Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2005)

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann famously intoned, "It's impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.” Bultmann was at the forefront of the modernist attempt to demythologize the New Testament, an attempt that was all too successful among the mainline Protestant churches and seminaries of the West. Defenders of the orthodox faith, chief among them J. Gresham Machen in America and Karl Barth in Europe, responded that a Christianity stripped of its supernatural aspects was another religion entirely. Go ahead and disbelieve in a literal resurrection; and the literal existence of angels and demons, but please don't call that Christianity.

Even those of us who reject the liberalism of Bultmann and his followers vis-a-vis the divinity of Christ and the historicity of the resurrection may find it hard to completely embrace the New Testament's abundant teaching about the spiritual realm, particularly it's forthright depiction of Satan and his demons. Nobody could credibly have accused the Apostle Paul of being a gullible superstitious rube, yet he had much to say about spiritual warfare and the demonic realm. And, of course, the gospel writers uniformly present an account of Jesus' public ministry in which confrontations with demons were commonplace. Though the average believer in the pews doesn't give much thought to the existence of demons, missionaries who've come back from places like Haiti or certain parts of Africa and Eastern Europe have no doubt that demonic oppression is still a clear and present reality. Perhaps those of us in technologically advanced societies have been so lulled to sleep that the devils don't have to show themselves openly?

These thoughts and more were provoked by watching Scott Derrickson's hair-raising film The Exorcism of Emily Rose, starring Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, Campbell Scott & Jennifer Carpenter. The movie is very loosely based on the actual case of Anneliese Michel, a German girl who was allegedly possessed by demons, and later died of malnutrition after undergoing repeated exorcisms. The priests in the case were brought up on charges of negligent homicide. Derrickson and his writing partner Paul Harris Boardman were intrigued enough by the case to spend several years researching the subject of possession. The result was this script. Anneliese Michel became Emily Rose, and the Bavarian setting was changed to somewhere in rural America.

At least since William Friedkin's 1973 cult classic The Exorcist the "exorcism film" has been a subgenre of horror. Emily Rose plays on some of the tropes of the genre, but does so in a way that presents an utterly realistic depiction of supernatural evil. No rotating heads or projectile vomiting here. No winks in our direction as if to say, "this is good fodder for a scary movie but we don't actually believe this could happen in real life." Derrickson mostly avoids going for the cheap gestures that make an audience jump in their seats, opting instead for a creeping sense of dread punctuated by moments of genuine terror. The scene where Emily's demonization begins is an effective example of using the basic tools of cinema (sound, light and cutting) to create pyschological terror. Scenes like this owe more to Hitchcock than Wes Craven. When special EFX are utilized they're seamlessly integrated with the astounding physicality of Jennifer Carpenter's performance as the afflicted young woman. Yes, there's plenty here to satisfy fans of horror, but this film has higher aims than merely scaring you.

Those aims become apparent in the setting of a court of law, for Emily Rose is more than a horror film, it's also a fine example of another venerable genre: the courtroom drama. In fact, Emily has already died when the film begins. It's through the trial of Father Richard Moore (Wilkinson) that her story emerges; and it's in the back and forth of direct and cross-examination that thorny questions of faith vs. reason and religion vs. science are framed. Father Moore is represented by ambitious defense lawyer Erin Bruner, played by a "dolled-up" Laura Linney. Representing the people is prosecutor Ethan Thomas -- a moustachiod Campbell Scott (film buffs may recall Scott's daddy George C. playing a prosecutor in a classic courtroom drama of the 50s). In a nice dramatic twist Thomas is a self-described "man of faith" who sings in his church choir, while Bruner is a "woman of doubt" who one guesses wouldn't darken the door of a church unless it helped her land a coveted partnership at her firm.

Ironically, it's the agnostic who becomes an advocate for considering the possibility of a supernatural explanation for Emily's fate and Father Moore's actions. Meanwhile Prosecutor Thomas relentlessly (and some times mockingly) hammers away at the defense's faith-based explanation of events with the rationalistic claims of science and modern medicine. Derrickson and Boardman's script leaves open the possibility of a medical explanation for Emily's condition, but it also subtly challenges the modern assumption that science deals in the public realm of facts, while faith deals only in the private realm of beliefs. Thoughtful viewers might find themselves questioning the high wall that's been erected between faith and reason, religion and science.

Beyond the thematic elements The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a well-crafted picture. The visual look of the film was inspired by the horror films of Italian director Dario Argento. What this means is that scenes of terror are often counterintuitively bathed in bright primary colors. Oranges, purples and greens are prominent in the possession and exorcism scenes, but in the courtroom the palette is dialed back. On the DVD commentary Derrickson says he was inspired by Sidney Lumet (The Verdict) to keep camera movement in the trial scenes to a minimum and let his great trio of actors carry the action. It's also worth noting that the film was shot by DP Tom Stern, making this one of the few times he's worked with any director other than Clint Eastwood.

Back to Bultmann -- is it possible to believe in the "New Testament world of spirits and miracles" in the 21st century? I believe it is. Not because of conjecture, but because of the credible eyewitness testimony presented by the apostolic writers. I've checked out the evidence and found it compelling beyond a reasonable doubt. I have faith, but it's not blind. My faith isn't (solely) based on reason, but it's not unreasonable. Ultimately though these are questions that can't be decided in a court of law -- and this film doesn't pretend that they can -- but the faith of Emily Rose and Father Moore confronts us with the possibility that there are publicly accessible answers to the truth claims of religion. "Angels and demons/God and the devil/These things either exist or they don't," says Erin Bruner in her closing argument to the jury. Truth is at stake in those questions just as it is in the question of whether 2 + 2 = 4. Lesslie Newbigin put it this way:

In the school textbook these agreed-upon conclusions [furnished by science] will be simply stated as facts without the use of the prefix 'I believe' or "We believe.' Thus every student will be expected to know that the development of the human person is governed by the program encoded in the DNA molecules. This is a fact. But that every human person is made to glorify God and enjoy him forever is not a fact — it is a belief, one among many possible beliefs. It is not part of the school curricula. And yet, clearly the question of truth is at stake as much in the second matter as in the first. It either is or is not true that every human being must finally appear before the judgment seat of Christ. If it is true, it is universally true, just as the statement about the DNA molecule is true; if it is true at all, it is true for everyone. It belongs to the public sector as much as to the private.*

Father Moore would agree. As he declares to Erin in a key line from the film: "Demons exist whether you believe in them or not."

*Newbigin quote from The Cultural Captivity of Western Christianity as a Challenge to a Missionary Church (1994)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The collect for December 26 (Saint Stephen's Day)

From The Book of Common Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, that, in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may stedfastly look up to heaven, and by faith behold the glory that shall be revealed; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Pray this prayer for the persecuted church in Iraq.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Here's something I originally posted on Christmas Eve 2008. What's funny is that it could have been written today. Once again I'm finishing up the year by reading the minor prophets, we have a baby on the way, and this evening I'll be helping to serve Holy Communion at our church. He is faithful!

It's been a rich feast to finish up my year-long journey through the Bible with the minor prophets. If I stay on schedule I'll finish Malachi and Revelation tomorrow. With a baby on the way I don't know if I'll be able to keep up the same reading pace next year, but I wouldn't want to go an entire year without studying these sometimes neglected parts of scripture. If you never have done so, I'd urge you to get a good study Bible and dig in to Hosea, Joel, Amos, etc. The prophet Zechariah provides a marvelous picture of shalom (perfect peace, total well-being) in chapter 8. In Zechariah 8:8 are the familiar, comforting words "they shall be my people, and I will be their God..." This is the culmination of the covenant and of history, where it's all heading, both for them and for us as new covenant believers (Revelation 21:3-4).

