows him. Not merely a place to attend. I wonder if most evangelicals would consider this a priority? Perhaps a lot of us prefer the anonymity of not being known? Although Meyer's way of thinking may come more naturally to Catholics than Protestants (because of the parish system, etc.) it's one of the reasons Shannon and I decided to join the church we did. We could have chosen to attend a big church that has more to offer or drive outside our community to a church that more closely matches our personal preferences, but a big part of community for us is having a church home, close to home, where we can plug in and be known. We are blessed to have found that.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beza on Law and Gospel

The law/gospel distinction (or hermeneutic) is most naturally associated with Luther, but versions of it were taught by 16th century Reformed theologians as well. Here is Theodore Beza's definition from his treatise The Christian Faith published in 1558.

We call the Word of God the canonical books of the Old and the New Testament, and no other thing, whatever it may be. And we divide this Word into two minds or parts, of which the one is called the law and the other the gospel. For the rest depend on the one or other of these two parts. We call law what is distinct from the gospel, a certain doctrine whose seed is naturally written in our hearts, which nevertheless for a more express declaration was written of God and comprehended briefly in the Ten Commandments, by which He declares to us the obedience and perfect righteousness which we owe to His majesty and to our neighbor under a changeable condition, i.e., either of life eternal (so that we have perfectly fulfilled the whole law without breaking any one point, Deut. 30:15-20; James 2:10), or else death eternal for lack of the entire fulfilling and accomplishing the contents of every parcel of the commandments.

We call the gospel or evangel (i.e., good news) a certain doctrine revealed from heaven altogether surmounting the natural sense of man (Matt 16:17; John 1:13) by which word God declares to us that He will save us freely by His only Son, so that we embrace and accept Him by faith as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30); by which also, I say, He testifies to us of these things, yes, in such a way that He renews us by the same Word to embrace the goodness which is offered to us there (1 Cor. 2:4).

A century and a half later Scots Presbyterian Ralph Erskine set law and gospel to verse.

The law supposing I have all,
Does ever for perfection call;
The gospel suits my total want,
And all the law can seek does grant.

The law brings terror to molest,
The gospel gives the weary rest;
The one does flags of death display,
The other shows the living way.

The law says, Do, and life you'll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done;
The former cannot ease my grief,
The latter yields me full relief.

The law excludes not boasting vain,
But rather feeds it to my bane;
But gospel grace allows no boasts,
Save in the King, the Lord of Hosts.

Like anything the law/gospel distinction can be abused—and there are nuances that have to be worked out—but I believe Luther & Co. were fundamentally correct that without it the teaching and understanding of Scripture very quickly gets off on the wrong track.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The creative power of generosity

One of the things that makes Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son unique is his call to move beyond putting ourselves in the shoes of the younger or older son, and begin seeing ourselves as the father. For Nouwen "becoming the father" did not mean biological fatherhood, instead it meant spending the later years of his life as pastor of a community for mentally handicapped people outside Toronto. Becoming the father is simply obeying our Lord who tells us to "be merciful, even as your Father is merciful." One can begin to "image" the father regardless of age, gender or social station.

Bound up in the mercy so shockingly demonstrated by the father of the parable (and by Jesus) are the concepts of forgiveness and generosity.

Every time I take a step in the direction of generosity, I know that I am moving from fear to love. But these steps, certainly at first, are hard to take because there are so many emotions and feelings that hold me back from freely giving. Why should I give energy, time, money, and yes, even attention to someone who has offended me? Why should I share my life with someone who has shown no respect for it? I might be willing to forgive, but to give on top of that!

Still . . . the truth is that, in a spiritual sense, the one who has offended me belongs to my "kin," my "gen." The word "generosity" includes the term "gen" which we also find in the words "gender," "generation," and "generativity." This term, from the Latin genus and the Greek genos, refers to our being of one kind. Generosity is a giving that comes from the knowledge of that intimate bond. True generosity is acting on the truth—not on the feeling—that those I am asked to forgive are "kinfolk," and belong to my family. And whenever I act this way, that truth will become more visible to me. Generosity creates the family it believes in. (pp. 131-132, emphasis mine)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Living Micah 6:8 starts with rest

Genesis tells us that after six days of creating, God rested. So God is not obsessive-compulsive (surely some of the plants could have stood some trimming!), nor is he manic. God is not desperate, not worried, not a handwringer. God gives creation extraordinary freedom, which is soon squandered, and still God rests. Nowhere is there a suggestion that God had second thoughts about that day off—If only I hadn't rested, maybe Adam and Eve . . .

In fact, God later called Israel to mirror this priority. The Lord commanded them to rest (Deuteronomy 5:12-15). Every seven days they were to rest. God's call to Israel to practice sabbath living was given so they would never be more than six days away from laying down the implements and practices of their own productivity in order to acknowledge that human life was set within a limited boundary of time, place and responsibility. This sabbath practice was meant to be an exercise in human freedom and liberty.

Acknowledging these boundaries sets us free to be human. The message is this: prepare for the sabbath; go to sleep and wake up knowing that your life and the world do not belong to you or depend on you; worship God, and remember with his people the One who made you and the world, and called you his own; don't work; don't rely on your provision; then live this out today and every other day of the week, including doing justice.

Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (pp. 95-96)