Monday, May 31, 2010

Words to remember by

To get a sense of how these words sounded to the original audience, read them slowly. Abraham Lincoln reportedly took two minutes to deliver this masterpiece of concision.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Gettysburg Address (1863)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Taps for Daniel Foley


Go, Roger, go!

Roger Ebert takes out the garbage:

Some of these people make my skin crawl. The characters of "Sex and the City 2" are flyweight bubbleheads living in a world which rarely requires three sentences in a row. Their defining quality is consuming things. They gobble food, fashion, houses, husbands, children, vitamins and freebies. They must plan their wardrobes on the phone, so often do they appear in different basic colors, like the plugs you pound into a Playskool workbench.

And that's just the first paragraph. He's still the best.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The birth of bloomers (Zinn)

An interesting bit of fashion history from A People's History of the United States:

When Amelia Bloomer in 1851 suggested in her feminist publication that women wear a kind of short skirt and pants, to free themselves from the encumbrances of traditional dress, this was attacked in the popular women's literature. One story has a girl admiring the "bloomer" costume, but her professor admonishes her that they are "only one of the many manifestations of that wild spirit of socialism and agrarian radicalism which is at present so rife in our land." (p. 113)

After Amelia Bloomer, a postmistress in a small town in New York State, developed the bloomer, women activists adopted it in place of the old whale-boned bodice, the corsets and petticoats. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was one of the leaders of the feminist movement in this period, told of how she first saw a cousin of hers wearing bloomers:

"To see my cousin with a lamp in one hand and a baby in the other, walk upstairs, with ease and grace while, with flowing robes, I pulled myself up with difficulty, lamp and baby out of the question, readily convinced me that there was sore need of a reform in woman's dress and I promptly donned a similar costume." (p. 119)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What if "top kill" doesn't plug the leak?

Nuke it!

On a seriouser note blogger David Roberts asks -- What if the oil spill just can't be fixed?

The BP Gulf oil disaster is reaching an interesting phase. People's gut instinct, their first reaction, is to find someone to blame. They blame BP for negligence; the Obama administration for its tepid response; the Bush administration for lax regulatory enforcement. People have been casting about for some way to compartmentalize this thing, some way to cast it as an anomaly, an "accident," the kind of screwup that can be meliorated or avoided in the future.

We are, however, drifting toward a whole different kind of place. Tomorrow BP is attempting the "top kill" maneuver -- pumping mud into the well. If it doesn't work, well ... then what? Junk shot? Top hat? Loony stuff like nukes? Relief wells will take months to drill and no one's sure if they'll work to relieve pressure. It's entirely possible, even likely, that we're going to be stuck helplessly watching as this well spews oil into the Gulf for years. Even if the flow were stopped tomorrow, the damage to marshes, coral, and marine life is done. The Gulf of Mexico will become an ecological and economic dead zone. There's no real way to undo it, no matter who's in charge.

I'm curious to see how the public's mood shifts once it becomes clear that we are powerless in the face of this thing. What if there's just nothing we can do? That's not a feeling to which Americans are accustomed.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

L.A. Times: American Idol's megachurch connections

She isn't employed by the show and viewers never see her sparring with Simon Cowell. But Leesa Bellesi exerts her own kind of pull on "American Idol," Fox's top-rated singing contest that has a unique if often-unstated link to Christian churches.

Bellesi, who runs a Christian nonprofit in Lake Forest with her ex-pastor husband, visits tapings frequently, has befriended numerous finalists and helps wrangle funds and scout temporary housing for families who trek cross-country to see relatives perform on "Idol." Bellesi said that churches form a base for the young singers as they try to win votes and establish fan bases. Half of the Top 10 last season were worship leaders in their churches, she said.

"Most of the kids that have been really successful on 'American Idol' have that huge support of their church that's pushed them — they've had a lot of voting and things like that," said Bellesi, who has no official connection to the show (a spokesperson for the producers said he had never heard of her) but was spoken of as an unofficial patron by former finalists Danny Gokey, Jason Castro and others.

Ties to churches — especially of the evangelical or Pentecostal variety — are indeed a common denominator for many contestants on America's No. 1 show, including this season's Aaron Kelly, Lacey Brown and Jermaine Sellers. Castro, who placed fourth on Season 7 and just released his first album, played one of his first pre-"Idol" gigs at Lake Pointe, a suburban Dallas mega-church he attends that's known for its sophisticated musical performances.

That was the only time I sang when there were cameras involved," Castro said in a recent interview. "Any of the larger churches you go into are really full-on performance venues."

Read the whole thing

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Peter's model sermon

If any sermon recorded in scripture is a prototype it would be Peter's on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had brought such understanding to this uneducated fisherman and ex-denier of Jesus that he could boldly and effectively proclaim "Christ and him crucified" from three Old Testament texts -- Joel 2:28-32, Psalm 16:8-11 & Psalm 110:1 (the OT text most often cited in the New Testament). James Montgomery Boice highlights six aspects that make this sermon a template of Christ-centered preaching.

1. His ministry. This is described not as a ministry of teaching but as a ministry of miracles or signs, the point being that God accredited Jesus by them.