In addition to this, I was struck by the multi-generational picture of this shalom. Zechariah 8:4-5 pictures the streets of Jerusalem full of children playing as parents and grandparents look on. This is a picture of true community, a neighborhood if you will. Shouldn't our churches reflect that? I think we go wrong by copying Madison Avenue and segmenting everything according to age. Shannon and I attend (and I occasionally teach) a Sunday school class at our church that's known as the "young adult" class. I put it in quotes because we have everyone from college students to grandparents in there. I love it. I'd get tired of going to Sunday school or church with people just like us and hearing only about subjects that our age group is supposedly interested in. Don't get me wrong. There's a place for that kind of ministry. We also have a weeknight group for young married couples. But the main focus, Lord's Day worship and Sunday school, is kept intentionally as multi-generational as possible.

There's another aspect to shalom that we aren't doing as well as I'd like us to. That's the multi-ethnic aspect. We should better reflect the fact that we're in a community that's becoming more diverse by the day. In Zechariah 8:20-23 the prophet gives what would have been a surprising message to his hearers. "The inhabitants of many cities" and "many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem." What? We've just been delivered from the shackles of Gentile oppression and now you're telling us that those people are going to be coming here to seek our God. Segue to Christmas as we celebrate the coming of the light of the world, the hope of the nations.

Tonight in my role as an elder I'll have the privilege of helping to serve the bread and the wine as we celebrate communion during our Christmas Eve service. It will be a reminder that the warm glow of "Silent Night" gave way to "that old rugged cross, so despised by the world, the emblem of suffering and shame." "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich." (2 Corinthians 8:9) This is the gospel in a nutshell. Note that Paul puts it in the middle of a letter about giving gifts. Wishing you all the peace and joy of Christmas, and looking forward to that day when our Messiah returns to bring lasting shalom to this troubled world.

Photo above of present-day Bethlehem, West Bank

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

More on the incredible shrinking middle class

A new report from The Working Poor Families Project illustrates how the unemployment numbers don't tell the full story of the impact of the Great Recession. Many folks with a steady job (even jobs that would be considered "good jobs") are sinking steadily into the ground. The recession may be officially over, but things aren't getting any better for low to moderate income families. In fact, they're getting worse. I joked (sorta) to my wife that 2011 is going to be the year of avoiding the bill collectors. Maybe I'll need to learn tap dancing from this guy!

Timothy Lange hits the nail on the head at Daily Kos:

It's almost tiresome to have to repeat that the acute problems pointed out in this report are firmly grounded in three decades of government policies that have promoted stagnant wages, off-shored jobs, union-busting, soaring income-and-wealth inequality, a weakened safety net, all of it combined with a relentless drive to keep going in the same direction. Most of our leaders fail to respond. Thus, this demolition juggernaut continues apace despite the impact it has and will continue to have on our economic well-being and, as Roberts and Povich say, "potentially even our cohesiveness as a nation."

It's not that there are no workable solutions. But deploying them will require far more than simple persuasion. Because these solutions are inimical to the interests of the beneficiaries of the policies that have brought us to this state of affairs. Like the powerful throughout human history, they will not release their grip willingly. It will take a sturdy, unified and relentless progressive movement to wrest power from those who have run roughshod over the majority of Americans for their own ends, using all the tools at their command.

More commentary @ The Atlantic Wire

The wild rituals of Christmas (Chesterton)

G.K. Chesterton has a chapter in his collection of wildly entertaining essays published as Heretics called "Christmas and the Aesthetes". In it he chides the rationalist "aesthetes" who dismiss religious ritual as so much barbaric and vulgar nonsense, especially the rituals of Christmas. Ironically, in replacing the worship of God with the worship of humanity they killed what is truly human, and in killing God they killed joy. For as GKC states elsewhere: joy "is the gigantic secret of the Christian." (Orthodoxy)

Here are a couple of quotes from that chapter to get your juices flowing in anticipation of our great holiday "holy-day" festival on December 25.

Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and much wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say; it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do. The more agreeable of these consist of dancing, building temples, and shouting very loud; the less agreeable, of wearing green carnations and burning other philosophers alive. But everywhere the religious dance came before the religious hymn, and man was a ritualist before he could speak.

Men are still in black for the death of God. When Christianity was heavily bombarded in the last century upon no point was it more persistently and brilliantly attacked than upon that of its alleged enmity to human joy. Shelley and Swinburne and all their armies have passed again and again over the ground, but they have not altered it. They have not set up a single new trophy or ensign for the world's merriment to rally to. They have not given a name or a new occasion of gaiety. Mr. Swinburne does not hang up his stocking on the eve of the birthday of Victor Hugo. Mr. William Archer does not sing carols descriptive of the infancy of Ibsen outside people's doors in the snow. In the round of our rational and mournful year one festival remains out of all those ancient gaieties that once covered the whole earth. Christmas remains to remind us of those ages, whether Pagan or Christian, when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it. In all the winter in our woods there is no tree in glow but the holly.

Whatever form your Christmas rituals take, I hope they are full of merriment. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Taps for Jose Hernandez


The Wesleyan movement and social reform

As something of a follow-up to this post here's a lengthy quote from Richard Lovelace. This may be of special interest to Wesleyan and Methodist readers.

The phase of the Great Awakening most often connected with social reform by English-speaking Christians is the Wesleyan revival, although the Wesleys and Whitefield derived much of their social momentum from the example of German pietism. In addition to the standard Pietist concerns, however, John Wesley introduced several new emphases which were of critical significance.

In the most crucial of these, his attack upon slavery, Wesley had nevertheless been anticipated by another Christian group. The Quakers. . . .

Wesley again echoed the Quakers in his opposition to war, although he was not a doctrinaire pacifist. This concern was picked up by the evangelical peace societies in the next century. Similarly, Wesley led the way for later evangelicals in attacking the use of distilled spirits except for medical purposes, attempting to curb the problem of alcoloholism among the poor, which was one of the major social evils attending the onset of the Industrial Revolution. In his concern to help prisoners Wesley for once anticipated the Quaker reformers led by Elizabeth Fry.

But one of the greatest contributions of the Wesleyan movement to evangelical social consciousness was simply the ingathering of large numbers of lower-class people into the church. Whitefield and the Wesleys were forced into the fields and streets by the closing of church pulpits. The result was the recapture for the church of great numbers of the alienated poor. The evangelical leadership of Methodism and other dissenting churches during the early nineteenth century reflected the pastoral concerns rising out of lower-class flocks. Thus it is no surprise that the British Labor movement in its beginnings was heavily leavened by the evangelical influence of leaders like Keir Hardy.

This championing of the poor man's viewpoint was utterly characteristic of John Wesley himself. J. Wesley Bready comments that
Wesley supported fair prices, a living wage and honest, healthy employment for all. . . . Certain doctrinaire aspects of laissez faire. . . would have made his blood boil; as for . . . the Malthusian and Ricardian theories regarding food, disease, poverty, population and wages, he would have declared them diabolical. [England, Before and After Wesley]

I wonder if Wesley's views would have made him too radical for some conservative evangelical churches today?

Quote from Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979) pp. 367-9

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Immortal weakness and the death of the Supermen (Chesterton)

Mr. Shaw cannot understand that the thing which is valuable and lovable in our eyes is man—the old beer-drinking, creed-making, fighting, failing, sensual, respectable man. And the things that have been founded on this creature immortally remain; the things that have been founded on the fancy of the Superman have died with the dying civilizations which alone have given them birth. When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward—in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for this reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

Quote from Heretics "IV. Mr. Bernard Shaw"

Monday, December 13, 2010

The only marriage survey that counts

There's been a lot of talk lately that traditional marriage is on its way out. A lot of the talk has been in reaction to the recently released State of our Unions study from the National Marriage Project. One of the eyebrow-raising findings is that marriage is most on the rocks in ostensibly socially conservative Middle America. It's there that divorce is steeply on the rise and unwed parenthood is becoming the new norm. If you're interested -- Ross Douthat had an interesting column on this last week.

