Monday, November 30, 2009

Working with the locals

I've wanted to read Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden ever since seeing Ridley Scott's adaptation a few years ago. The book and movie tell the story of the October 3, 1993 mission by Delta Force operators and Army Rangers into downtown Mogadishu to capture associates of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Things went badly wrong, and as they say, the rest is history. The book is an amazing piece of combat journalism, full of amazing detail and vivid anecdotes. Like this darkly comic episode in the effort to capture Aidid.

[Major General William] Garrison knew from day one that intelligence was going to be a problem. The original plan had called for a daring, well-placed lead Somali spy, the head of the CIA's local operation, to present Aidid an elegant hand-carved cane soon after Task Force Ranger arrived. Embedded in the head of the cane was a homing beacon. It seemed like a sure thing until, on Garrison's first day in-country, Lieutenant Colonel Dave McKnight, his chief of staff, informed him that their lead informant had shot himself in the head playing Russian roulette. It was the kind of idiotic macho thing guys did when they'd lived too long on the edge. (p. 23)

More to come . . .

Did the "prosperity gospel" cause the crash?

Hanna Rosin speculates in The Atlantic that the prosperity gospel may have contributed to the subprime mortgage meltdown. She cites a former high-roller from Wells Fargo who claims that managers targeted church sponsored wealth-building seminars -- even offering financial incentives to pastors for every person who took out a mortgage. Maybe it isn't a coincidence that areas of the country hit hardest by the collapse of the real estate bubble are also areas where the health and wealth gospel is the strongest. Rosin also shows how new variants of the prosperity gospel are becoming popular in predominantly Latino congregations. She profiles Pastor Fernando Garay of Casa del Padre in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It can be hard to get used to how much Garay talks about money in church, one loyal parishioner, Billy Gonzales, told me one recent Sunday on the steps out front. Back in Mexico, Gonzales’s pastor talked only about “Jesus and heaven and being good.” But Garay talks about jobs and houses and making good money, which eventually came to make sense to Gonzales: money is “really important,” and besides, “we love the money in Jesus Christ’s name! Jesus loved money too!” That Sunday, Garay was preaching a variation on his usual theme, about how prosperity and abundance unerringly find true believers. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, what degree you have, or what money you have in the bank,” Garay said. “You don’t have to say, ‘God, bless my business. Bless my bank account.’ The blessings will come! The blessings are looking for you! God will take care of you. God will not let you be without a house!”

Pastor Garay, 48, is short and stocky, with thick black hair combed back. In his off hours, he looks like a contented tourist, in his printed Hawaiian shirts or bright guayaberas. But he preaches with a ferocity that taps into his youth as a cocaine dealer with a knife in his back pocket. “Fight the attack of the devil on my finances! Fight him! We declare financial blessings! Financial miracles this week, NOW NOW NOW!” he preached that Sunday. “More work! Better work! The best finances!” Gonzales shook and paced as the pastor spoke, eventually leaving his wife and three kids in the family section to join the single men toward the front, many of whom were jumping, raising their Bibles, and weeping. On the altar sat some anointing oils, alongside the keys to the Mercedes Benz.

I can see how the "gospel" preached by Garay might appeal to someone who's just arrived in the U.S. with nothing but the shirt on his back. It's using Jesus as a ladder to the middle class, or if his faith is strong enough, a big house and the keys to a Benz. It's a twist on the gospel of the self-made man ("God helps those who help themselves") that appealed to earlier generations of European immigrants, and still appeals to those that have achieved their slice of the American dream through hard work. Both are perversions of the gospel revealed in the Bible.

In his book Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears describes two starkly different manifestations of the American dream, each intertwined with religious faith. The traditional Protestant hero is a self-made man. He is disciplined and hardworking, and believes that his “success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan.” The hero of the second American narrative is a kind of gambling man—a “speculative confidence man,” Lears calls him, who prefers “risky ventures in real estate,” and a more “fluid, mobile democracy.” The self-made man imagines a coherent universe where earthly rewards match merits. The confidence man lives in a culture of chance, with “grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God.” The Gilded Age launched the myth of the self-made man, as the Rockefellers and other powerful men in the pews connected their wealth to their own virtue. In these boom-and-crash years, the more reckless alter ego dominates. In his book, Lears quotes a reverend named Jeffrey Black, who sounds remarkably like Garay: “The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I’ve done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me—that I’ll be the one.”