2. The crucifixion. Peter emphasized that the crucifixion was by the express plan and foreknowledge of God; that is, it was no accident. He also said that those who were responsible for it were guilty of sin.

3. The burial. Peter contrasts Jesus' burial with David's burial, which was permanent. Jesus' burial was real but temporary.

4. The resurrection. Peter deals with the resurrection at greatest length, quoting Psalm 16:8-11 and then expounding it in verses 29-32 [of Acts 2].

5. His ascension. The ascension links the work of Christ to Pentecost, to what was the present. It is from his present position with the Father that Jesus "has poured out what you now see and hear" (v. 33).

6. Christ's present ministry. Pentecost is proof that Jesus Christ is still working.

This last point reminds us that Acts is truly a continuation of Luke's account of Jesus work, now carried on through the work of his promised Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that 3,000 were added to the church as a result of Peter's Spirit-filled preaching. The work goes on.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19-22)

Quote from Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) pp. 51-2

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The birth of the incendiary fellowship

To prepare for Pentecost Sunday I spent some time this afternoon rereading James Boice's commentary on Acts chapter two. He points out that the primary emphasis of the account of Acts 2:1-4 is not the speaking in tongues (important though that was) but the two powerful manifestations of God's Spirit in wind and fire. First, wind has rich linguistic significance.

The Hebrew word for "wind" or "spirit" is ruach. You can't say that properly without a strong sound of breath: it is pronounced ru-aaah. So what is true linguistically—that the word means both "breath" and "spirit"—is also conveyed sensually.

How did the "mighty rushing wind" sound on Pentecost? I like to think it sounded like how I've heard people describe a tornado—like an approaching freight train. Second, wind/breath is associated with the Spirit of God's work in creation and new birth. The wind of Pentecost helps to explain Jesus's words to Nicodemus: "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." It also hearkens back to Genesis 1 where the Ruach Elohim hovered over the waters. Boice explains:

So the suggestion is that here, in Acts, we have a new creation—as important (more important in many ways) as the original creation of the heavens and the earth. That heaven and earth are destined to pass away, but what is done by the Spirit at Pentecost is eternal. . . . Pentecost is a life-breathing experience.

Fire, also, links Pentecost with the many times God appeared to his people Israel with fire (Abraham's dream in Gen. 15, the pillar of fire, Sinai, etc). Pentecost marks a new beginning for the people of God, but it's still in continuity with what's come before. I think this is where dispensationalists go wrong. Tongues of fire is significant in that it points to speech. Speaking involves the use of our tongues and our breath. The mark of a Spirit-filled person is that he or she begins testifying verbally about Jesus. Pastor Boice further unpacks the meaning of the fire by discussing two things it brings: light and warmth.

The Holy Spirit brings light . . .

When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, the first experience they had was what we would call "spiritual illumination." That is why Peter could preach such a persuasive sermon. He understood the Old Testament as he had not understood it before. He was given ability to preach it to enlighten those who heard him.

and He brings warmth:

. . . when the Holy Spirit is at work, one thing people notice is what we can call the warming of one's heart. It is what John Wesley experienced when the Lord reached him in that little chapel at Aldersgate in London. He said as a result of hearing the gospel explained on that occasion: "My heart was strangely warmed."

I hope you experience the light and warmth of Pentecost wherever you worship tomorrow. Also, if you're looking for a solid commentary on Acts you can't go wrong with this one.

Quotes from Acts: An Expositional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997) pp. 39, 41 & 44

Where are the radical centrists?

In his column analyzing Tuesday's primary election results David Brooks tells the story of a thirty-something fictional voter called Ben. Ben has worked hard and played by the rules -- "he labored when others didn’t. At work, he sacrificed when others didn’t. He bought a house he could afford when others didn’t." Ben looks around and sees his taxes going to bail out big banks and consumers who didn't play by the rules or act wisely. He sees no connection anymore between effort and reward. But Ben is turned off by the bombast and paranoia of the tea party right. In short, neither the political left or right speaks for Ben. What to do?

So when Ben looked around for leaders who might understand his outrage, he only found them among the ideological hard-liners. In Arkansas, he saw a MoveOn candidate, Bill Halter, crusading against the bailouts and the spoils culture. On the right, he saw the Tea Party candidate Rand Paul crusading against runaway spending and debt.

Ben wasn’t naturally an extremist sort of guy. He didn’t live his life for politics or go in for the over-the-top stuff he heard on talk radio. But he did have some sense that the American work ethic was being threatened by debt and decadence.

It was going to take spit and vinegar to turn things around. So he voted for one of the outsiders. This is not time for a tinkerer, he figured. It’s time for a demolition man.

In a few years’ time, Ben is going to be disappointed again. He’s going to find that the outsiders he sent to Washington just screamed at each other at ever higher decibels. He’s going to find that he and voters like him unwittingly created a political culture in which compromise is impermissible, in which institutions are decimated by lone-wolf narcissists who have no interest in or talent for crafting legislation. Nothing will get done.