Contra the predictions of traditional (Christian) marriage's imminent demise -- here's John Mark Reynolds writing in First Things on the only marriage survey that counts:

There is no real marriage outside the Church of Jesus Christ for this reason: God is the end of marriage, for only an eternal and infinite God can contain the explosive fecundity that can come when the two halves of the Image of God are united and made one. A great reason to become a Christian is that only in Christ’s Church can the male and the female find completion in each other.

Whatever the moral status of other forms of love may be (God alone knows for sure), nothing but a man and a woman can make a marriage, because only a man and a woman are so different and yet so human. This is not just a matter of biology, but of the spirit. Women and men have different voices and the blending of these differences creates a harmony that is like nothing else. Even when biological reproduction is impossible, there is a spiritual production that comes from joining two complementary goods in union that is so powerful it must be fecund or destructive.

The only survey that counts in marriage is between one man and one woman. In the beginning it was so and it will be until the end.

Read the whole thing.

Thank you Bernie Sanders!

Here's the speech that crashed the Senate's video server and went viral on YouTube. . .

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Scripture: the touchstone of truth

Biblical truth is not a compendium of all necessary knowledge, but a touchstone for testing and verifying other kinds of truth and a structure for integrating them. It it not an encyclopedia, but a tool for making encyclopedias.

Quote from Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979) p. 219

Friday, December 10, 2010

What's it like to be a baby?

I just started reading The Philosophical Baby by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. A while back I read an article on her research and was intrigued enough to get her book. In it she surveys recent findings in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and yes, philosophy which help us get inside the head of those mysterious baby humans. Mysterious, yet familiar, since we all were babies once, and who we are as an adult is somehow connected with the experiences of early childhood; even though we can't remember them. Here are two excerpts from the introduction.

Children are, at once, deeply familiar and profoundly alien. Sometimes we feel that they are just like us—and sometimes they seem to live in a completely different world. Their minds seem drastically limited; they know so much less than we do. And yet long before they can read or write they have extraordinary powers of imagination and creativity, and long before they go to school they have remarkable learning abilities. Their experience of the world sometimes seems narrow and concrete; at other times it looks far more wide-ranging than adult experience. (p. 4)

Babies' brains seem to have special qualities that make them especially well suited for imagination and learning. Babies' brains are actually more highly connected than adult brains; more neural pathways are available to babies than adults. As we grow older and experience more, our brains "prune out" the weaker, less used pathways and strengthen the ones that are used more often. If you looked at a map of the baby's brain it would look like old Paris, with lots of winding, interconnected little streets. In the adult brain those little streets have been replaced by fewer but more efficient neural boulevards, capable of much more traffic. (pp. 11-12)

Gopnik goes on to explain the neuroscientific reason for this difference. One of the parts of the brain that take longest to develop is the prefrontal cortex -- perhaps not fully developed until we reach our twenties. This is the part of the brain that allows us to "inhibit" other parts of the brain in order to block out distractions and focus on the complex tasks of adulthood. While the characteristics of prefrontal immaturity can sometimes be maddening to adults, it's what equips babies for the prodigious feats of learning and imagination that "growing up" requires. Fascinating stuff! I'll probably be posting more from this book.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Republocrat: Chapter 4 "Living Life to the Max"

And so the Republocrat series grinds on. Hopefully my dwindling band of readers will indulge me a while longer. Only two chapters to go!

If Marx's Das Kapital was an attempt to explain the rise of European capitalism by materialist causes, then Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, was an attempt to explain it by taking into account the spiritual dimension. In this seminal work the dour German sociologist posited a corresponding connection between the values of Genevan Calvinism and the values and ways of doing things that birthed modern free market capitalism.

I think there's some truth to Weber's groundbreaking thesis, but Carl Trueman wants to demonstrate that Weber's conclusions were faulty and in some ways have been overtaken by events. To recapitulate just one of Trueman's problems with Max: his "Protestant ethic" can't account for the economic rise of the Asian tigers (Japan, Korea and China). Yes, it's true that Calvinism seems to be on the rise in China (see here) and the second-largest Presbyterian Church in the world is in South Korea, but at most this is merely an incidental connection and not the necessary connection that Weber's disciples would want to prove. Trueman has much more to say on Herr Weber. But why is this even important to a discussion of conservative Christianity and capitalism?

Despite the problems with Weber's thesis, it has proved somewhat attractive to American Christians keen to see a close relationship between their theology and a central tenet of the American way—the capitalist free market. The connection is useful: if there is a link between Christian truth and capitalist prosperity, then capitalism itself becomes the God-given way in which society should be organized; and it presumably accounts for the fact that, in the USA, a term such as socialism is so often seen as antithetical to Christianity, in a way that would have been historically unthinkable in a place such as Great Britain, where Christians played a key role in the early history of both the Labour Party and the trade-union movement. Indeed, while writing this book I had the privilege of spending a day addressing evangelical pastors in Wales, men who labor in poor, former mining areas. They were incredulous that any evangelical Christian would ever vote for a right-of-center capitalist party; such is the contextual nature of the relationship of theology and politics. (p. 65)

If Weber's hugely influential thesis has holes then it becomes harder to view free market capitalism as an absolute good -- the be all and end all of civilization. Perhaps "Christian socialism" is no more an oxymoron than "Christian capitalism"? History is replete with examples of the folly of annointing any ideological system as the end-point of historical development. Trueman cites Medieval feudalism as one prominent example that now sits beneath the dustbin of history. Capitalism is indeed the best system of economic organization we have right now -- a point the book makes more than once -- but that doesn't mean its future hegemony is inevitable, or even desirable.

But why isn't that outcome desirable? Doesn't economic freedom translate into other freedoms, such as religous freedom? Not exactly. That case too becomes harder to make in light of recent history. The author points to the example of China where capitalism is coexisting quite comfortably with a totalitarian political system in which religious freedom is still in short supply. Closer to home we often hear free marketeers extolling the "morality of the market" as if leaving things in the hands of private actors out to make a profit is always a positive virtue. We heard this a lot in the recent debates over healthcare. Since this is a hobbyhorse I love to ride I'll throw this out there.

To listen to some Christians talk, one would think that evil is essentially the preserve of Washington, and that CEOs of private companies have nothing but our interests at heart; or, at least, are forced into dealing fairly with us because they cannot buck the forces of the market. Thus government health care is bad because it will be rationed by bureaucrats; private health care is good because rationing does not exist. Of course, this argument assumes that all insurance companies have unlimited capital at their disposal and employees who would never, ever deny a claim for vital treatment. (p. 68)

In the final pages of chapter 4; believers who unconsciously assume Christianity and capitalism go together like apple pie and ice cream are encouraged to examine the kind of "behavior, outlook, and ethics" that market capitalism fosters. If they do, they may find attitudes that are at home in the capitalistic kingdom of man, but have no place in the kingdom of God. One such is disatisfaction. Contentment is a cardinal Christian virtue, but here it's opposite is one of the fuels that drive the engine of consumerism. I like buying new things. I bet you like buying new things. There's nothing wrong with buying new things, but let's be self-aware enough to realize when our baser impulses are being pandered to. Trueman offers other such examples of ways contemporary capitalism actually undermines traditional, Christian values. In short -- not everything about capitalism is consistent with a Christian worldview, or even with conservatism as traditionally understood.