What's being described in Rosin's depressing article is what Luther called the theology of glory. Michael Horton has described it this way: "How can I climb the ladder and attain the glory here and now that God has actually promised for us after a life of suffering?" In opposition to that is the theology of the cross -- "the story of God’s merciful descent to us, at great personal cost, a message that the Apostle Paul acknowledged was offensive." It still is.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The fellowship of the blessed

The middle section of The Cost of Discipleship is a section by section exposition of Matthew 5-7 a/k/a The Sermon on the Mount. Bonhoeffer refuses to sentimentalize or take the sharp edges off these hard sayings of Jesus. The chapter on The Beatitudes is a classic. He sets the scene and then provides several paragraphs of commentary on each beatitude. He doesn't play off a spiritualized reading of the language against a more literal reading. "Poor" can have a spiritual and a temporal meaning, "mourn" doesn't mean occasionally bummed out, etc. Jesus is describing a community, the community of those who "have publicly left the crowd to join him." The community of those who "have renounced everything at his call." This is the doorway to blessing as defined by Jesus, which definition is so different from the world's, or my own. I wonder where the signs of this kind of blessedness are to be found today.

Bonhoeffer concludes on a marvelous note. Here are two samples.

Having reached the end of the beatitudes, we naturally ask if there is any place on this earth for the community which they describe. Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found—on the cross of Golgotha. The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the Crucified. With him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. From the cross there comes the call "blessed, blessed." (pp. 113-114)

. . . while Jesus calls them blessed, the world cries: "Away with them, away with them!" Yes, but whither? To the kingdom of heaven. "Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven." There shall the poor be seen in the halls of joy. With his own hand God wipes away the tears from the eyes of those who had mourned upon earth. He feeds the hungry at his Banquet. There stand the scarred bodies of the martyrs, now glorified and clothed in white robes of eternal righteousness instead of the rags of sin and repentance. The echoes of this joy reach the little flock below as it stands beneath the cross, and they hear Jesus saying: "Blessed are ye!" (p. 114)

Quotes from The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995)

Apologies to Spielberg and Williams . . .

but this is a well done spoof!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

As if I had never sinned...

Recently, our church has begun using the Heidelberg Catechism in Sunday worship. This morning our minister used HC Q&A 60 as the Assurance of Pardon following the corporate Prayer of Confession, which this morning was from Psalm 51.

Q. How are you righteous before God?

A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.[1] Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, have never kept any of them,[2] and am still inclined to all evil,[3] yet God, without any merit of my own,[4] out of mere grace,[5] imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.[6] He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin, and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me,[7] if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.[8]

[1] Rom. 3:21-28; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:8-11. [2] Rom. 3:9, 10. [3] Rom. 7:23. [4] Deut. 9:6; Ezek. 36:22; Tit. 3:4, 5. [5] Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8. [6] Rom. 4:3-5; II Cor. 5:17-19; I John 2:1, 2. [7] Rom. 4:24, 25; II Cor. 5:21. [8] John 3:18; Acts 16:30, 31; Rom. 3:22

That is awesome.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quotable Haneke

I often compare filmmaking with building a ski jump; the actual jumping should be done by the audience. For the filmmaker, this is pretty hard—it’s much easier to do the jump yourself, to do it for the viewer. Because there’s always the fear of frustrating them. What do I have to indicate? What do I leave out? How much can I not spell out when constructing a film and still not frustrate the audience? Such strategies have become widely accepted in modern literature, but much less so in cinema. That’s a bit sad.

. . . .

As Brecht put it, “simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve.” Everyone dreams of doing things simply and still impregnating them with the fullness of the world. Only the best ones achieve this. Kiarostami has, and so has Bresson. But I must say that I see too few new films; I used to see more, but now I mostly watch older things, at home. I feel more enriched when re-watching Dreyer or other classics. They tell me more about the world of today than today’s films!

Michael Haneke, from an interview in Film Comment (November/December 2009)

And I agree completely with those sentiments.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The trouble with moral difficulties

The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer are like a splash of freezing cold water in the face. They confront and shake the complacency of the reader. To put it crudely -- Bonhoeffer cuts through the crap. Jesus did the same in his encounters with all kinds of people. They were constantly coming to him with questions and requests. Time after time we see in the gospels Jesus forcing people to confront their real issues, the issues of the heart. He changes the agenda. Jesus is much more concerned with the individual than he is with the problems of the individual.

In The Cost of Discipleship there's an interesting section on Jesus's dialogue with the Rich Young Ruler (see Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23). This young man was exemplary in many ways. His motives were sincere. He held Jesus in high esteem. Mark's account tells us that he fell on his knees before Jesus. But there's a problem. This man wants advice from a good master. He has a problem that he hopes can be solved. Jesus is a problem-solver, not the Son of God with an absolute claim on his life. His encounter with the great rabbi begins with a rude shock ("Why callest thou me good?") and ends in profound sadness. Bonhoeffer pinpoints the true nature of this young man's problem in his second question "Which commandment?" It's the follow-up questions that get you! Like the lawyer's question "Who is my neighbor?" in Luke 10, he unwittingly gives the game away. He's more interested in his own "moral difficulties" than the commandments of God. Bonhoeffer sees the devil himself lurking beneath the question. This man's questions are a form of evasion that comes naturally to all of us as a result of the Fall.