He goes on to argue that economic libertarianism "inexorably" leads to moral libertarianism -- where "free-market logic" is applied to moral issues. Here he could be accused of indulging in a bit of historical determinism of his own. Nevertheless his larger point is spot on: without a moral underpinning capitalism is just as dangerous to human flourishing as socialism. The "morality of the market" isn't moral and surrendering economic life to the whim of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a fatalistic cop-out. There are times when creating a more just society means challenging laissez-faire economic assumptions.

Finally, in reflecting on this subject I thought of the many parables that describe the kingdom of heaven. You know -- the ones that begin, "the kingdom of heaven is like. . ." It's surprising how many of them involve money. They teach us that disciples of Jesus are subjects of a kingdom in which the world's values are turned upside down. An economic system based on individual rights, competition and the profit motive may be the best way to create the highest standard of living for the most people, but those values are at odds with the values of the kingdom -- where the last will be first, and the worker who toiled one hour is paid the same as the worker who toiled all day.

Coming next: fuzzy logic and the power of stories.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." John 1:5

Image from The Thin Red Line (Dir. of photography: John Toll)

Monday, December 6, 2010

In defense of bores (G.K. Chesterton)

From Chapter III of Heretics:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.

Another thing is certain: Mr. Chesterton couldn't be boring if he tried. Newer readers may not be aware that the title of this blog is a tip of the hat to GKC. He bears no responsibility for its content though!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The collect for Advent

From The Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

Friday, December 3, 2010


This morning on my way to work I saw a young boy pushing a baby girl in a stroller up the street. At first I thought it was a cart of some kind until I saw the little head sticking out from underneath a blanket. His sister? Niece? No matter. Some adult has left him in charge. In the next block I spotted a homeless guy with a bulging black trash bag slung over his shoulder. I'm guessing he was headed to the nearby scrap yard to trade those aluminum cans for a few bucks. I wasn't out of my neighborhood yet. . .

These glimpses of life on the margins are a good reality check, but observation that doesn't lead to action is all but useless. The Apostle James had some strong words on the subject. Maybe next time I'll get down off my donkey and be a neighbor to my neighbor.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Friending the President

In the movie The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher suggest that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was motivated by a desire to get back at the social elites that snubbed him as an undergrad at Harvard. Zuckerberg was a socially awkward outsider consigned to second-rate clubs, but by coming up with a brilliant idea (perhaps purloined in part from three members of the ultra-exclusive Porcellian) and becoming unimaginably wealthy, he surpassed them all and created a new paradigm of what it means to be an elite insider.

If this scenario is even partly correct, then Zuckerberg must have felt a sense of satisfaction when George W. Bush -- a poster boy for inherited privilege and status, a member of Yale's Skull & Bones -- sat down next to him for an interview at Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. President Bush was there to plug his memoir Decision Points, and he acquits himself well, delivering some great stories that made me want to go out and buy the book. W is a gifted salesman!

Watching the interview is fascinating on a number of levels. Most fascinating to me was watching the body language of the figure seated to the president's left, nervously clutching a handheld mic. At first I wondered why they didn't use lapel mics (it couldn't be money), until the thought struck me that using handhelds gave Zuckerberg something to do with his right hand (his left was usually thrust into the sidepocket of his black hoodie).

There are lots of "wow, just wow!" moments -- for instance the fist bump between Mark and W at 14:30. It's too bad this encounter didn't take place in time to make it into Sorkin and Fincher's film. It would have made the perfect epilogue. The former leader of the free world joshin' around with Mark: the Harvard drop-out and personality-challenged computer geek who made himself into a new kind of powerful man, one on whom presidents come to call. Very impressive.

Labor vs. The Mouse

I support labor. . .

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The mark of spiritual leadership

A friend gave me this booklet by Sri Lankan pastor Ajith Fernando. In a few short pages Fernando says what few books on Christian leadership ever get around to saying -- the primary mark of a spiritual leader is a willingness to die for the people we serve. Jesus said it (Mark 8:34, John 15:12-13) and lived it. Paul said it (2 Corinthians 4:12) and lived it. Here are a few snippets.

Even a superficial look at the New Testament would show us that the cross of suffering is an essential part of Christian ministry. We can safely say that if we try to get round that, we will forfeit eternal fruitfulness.

So laying down our lives can mean many things. Most of us are not called literally to die for our friends. . . . We may be called to endure frustration, discomfort, tiredness and pain because of others.

Commenting on Paul's yearning expressed in Galatians 4:19. . .

We hear a lot of talk about incarnational ministry. But incarnation and pain are inseparable. When we cross the barrier from professionalism into yearning, we find that yearning brings hurting with it.

I tell our staff in Youth for Christ that Christian ministers are those who first get their strength by being with God, and then go into the world to get bashed around. Then they come back, get strength from God, and go back into the world to get bashed around again. That is our life.

This is a countercultural message even in the Christian ministry world, where frustration and getting "bashed around" is often taken as a sign that it's time to move on to another church, or another mission field. This is a convicting little book!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Republocrat: Chapter 2 "The Slipperiness of Secularization"

Carl Trueman begins chapter two of Republocrat by noting the differing way religion and politics mix in his native UK and his adopted home. The kind of religious language routinely used in American political campaigns is unheard of in British politics. On the face of it this is odd since America has no state church and England does. Of course, church attendance is much higher here than it is in Western Europe, so this no doubt contributes to the explicitly religious nature of American politics.

It would seem that the U.S. is an exception to the secularizing trend that's seen British churches turned into nightclubs and Christianity pushed to the margins of the public square. It might seem so, but Trueman argues that it's not that simple. Earlier in the book he's noted that the task of the historian is to complicate things, and this he sets out to do by asking some questions that challenge American exceptionalism regarding secularization.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? (p. 23)

Is it actually the case that the American church has maintained the loyalty of large sections of the population by essentially becoming a secular institution? Could it be that secularization might merely have taken a different form in America from that which we find in Europe? (pp. 26-7)

Answering yes to each question Trueman begins with a "soft target" -- the prosperity gospel taught by such as Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. The message preached by the prosperity preachers bears no resemblance to that found in the New Testament. It's fundamentally the same message preached by the "psychobabble self-help gurus" popular in the UK. Their message "is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity." (p. 27)

Trueman moves on from those soft targets to ones closer to home in the conservative evangelical circles from which he comes, and to which this book is primarily written. Indeed he intends to demonstrate that the secular gospel of personal fulfillment is subtly present even in confessionally orthodox American churches. Borrowing from the work of David Wells he contends that secular values, ambitions and methods pervade doctrinally conservative megachurches and doctrinally liberal emergent churches. The former is an accommodation to market-driven consumerism ("the church's equivalent of the big-box store"), the latter to the "eclecticism of postmodernism." (pp. 28-9)

The remainder of the chapter is taken up with three characteristics of conservative Christianity in America that are examples of the subtle secularization thesis. I'll briefly summarize each.

Cavalier view of church membership vows

Americans rightly celebrate our heritage of the frontier. Rugged individualism and a healthy mistrust of authority are built into our national DNA. Our origin is one of rebellion against a monarch. However, those individualistic values create problems when taken with us into the church of Jesus Christ. The author sees the casual disregard of church membership vows as a prime example of secular values influencing the way we think about church. Church is seen as "another aspect of the consumer culture mentality whereby, as soon as my itch isn't scratched" I'm off to the next church. (p. 32)

You would think this wouldn't be a problem in Reformed and Presbyterian churches; since these traditions have historically taken church discipline and vows seriously. Sadly that's not the case. I serve as an elder at a theologically conservative Presbyterian church. One of the biggest surprises to me has been how quick upstanding Presbyterians will be to check out as soon as something happens they don't like. Gentle reminders that membership has responsibilities as well as privileges -- which at least means regular attendance in Sunday worship -- is met with incomprehension.

It's inconsistent for conservative Christians to criticize liberals for preaching a secular gospel when they treat membership vows as no more binding than one's cell phone plan. In fact, less binding, since walking away from your cell phone plan usually has a penalty attached.

The identification of America with God's special people

Trueman isn't concerned here with Christians who are strongly patriotic, or who defend the right of Christians to have a voice in the public square, or whose politics are shaped by their faith. What he's after is a "Christian America" mentality that often morphs into "uncritical nationalism" and where "the boundary between church and state, and sometimes even biblical history, becomes rather dangerously blurred." (pp. 32-3) Two examples of this cited are The Patriot's Bible and the painting One Nation Under God. I suspect he's mostly preaching to the choir here so I won't recapitulate his indictment of these admittedly extreme cases.

What's perhaps more troubling is the jingoistic, uncritical support given to the second Iraq War in which the "notion of America as the nation of God" played a prominent part. He recounts being in a Bible study where someone remarked how great it was that "God had raised up George W. Bush for such a time as this. . . . in response, I asked who had raised up Saddam Hussein. By the expressions on the faces of the people around the table, it was clear that the penny was starting to drop. World leaders, good and bad, are all raised up by God, just as they are toppled by him as well." (pp. 34-5)

The temptation to conflate the destiny of a nation with the destiny of the church is strongest when a nation is at the height of its power, as Britain was in the 19th century and America has been in the 20th and 21st centuries. For the integrity of the church and the sake of the gospel this temptation must be resisted.

If I have to sign up to believe in the manifest destiny of the English-speaking people, or of a particular political project, in order to be a member of Christ's church, or even simply to feel that I belong, then it is arguable that, whoever's church it is, it is no longer the property of Christ but of some more earthly power. (p. 36)

The Christian preoccupation with superstars

Here the book makes an especially profound point: a secular mind-set is as much about form as it is about content. One hears here an echo of McLuhan's central insight that the medium is the message. When we judge church leaders by the standards of the celebrity-obsessed society around us we betray a "creeping secularism." (p. 37)

This was one of the problems Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians. The believers in Corinth were comparing Paul to the flashy orators of the day and finding him lacking in star power. They wanted a cult of personality instead of an apostle who preached nothing but Christ crucified. Trueman suggests that the "celebrity syndrome" is alive and well in conservative Christianity, particularly the Reformed/Calvinistic corner. We shouldn't judge the success of the many faithful "ordinary" pastors out there by measuring them against the unique gifts and context of men like John Piper, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll.

This chapter challenged me to look for ways secular thought-patterns creep into my own life. Labelling something as "secular" doesn't make it necessarily bad. One of the strengths of the Reformed stream of Christianity is that it recognizes a place for a secular sphere. But if we think of secular values as the values of the world opposed to God's values, then it makes sense that secular (or worldly) values are always vying for our allegiance. The best defense is a mind being renewed by God's word. Trueman is right to warn us that secularization is more slippery than we imagine.

Up next: a look at that fair and balanced news channel.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent's gift of darkness

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. If you follow the church calendar in a lectionary or The Book of Common Prayer; today you're turning back to the beginning. In a sense this is New Year's Day for the Christian church. Where did the past year go?!

I love Advent. Honestly, the four Sundays of Advent have become more meaningful to my celebration of Christmas than December 25. These weeks leading up to Christmas Day give the church an opportunity to inhabit the story of the Old Testament people of God as they waited for the coming of the Messiah. It's also a time to connect our story with their story (since we too expectantly wait for Christ's appearing) and to meditate on the mystery of The Incarnation.

Last year during Advent our pastor's wife pointed out this poem by Luci Shaw. It's stuck with me all year.

The Overshadow

"...the power of the Most High will overshadow you..." Luke 1:35

When we think of God, and

Angels, and the Angel,

we suppose ineffable light.

So there is surprise in the air

when we see him bring Mary,

in her lit room, a gift of darkness.

What is happening under that

huge wing of shade? In that mystery

what in-breaking wildness fills her?

She is astonished and afraid; even in

the secret twilight she bends her head,

hiding her face behind the curtain

of her hair; she knows that

the rest of her life will mirror

this blaze, this sudden midnight.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Prayer + Thanksgiving = Peace

I've been saving this excellent quote from Richard Lovelace.

To the Philippians Paul writes: "have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7). Evidently one sign of deficient prayer is anxiety. As pain tells us of the need for healing, worry tells us of the need for prayer. (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p. 160)

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but according to Paul giving thanks should be a regular part of life in Christ. The busyness of the holiday season can easily crowd out time for "prayer and supplication." The stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be an anxious time. Feeling stressed? It's probably a sign you need to pray more.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Strange symmetry

The last two evenings I've stayed up late watching the Chaplin classic Modern Times and the recent Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker. These two films have absolutely nothing in common except they both end with a strikingly similar shot of the hero walking off into the figurative sunset.

In the first shot it's the Little Tramp exiting with his cinematic (and real-life) gamine Paulette Goddard on his arm. In the second example it's Sergeant First Class James (played by Jeremy Renner) walking off to disarm yet another IED. Was director Kathryn Bigelow paying homage to Chaplin? I very much doubt it. But these are the trivial things that keep me up at night.

For a fine substantive treatment of The Hurt Locker click over to my friend redeyespy's blog. He begins his review by highlighting the aspect of the movie I found most fascinating.

Ever since I heard New York Times journalist Chris Hedges on Fresh Air on NPR one afternoon I began to think differently about war. "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." His quote opens THE HURT LOCKER, winner of Best Picture of 2009.War is a drug. Curious. It was odd to think that someone would deliberately put themselves in and return to a hellish battleground. Crave it, even. I've never been in any armed force, never been in battle. Most soldiers I've known and read about wanted to get the hell out of a war as quickly as possible. Then I thought about the medical personnel who crave the excitement of a frantic Emergency Room. Policemen who long for street action. Even those old newspaper folks who loved the adrenaline of a looming deadline. It is a specific personality type. Cutting within a fraction of a second, getting close to the fire. Those people will not have it any other way.

They may also find that when life is not so urgent, a sense of purpose is lost. The comparatively humdrum existences of the human race can't match the thrill. The hardest adaptation for a soldier isn't to a freezing foxhole or a sweltering desert, but a listless week of staring at the multitude of choices in a grocery store.

Continue reading

Republocrat: Chapter 1 "Left Behind"

Carl Trueman begins the book by briefly sketching his own political journey. Born of working class parents (and grandparents) it was natural that he would gravitate toward the liberal side of British politics. However by the 1980s the Labour Party was hopelessly compromised by radical elements, and so Trueman joined the Tories and supported Margaret Thatcher's fusion of traditional working class values and free-market economic reforms. As is often the case though 18 years of Conservative rule ended in corruption and impotence (i.e., the John Major government). At that point the author switched allegiance to the Liberal Democrats, the British party of the center-left that occupies an idealogical niche somewhere between the Conservatives and Labour, and that's where he's remained.

Though Trueman still identifies with the Left, in a sense, he's a man without a country, since the "Old Left" issues he cares about have been eclipsed by the preoccupations of the "New Left." He's been, well, left behind. Let me explain.

But first a little history. The left/right divide in Western politics we recognize today had its origins in the Industrial Revolution. The great progressive reforms of the 19th century were largely in response to the massive shifts of population and wealth to the cities. Reforms such as the right to organize unions, child-labor laws, and the broadening of the franchise were all efforts to humanely respond within a democratic framework to the dramatic changes taking place in society. In these movements one can see the origins of the great Western European and American political parties of the left.

There were more radical responses to the problems of industrialization though, in particular those of Karl Marx. The problem Marx sought to address was the same problem the Old Left sought to address -- the problem of economic oppression. History would go on to utterly discredit the Marxist solution. In practice it turned out to be a bloody failure, but at least Marx was tackling "oppression" as an economic issue -- something that can be measured.