Moral difficulties were the first consequence of the Fall, and are themselves the outcome of "Man in Revolt" against God. The Serpent in Paradise put them into the mind of the first man by asking, "Hath God said?" Until then the divine command had been clear enough, and man was ready to observe it in childlike obedience. But that is now past, and moral doubts and difficulties have crept in. The command, suggests the Serpent, needs to be explained and interpreted. "Hath God said?" Man must decide for himself what is good by using his conscience and his knowledge of good and evil. The commandment may be variously interpreted, and it is God's will that it should be interpreted and explained: for God has given man a free will to decide what he will do.

But this means disobedience from the start. Doubt and reflection take the place of spontaneous obedience. The grown-up man with his freedom of conscience vaunts his superiority over the child of obedience. But he has acquired the freedom to enjoy moral difficulties only at the cost of renouncing obedience. In short, it is a retreat from the reality of God to the speculations of men, from faith to doubt. . . . He is—man under sin. (pp. 72-73)

I wonder if some times we use our questions and intellectual struggles as excuses to avoid doing what we know we should do. One of Bonhoeffer's great contributions is to remind us that the call and command of Jesus is clear and unmistakeable. However, there is one willing to provide a comforting answer to our moral difficulties—the one who was a liar from the beginning. He says, "Keep on posing problems, and you will escape the necessity of obedience." Jesus simply says, "Follow me."

Quotes from The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone, 1995)

Rod Dreher goes rogue

Read and listen here

Monday, November 16, 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009


From battlefield photographer David Guttenfelder. Many more here.

Ted Kluck on the Laura Linney Film

From Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion:

I just watched a film called The Savages (with Laura Linney and Phil Seymour Hoffman), which is a depressing emotional beating in the vein of Running with Scissors, The Squid and the Whale, and to a lesser extent, Little Miss Sunshine. It's the Laura Linney Film, which is now, I've discovered, its own genre. That's not to say it's bad; it's just its own depressing, unresolved thing that's more like watching a random neighbor's slightly more stylized life than watching a movie. It's a "thing" just like a Quentin Tarantino film is a thing. Hoffman and Linney, though, were amazing.

The reason I mention this film, now, in this book, is that the Laura Linney Film is often a very accurate and sad representation of what life looks like for American intellectuals without Christ and without the church. The films all follow a similar story arc, which is that hard things happen to intellectuals (a divorce in Squid, or a parent dying in Savages), those intellectuals have their lives turned upside down by that event, and in the end they get on with their lives, but we don't know for sure if they've learned anything or grown in any significant way. The films always make me sad, though it should be said that I love the performances, and they always make me thankful for pastors and my church body, imperfect though it is. In a way that might very well be cowardly, I know that my church will be there for me when I have to go through awful life events, and it's a comfort.

Kevin DeYoung & Ted Kluck, Why We Love the Church (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009) pp. 103-104

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stoning the rebellious son

I've written previously about J.V. Fesko's very helpful treatment of the ten commmandments The Rule of Love. In a recent chapel message Fesko unpacked Deuteronomy 21:18-23 -- the passage that sanctions the stoning to death of a stubborn and rebellious son. Fesko's teaching demonstrates that a Christ-centered approach to the Mosaic law is a better alternative than dismissing this as barbarism, or claiming as some do, that the judicial laws of OT Israel are normative for civil society today.

Listen here

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More on Stupak

William McGurn:

Not many folks in Washington have made Nancy Pelosi cry "uncle."

Bart Stupak is one of the few. For months, the Michigan Democrat has been threatening to bring down any health-care bill unless the House was given the opportunity to vote to extend the ban on taxpayer dollars for abortion to the new federal programs being created. On Saturday night, Mrs. Pelosi caved and Mr. Stupak prevailed.

The result is one of the few, real up-or-down votes we ever get on abortion—and the only part of the health-care mess that shows any bipartisan consensus. In the end, 63 Democrats and Mr. Stupak joined all but one Republican on an amendment that does two things: prohibits federal funds for an abortion or for abortion coverage; allows (notwithstanding pro-choice propaganda) private insurers to offer abortion coverage so long as tax dollars are not involved.

"Mr. Stupak and I have not always agreed on things," Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, told me. "But I commend him for his effort here. His willingness to dig in the way he did was admirable."

Monday, November 9, 2009

What would Chesterton say to Deepak Chopra?

Probably something like this

"They may get the stuff, but we’ll get the souls."

That's the great answer Bishop Robert Duncan gave in response to a question from The New York Times Magazine about a lawsuit filed by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Read the whole interview with the head of the Anglican Church in North America here.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A profile in political courage

William McGurn writing in The Wall Street Journal:

A nine-term congressman from northern Michigan, Mr. Stupak is the kind of Catholic who once constituted the heart of the Democratic Party. Just like Gov. Casey before him, Mr. Stupak's stand for life—in this case, his fight against tax dollars for abortion—is making him a thorn in the side of a Democratic president.