Some people possessed more than others, and some did not enjoy either the material goods or the working conditions to allow them to live with any quality of life. This was the problem the various movements on the Left wished to address. The philosophies varied, but there was basic agreement on the problem: economic poverty. (p. 5)

Moving into the 20th century Trueman documents the "strange love affair" of Western elites with Marxism, even after the bloody butchery of Communist totalitarianism was apparent to all but the most willfully ignorant.

The gulags of Stalin's Soviet Union, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring, the Cultural Revolution in China, the killing fields of Cambodia, to name but a few, showed how the quest for utopia so often ends in a blood-soaked nightmare, whose victims are the very poor and oppressed for whom the Left professes to be most concerned. (p. 7)

Yet there were still remnants of the old democratic Left that weren't compromised by flirtations with totalitarianism. Among its achievements in Great Britain was the National Health Service founded in 1945 (and on this side of the pond FDR's New Deal which helped bring America out of the Great Depression). Trueman credits the NHS for his existence, since it provided his working poor grandparents free health care they wouldn't otherwise have been able to get. I can only wish for an American version of the NHS when I contemplate the thousands of dollars it cost my wife and I to have our son, and the thousands more it will cost to have baby #2. This on top of the hundreds of dollars we shell out each month to the insurance company.

By the 1960s whatever remained of the traditional left-wing concern with poverty and economic exploitation was further diluted by shifting the definition of oppression from the economic to the psychological realm. Trueman details this in a section called "Mr. Marx Meets Dr. Freud." He argues that this led to a host of pernicious effects, the most pernicious being the elevation of trendy middle-class issues like a woman's right to choose and gay marriage. In advocating these issues, "the Left frequently finds itself opposed to the values of the very people it was originally designed to help." (p. 12)

Trueman points out the stunning moral inconsistency of a movement that used to pride itself on giving voice to the voiceless refusing to defend unborn children. Add to that the ridiculous spectre of middle-class academics and rich celebrities scolding working-class folks because they don't support the right of Melissa Etheridge to marry her partner. An absurd case in point was the kerfuffle that broke out when President Obama invited Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration. Here's a man who's given millions of dollars to help the poor, but since he spoke out in favor of California's Proposition 8 he was branded as an intolerant bigot. For the New Left having the right position on same-sex marriage and abortion is more important than clean water, feeding the poor or providing basic health care.

Sadly the concern for trendiness and empty moral gestures among secular members of the New Left has bled over into evangelical Christianity. For example the evangelicals who loudly trumpeted the fact that they were voting for Obama in the last election -- as if to say "Aren't I naughty?" Trueman also cites the sanctimonious outrage among some over the appointment of Philip Ryken as President of Wheaton College because he was a theologically conservative white male. And a Calvinist to boot! The possibility that Ryken might have been the most qualified candidate for the job didn't seem to occur to his critics.

Far from standing as a testimony against the culture and for biblical categories of oppression and liberation, the trendy evangelical Left. . . clearly enjoys empty, conscience-salving gestures as much as the trendy political Left. (pp. 16-7)

In conclusion Trueman writes:

As the Left adopted such concerns as gay rights and abortion as touchstone issues, those of us with strong religious convictions on these matters found ourselves essentially alienated from the parties to which our allegiance would naturally be given. The parties of the Right, while representing to an extent, and at least on paper, positions on these matters with which we are comfortable, yet also represent policies in other areas where we find ourselves in fundamental disagreement. . . . Thus I find myself politically homeless, restless, and disenchanted, and I suspect I am not alone. (p. 18)

No he's not alone. For what it's worth, I find myself increasingly in the same position. By now you may be asking, "If the contemporary Left is as bad as Carl Trueman makes it out to be why doesn't he bite the bullet and join up with the contemporary Right?" In chapter 2 he begins to explain why not.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Monday, November 22, 2010

TV's family-friendly idols

Mike Cosper reveals The 3 Most Disturbing Words on TV:

Few Christians would openly defend viewing a show like Rock of Love, but who doesn’t get teary-eyed watching the final moments of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition? Never mind that it’s a spinoff of a show about radical plastic surgery, EMHE pulls together a whole community to give a deserving family a new, grandiose home. Who could argue with that?

Which brings me to the three most disturbing words on television: “Move that bus.”

Again, there’s no arguing with the warmth and altruistic sentiments of the show. The families who have been profiled always seem to be wonderful people, I don’t impugn them or the show’s creators with secret evil intentions. But a disturbing thing happens in the final moments of the show. After profiling the family’s suffering, after talking about hardship and perseverance, after recruiting an army of volunteers, the family is brought in front of the new home, which is hidden from view by a large touring bus. They count down and call out those three words, and the reaction can only be described as worship. There are tears and shouting while people fall to their knees, hands raised in the air.

Here it is on bold display: the ultimate hope of most Americans. It’s as though a phantom voice is responding to their suffering with the words, Well done, good and faithful servant. Here is your reward: dreamy bedrooms, big-screen TVs, privacy fencing, and wireless internet. We watch. We weep. And we hope for ourselves. It’s yet another gospel alternative, this one packaged as a heart-warming vision of the way life is “supposed to be."

The point here isn't to single out one particular television show. It's to warn Christians against watching this show, or any show, uncritically. Television and movies are in the business of selling idols. Don't be fooled by the packaging.

Introducing Republocrat

Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to blog my way through the new book from Carl Trueman -- Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative. I'll try to summarize each chapter's arguments and share some of the highlights, though choosing which highlights will be difficult. Trueman is a lively and enjoyable writer so I could choose just about any paragraph at random and not go wrong! The subtitle is a bit of a misnomer as Republocrat is less autobiography than it is a work of history and social criticism. Some readers may know that Dr. Trueman is an historian by trade (he teaches church history at Westminster Theological Seminary) and a minister in the OPC. Both of those callings are evident in this book. Trueman is also a Brit, which gives him a Tocquevillian vantage point on American politics.

Republocrat is dedicated to Trueman's boss at WTS, Peter Lillback, with the inscription: "To Peter, living proof that friendship can extend across the political divide. With God, after all, everything is possible." Dr. Lillback contributes one of the best (and wittiest) forewards I've ever read in which he pleads guilty to being a "conservative's conservative" with serious political differences with his colleague down the hall. For what its worth Lillback recently burnished his conservative credentials by an appearance on Glenn Beck's show plugging his biography of George Washington. The mutual affection evident in the dedication and foreward sets the right tone for a book which has as one of its underlying assumptions that what unites believers in Christ is far more important than what happens in the voting booth.

However, if you believe that Obama is not just wrong he's evil, or conversely, that George W. Bush wasn't merely wrong he was evil, then it will be hard to extend charity to brothers and sisters who don't share your political convictions. As a personal aside, I'm glad the church where I'm a member includes a fair degree of political diversity. We have folks who've attended Tea Party rallies and folks who still have Obama bumper stickers on their automobile. Some might see that as a weakness, but I see it as a strength. One of Trueman's primary aims in writing Republocrat was to challenge a prevailing view of politics as an epic struggle between good and evil. The author was introduced to this tendency while spending six months in the U.S. in 1996.

On one of my very first Sundays in the USA, I was engaged in a conversation with a friend over coffee after church, and mentioned in passing what great work I thought the Clintons had done in Ulster. I might as well have said that Jack the Ripper had really helped to make the streets of London safe for women and children. I was given the full forty-minute "truth about Billary" lecture, and left the building in no doubt that the Clintons were, after Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, probably the most dangerous and wicked leaders in the history of world politics. I had just learned an important lesson: American politics is Manichaean, about an elemental struggle between good and evil where, as in those 1940s B-Westerns, the goodies are as obvious as the men in white hats, and the baddies stand out because of their invariable preference for black headgear. Good deeds done by the baddies in one area are simply clever ruses to hide the real agenda of wickedness being pursued in another, and stupid foreigners like me are simply not equipped to discern the depth of the conspiracy we are up against. (Introduction, pp. xxiv-xxv)

What makes Trueman's anecdote even more telling is that the Clinton's image has undergone something of a rehabilitation in the eyes of some conservatives. Yes, Bill & Hillary were liberals, but compared to the uber-liberals Barack & Michelle they weren't as bad as all that. The current villain is always the scariest when politics is a zero-sum game of good vs. evil.

Another primary aim of Republocrat, indeed the thesis of the book, is "that conservative Christianity does not require conservative politics or conservative cultural agendas." (p. xix) Also, "the gospel cannot and must not be identified with partisan political posturing." (p. xxv) It follows then that most of Trueman's fire will be directed at the right side of the political spectrum. But before taking on the Right he begins with a chapter skewering the contemporary Left.

To be continued. . .

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Love, friendship and marriage (Hauerwas)

A while back I heard a pastor cite the "Stanley Hauerwas Law" (you always marry the wrong person) in a sermon on Christian marriage. He brought it up to argue against the common romantic notion that each of us has a Mr. or Mrs. Right somewhere out there, and our future marital happiness depends on finding him or her. This assumption is a heavy burden to bear and brings with it the potential for deep disillusionment. Hauerwas explains his "law" in this 1978 article.

Most of the literature that attempts to instruct us about getting along in marriage fails to face up to a fact so clearly true that I have dared to call it Hauerwas’s Law: You always marry the wrong person. It is as important to note, of course, as Herbert Richardson pointed out to me, that the reverse of the law is also true: namely, that you also always marry the right person. The point of the law is to suggest the inadequacy of the current assumption that the success or failure of a marriage can be determined by marrying the "right person." Even if you have married the "right person," there is no guarantee that he or she will remain such, for people have a disturbing tendency to change. Indeed, it seems that many so-called "happy marriages" are such because of the partners’ efforts to preserve "love" by preventing either from changing.

Think about it. The person you are today (I'm guessing) is much different than the person you were ten years ago. You may even be different than the person you were last year. This explains why close friends can drift apart with the passing of time. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (turn and face the strain). If your spouse has told you recently, "You're not the person I married" -- they're probably right!

Certainly for a marriage to flourish it must have an element of phileo love, or "friendship love." Arguably this should be the dominant element rather than it's fickle cousin eros. A Christian conception of marriage must insist on both love and friendship, but how is it possible to reconcile the particular nature of friendship with that "disturbing tendency to change?"

One way is to exert power and control in a way that diminishes the otherness of my spouse. Instead of accepting change I can try to prevent it and keep him/her exactly like the person I married. But that's a stifling sort of friendship and a perverse kind of love, not the agape self-giving love that seeks the well-being of the other as described by the Apostle in the familiar love chapter.

If we always marry the "wrong person" what hope is there of enduring friendship in marriage? How can a husband and wife continue to be best friends and comrades-in-arms in the face of constant personal and relational change? In a wedding sermon on John 15 Hauerwas points to God's love for us in Christ ("I have called you friends") as the basis of love and friendship in a Christian marriage.

The miracle of God's love is that he can and does love each of us as other than himself without becoming less of a friend to any of us. Thus, we are commanded to love the other, but to love as those who are first loved of such a God. For God's love stretches our souls as he makes us his friends by freeing us of our preoccupation with ourselves and thus opening us to friendships with others. It is this kind of love that provides the means for marriage between Christians, for it forms us into a community that must be ready to accept the challenge of new life to which such love must give birth.

It is God's command to love, therefore, that has given Christians the courage to demand that marriage involve love and friendship. For the love that we bring to marriage must be the love that is based on, trained, and made fast by the conviction that we can regard the other as other without being destroyed. We do not have the capacity to love all as God loves, but by making us his friends, he has at least given us the confidence that such a love is not impossible in this existence.

This is a wonderful sermon and well worth taking the time to read in its entirety.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Quote from War by Sebastian Junger (via Stars and Stripes):

Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense it’s much more like football than, say, like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins. They might take casualties, but they win.

That choreography  —  you lay down fire while I run forward, then I cover you while you move your team up  —  is so powerful that it can overcome enormous tactical deficits. There is choreography for storming Omaha Beach, for taking out a pillbox bunker, and for surviving an L-shaped ambush at night on the Gatigal. The choreography always requires that each man make decisions based not on what’s best for him, but on what’s best for the group. If everyone does that, most of the group survives. If no one does, most of the group dies. That, in essence, is combat.

Most firefights go by so fast that acts of bravery or cowardice are more or less spontaneous. Soldiers might live the rest of their lives regretting a decision that they don’t even remember making; they might receive a medal for doing something that was over before they even knew they were doing it. When Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy was asked why he took on an entire company of German infantry by himself, he replied famously, “They were killing my friends.” Wars are won or lost because of the aggregate effect of thousands of decisions like that during firefights that often last only minutes or seconds. Giunta* estimates that not more than ten or fifteen seconds elapsed between the initial attack and his own counterattack. An untrained civilian would have experienced those ten or fifteen seconds as a disorienting barrage of light and noise and probably have spent most of it curled up on the ground. An entire platoon of men who react that way would undoubtedly die to the last man.

*Specialist Salvatore A. Giunta, the first living recipient of the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War. Read the citation here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Joe Scarborough mocks hypocrisy of GOP freshman: "he was against government-run health care before he was for it"

via Think Progress

Do it again!

G.K. Chesterton:

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

The first time I read those great lines from Chesterton they didn't make an impression. Now that I'm daddy to a toddler who insists I read him the same book over and over, or play the same game again and again, they make me laugh out loud. What an amazing thing that the sun came up again this morning! Father, give us grown-ups the strength to exult in monotony.

Quote from Orthodoxy "The Ethics of Elfland"

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is the Reformed resurgence overblown?

A new Barna study suggests it is. As the graphic below shows the percentage of Protestant pastors in the U.S. who identify their church as "Calvinist or Reformed" is virtually unchanged from ten years ago. One encouraging bit of data is that both Calvinist/Reformed and Wesleyan/Arminian pastors report steady growth in adult attendance over the last ten years -- 13% and 18% respectively. Based on the higher growth of the latter group maybe we should be talking about an Arminian resurgence. I know some of my readers would like that!

UPDATE: James K.A. Smith points out the "weaknesses and shoddy social science" of this report.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Highlights from Facing Grief (Flavel)

Following up from this post -- surely if anyone ever had reason to weep it was the Widow of Nain. Yet Jesus motivated by compassion tells her, "Weep not." Taking Luke 7:13 as his central text Puritan pastor John Flavel (1627-1691) applies Jesus' words in order to comfort believers and help them grieve in a way that glorifies God. Here are some tidbits from Flavel's comfort to Christian's facing the loss of someone dear.

The death of a loved one can't take away the believer's salvation in Christ.

. . . as long as our best mercies are all safe, the things that have salvation in them remain, and only the things that have vanity in them are removed, you are not prejudiced or much hindered as to the attainment of your last end by the loss of these things. (p. 45)

The duration of our loved one's life was what God intended it to be. His timing is best.