It didn't have to be this way. In his Notre Dame speech, President Barack Obama called for "open hearts" that would help us find "common ground" to "reduce the number of women seeking abortions." During his more recent address to a joint session of Congress, the president was even more specific about health-care reform, promising that "no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions."

That is just what Mr. Stupak is trying to do with an amendment to the health-care legislation that would explicitly ban federal funding for abortion. Here's the problem: His own party won't let him bring it to the floor for a vote.

If you were following the health care debate over the weekend you know that Rep. Bart Stupak and a coalition of pro-life Democrats forced Pelosi and the party leadership to allow an eleventh hour vote on the Stupak/Pitts Amendment which passed easily. Whatever you think of the health care bill this was a heartening victory for supporters of the right to life of unborn children. Now the battle moves to the Senate. Stupak's courageous stand against his own party leadership was a bright spot in an otherwise grim news week. I'm glad there are still a few Democrats like Bart Stupak!

The freedom and familiarity of prayer

John Calvin commenting on Psalm 102:2

Having elsewhere spoken more fully of these forms of expression, it may suffice, at present, briefly to observe, that when God permits us to lay open before him our infirmities without reserve, and patiently bears with our foolishness, he deals in a way of great tenderness towards us. To pour out our complaints before him after the manner of little children would certainly be to treat his Majesty with very little reverence, were it not that he has been pleased to allow us such freedom. I purposely make use of this illustration, that the weak, who are afraid to draw near to God, may understand that they are invited to him with such gentleness as that nothing may hinder them from familiarly and confidently approaching him.

Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Still a center-right country?

It's always tricky to read too much into the results of off-year elections, but last night couldn't have been good news to Obama and the Dems. Republicans won big in New Jersey and Virginia where the president spent precious political capital trying to ensure Democrats held on. Exit polls indicate that the young and first-time voters that swept Obama to power aren't as willing to turn out for other candidates just because they're endorsed by the president or have a D by their name. On the other hand, the favored candidate of the tea party insurgents lost in New York.

More interesting to me is that legalized same-sex marriage lost again in a region not known for social conservatism. As Rod Dreher writes today supporters of same-sex marriage will blame the result on bigotry and homophobia, but maybe a majority of Americans still see the value in preserving the traditional definition of marriage. Maybe they understand the arguments in favor of SSM, but simply don't buy the underlying assumptions that support them -- as in sexual orientation is the determinative equivalent of race, and the rights of two people in love trump every other consideration.

What does it all mean? The conventional wisdom after the 2008 Democratic tsunami was that the US was no longer a center-right country, and the GOP was destined to be a permanent minority. If nothing else, last night's results show that that assessment may have been premature. Politics is a lot like football, a team (or political party) is never as good as they look in their biggest win and never as bad as they look in their worst defeat. There's always next week or next year.

OK, back to more important subjects . . .

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Calvin's definition of faith

Throughout the year I've been posting items from A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes -- a collection of essays on various subjects from John Calvin's magnum opus. Reading it has whetted my appetite to delve into the Institutes themselves (maybe I'll tackle that in 2010). Joel Beeke contributes one of my favorite chapters in which he discusses several large topics from Institutes Book 3 as indicated by the title "Appropriating Salvation: The Spirit, Faith and Assurance, and Repentance". Here's some good stuff on faith and assurance.

Calvin's doctrine of faith affirms the basic tenets of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli and also discloses emphases of his own. Like Luther and Zwingli, Calvin says faith is never merely assent (assensus), but involves both knowledge (cognitio) and trust (fiducia). He affirms that knowledge and trust are saving dimensions of the life of faith rather than notional matters. Faith is not historical knowledge plus saving assent, but a saving and certain knowledge joined with a saving and assured trust (3.2.14). Calvin held that knowledge is foundational to faith. Knowledge rests upon the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures in general as well as the gospel in particular. Faith originates in response to the Word of God. Faith rests firmly upon God's Word; it always says amen to the Scriptures. Hence assurance must be sought in the Word and flows out of the Word. Assurance is as inseparable from the Word as sunbeams are from the sun. (pp. 277-278)

Consequently, Calvin's formal definition of faith reads like this: "Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (3.2.7). Calvin stresses that faith is assurance of God's promise in Christ and involves the whole man in the use of the mind, the application to the heart, and the surrendering of the will (3.2.8). Assurance is of the essence of faith. (p. 279)

We can be thankful that Calvin's Word and Spirit-driven doctrine of faith recovered for the church the truth that saving faith is more than obedient submission to what the church teaches. Saving faith is personal, cognitive, experiential and as certain as the promises of God upon which it rests.

Quotes from Beeke, A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009)