The time of our life, as well as the place of our habitation, was fixed before we were born. . . . Oh, if this had been done, or that omitted; had it not been for such miscarriages and oversights, my dear husband, wife, or child, had been alive at this day! No, no, the Lord's time was fully come, and all things concurred, and fell in together to bring about the pleasure of his will. Let that satisfy you. . . (p. 47)

Surely the Lord of time is the best judge of time; and in nothing do we more discover our folly and rashness, than in presuming to fix the times either of our comforts or our troubles. (p. 57)

Sometimes death is God's tool to spare one from some future evil.
Just as a careful and tender father who has a son abroad at school, hearing the plague is broken out in or near the place, sends his horse presently to fetch home his son before the danger and difficulty be greater: so death is our Father's pale horse which he sends to fetch home his tender children and carry them out of harm's way. (p. 54)

The ultimate comfort: the sure hope of resurrection and eternal life for us and our loved ones who die in Christ.
You shall have an everlasting enjoyment of them in heaven, never to part again. The children of the resurrection can die no more (Luke 20:36); you shall kiss their pale lips and cold cheeks no more; you shall never fear another parting pull, but be together with the Lord for ever (1 Thess. 4:17). (p. 68)

Angels neither marry nor are given in marriage; neither shall the children of the resurrection; when the days of our sinning are ended, the days of our mourning shall be so too. No graves were opened till sin entered, and no more shall be opened when sin is excluded. (p. 92)

I hope those may have whetted your appetite to check this book out for yourself. If you're a pastor, priest or elder you might want to keep a few copies on hand to give to grieving members of your flock, especially those with deep roots in the promises of scripture.

Quotes from Facing Grief: Counsel for Mourners (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2010)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke, 2009)

I recently watched The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band) a film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. See previous posts on Haneke here and here. This most recent effort is a black and white German-language film about the mysterious and sadistic goings-on in a rural German village on the eve of the First World War. The first thing to be said about The White Ribbon is that it's beautifully shot and executed. It has the sleek elegance of a classic luxury car -- German, of course! Shooting in black and white is more than a stylistic choice for a filmmaker of Haneke's skill. He uses it as a tool to evoke all kinds of associations from European history and cinema. As I've said before black and white is a genre in and of itself. Not only that Haneke coaxes astonishingly subtle acting from his large cast, especially from the various and sundry children around whom the story revolves. For an example of this see the video below.

Going back to the luxury car analogy, though, I found this movie to be like a sports car in which you raise the hood and nothing is there. I have a high tolerance for films that traffic in ambiguity and unresolved plotlines, but watching this German kinder tale left me more than a little exasperated. I suspect the filmmaker meant it to be so, and the fact that I'm thinking and writing about it a week later is evidence of its effectiveness. Even the flawed film of a first-rate artist is a far worthier investment of time than ninety-nine percent of the dreck that sells popcorn at Muvico.

Herr Haneke keeps his cards close to the vest, but he seems to be trying here to draw a straight line from strict religious observance and authoritarian childrearing practices to the national sins of the Third Reich. To put it mildly this is a bit of a cliche. Even if the severe faith epitomized by the Lutheran pastor of the film was somehow to blame for the German people's complicity in Nazism's crimes, I'd remind Haneke that the same religiocultural stew that produced a populace willing to turn a blind eye to the Holocaust; also produced Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl. I'm reminded of the point I've heard made by my friend Paul Copan: the biggest problem for the materialist is not the problem of evil, it's the problem of virtue. Where does that come from in a cruel impersonal universe?

I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that Haneke has an essentially materialistic worldview in which notions like the Fall and original sin are dismissed as relics of the Dark Ages. He probably holds to a romantic notion of the "noble savage." Children are fundamentally good until they're corrupted by education, religion, patriarchy, you name it. Nevertheless he has an acute sense that something is deeply wrong with the world as it is. Whether one attributes it to sin, genetics, or psychological disorder, it's clear that beneath the serene veneer of bourgeois life is a shocking capacity for cruelty. In Haneke's fictional village the sins of the fathers are graphically visited on the children. The director means for his audience to be shocked by all of this, and we are, in an unsettling sort of a way. In fact "unsettling" is the dominant Haneke mood. He only gives us glimpses of what's beneath the surface, what's behind the closed door, but that's enough.

The white ribbon, we're told, is a symbol of innocence and purity. Though in the movie it's wielded more like a scarlet letter. Perhaps that's as it should be. The ancient narrative of a man, a woman, and a serpent tells us that, strictly speaking, there are no innocents. No child of our first parents, save one, has ever been fit to wear the white ribbon.

Here's a scene from the film. Watch the reaction of the child when he realizes he's been lied to.

Hallelujah's at Macy's

Watch as these surprised shoppers experience something grander than the consumer goods surrounding them. Surely an echo of the heavenly chorus.

via Justin Taylor

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

More from Dual Citizens

Reservations aside I'm really enjoying this book. Author Jason Stellman pulls no punches in making his case for a "pilgrim theology" that keeps the realms of worship (cult) and life (culture) distinct, avoids Christian triumphalism, and maintains the tension of living in the overlap of this present evil age and the age to come, between the "already" and the "not yet." Though I'd like to see a little more of the "already" in Stellman's applications, this book offers a bracing alternative to many of the dominant paradigms in contemporary Western Christianity.

One of those paradigms is the view that America is a "city on a hill" which has often resulted in confusing our nation with the kingdom of God. Instead, Stellman argues, America (or any nation) is still nothing more than a "suburb of Babylon. . . a local expression of the kingdom of man" and that "there is nothing redemptive about our national identity." Our difficulty in accepting this leads us to criticize other cultures while being blind to the faults of our own.

For example, we often look at the fact that Muslim females wear burkas and then decry the way Islam treats its women, while at the same time rarely seeing the demand in the United States for Botox, Collagen, and surgical augmentation as glaring testimonies against how we Westerners view our own. We can wonder with great sanctimony how antebellum Southerners could claim to be disciples of Jesus while being owners of slaves, but when a Fortune 500 company moves its manufacturing operations to sweatshops in Malaysia so it can pay the workers $.09 an hour without having to worry about labor laws to protest them from oppression, we don't call that "slave-owning," we call it "smart business." . . . . Though the world and its lusts may take a different form in our country than in those "heathen lands afar." they are still alive, well, and largely characteristic even of a free and democratic society such as our own. (p. 71)

Stellman follows the chapter on "Suburbylon" with one on Reformational piety, which emphasizes corporate expressions of worship and spirituality over individual ones. This is my favorite part of the book so far. He draws out the differences between "Saddleback" and "Geneva" as to how each tradition has typically viewed the beginning of the Christian life and it's practice thereafter. Stellman traces the former's emphasis on spectacular conversion experiences and rejection of "churchly Christianity" back to that favorite Calvinist whipping boy, the Presbyterian revivalist Charles Finney. In contrast to the Saddleback/Finney tradition is the one advocated by the author -- and your reviewer -- in which spectacular conversions are the exception rather than the rule, and evidences of living faith are seen in the context of the "ordinary ministry of the local church, with her worship, liturgy, preaching, and sacraments."

The Christian faith, normally speaking, is passed on from parent(s) to child(ren) by means of infant baptism. After the child is thus initiated into the covenant community, he or she is nurtured in the faith by parents and pastors, who, believing God's promise to be a God to us "and to our children," treat the child as a believer unless given a reason to do otherwise (Acts 2:39). (p. 80)

Like their evangelical brethren, confessional Reformed believers desire to see the Christian faith demonstrated in the lives of those who profess it. But rather than the litmus test being one's devotional life, voting record, or collection of Left Behind novels, it should be the fact that those who confess Christ gather together each Lord's Day around Word and sacrament, confessing their sins, singing His praises, and hearing, eating, and drinking the gospel of Jesus Christ. (p. 81)

The great advantage of this approach is that it directs our gaze to Christ and his promises rather than within. The objective nature of the gospel is what makes Christianity different from everything else.

Quotes from Dual Citizens: Worship and Life between the Already and the Not Yet (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009)