In a few years’ time, Ben is going to look for something else. It will be interesting to see if, by that time, any moderates have had the foresight and energy to revive and define the free labor tradition — a tradition that uses government to encourage work, to reward work, and to uphold the values at the core of Ben’s life.

I can relate. The details of my bio are different, but like Ben I see my family falling further and further behind due to stagnant wages, the real estate crash which hit our neighborhood extra hard, and huge jumps in healthcare costs the last few years. Things that many of my peers take for granted -- such as good schools for their kids, and saving for college -- seem increasingly out of reach. Don't get me wrong -- each day reminds me that I'm extraordinarily blessed, but like Brooks' angry voter my frustration is building.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Artisans at work

Warning: this is a thinly veiled advertisement for a product that's mediocre but gets a lot of mileage out of its famous name. But it's also a beautifully done short film about a group of workers with a far healthier approach to work than the Chinese workers I wrote about yesterday. Why do these guys take joy in their work when so many others don't? I have some ideas. . .

UP THERE from The Ritual Project on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Work that makes people jump off buildings

"Made in China" has long been a sort of derisive punchline. But actually, most high-tech gadgets are now made in China, and most of them are assembled in factories run by Taiwanese-owned Foxconn. Heard of the iPhone? Chances are your smartphone or laptop came from a Foxconn factory. In recent years the young workers at these factories (some as young as 18) have been committing on-the-job suicide at an alarming rate -- seven so far this year. The factory in Shenzhen has been nicknamed Fushikang "running to your death" on account of the employees who've taken a flying leap from the top floor. Why? By Chinese standards jobs in these factories pay relatively well, and building the gadgets that Western consumers covet is seen as a source of pride. There are probably cultural reasons. Job-related suicide has been a regular feature of postwar Japanese society. The Japanese even have a name for it -- karoshi.

This expose by undercover Chinese reporter Liu Zhiyi points to something else. It paints a profoundly sad portrait of a generation of workers in spiritual crisis. Here is part of it (Note: some of the translation is awkward).

If you ask the workers what their dream is, you'll often get the same answer: start a business, make money, get rich, and then you can do whatever you want. In the warehouse, they humorously name their hydraulic trolleys "BMWs." They, of course, would rather own actual BMWs, or at least "BMW" kind of wealth.

They often dream, but also repeatedly tearing apart their dreams, like a miserable painter who keeps tearing up his or her drafts, "if we keep working like this, we might as well quit dreaming for the rest of our lives." They manufacture the world's top electronic products, yet gathering their own fortune at the slowest possible pace. The office's guest network account has a password that ends with "888" -- like many businessmen, they love this number, and they worship its phonetic equivalence ["rich"]. Little did they know that it's their own hands protecting the country's "8," yet their overtime hours, lottery tickets, and even horse racing bets, struggle to find the "8" that belongs to themselves.

. . . .

This factory's workers rule the world's finest gadgets' assembly lines with their two hands, and continuously break trading records that buzz the world, holding the Chinese export champion title for seven years non-stop. But it seems like while they're controlling the machines, the machines also have them dominated: the parts gradually come together as they move up the assembly line; at the same time, the workers' pure and only youth also disappear into the rhythmic machineries.

After using the toilet at 4am, I stuck my ear on the workshop corridor wall, and listened to the machines rumbling steadily from all four directions -- this is the factory's heartbeat. The employees work, walk and eat at this beat, so no wonder I was walking so fast, eating so quickly without anyone hurrying me, even though it didn't feel good. You're like a component that's entered the assembly line, just following the rhythm, belonging to that heartbeat at 4am, no way to escape.

Shenzhen, a once small border town that leaped to one of Pearl River Delta's busiest cities, hides a group of anxious young people behind row upon row of tall buildings. In 2009, Times magazine nominated "The Chinese Worker" as "Person of the Year," praising its "determined vision shone on the future of mankind,"* but this so-called "determination" is needed to resist being mechanized and eroded by capitalism. Can they really avoid such "determination?" When computers, phones, cars, and all other commercial products become the products of capitalism, sweat, youth, and even life, all these values are exhausted by capitalism as well.

As Communist China transforms itself into a capitalist society it will inevitably bring greater freedom and a higher standard of living to more people. This is to be desired. But without a healthy view of work as that which reflects the good work (and Sabbath rest) of our Creator God, capitalism becomes just another dehumanizing soul-killing ideology. I think this is the ultimate reason why young Chinese are choosing death over another shift on the assembly line. What they need most is for the gospel to penetrate the corporate and work culture of China. They need hope.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taking the gospel to Rome

Even with its history it's hard to believe that Italy has only one church that confesses the biblical evangelical faith of the Protestant Reformation. That church is Chiesa Evangelica Riformata "Filadelfia" in Milan. The Reformation was crushed in its infancy by the Roman Catholic Inquisition and so Italy hasn't had a significant Reformed presence for centuries. By God's grace, Pastor Andrea Ferrari intends to change that by planting Reformed congregations across Italy. This is a missions effort worthy of much prayer and support.

Read more about Reformation Italy

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Zinn deconstructs We the People

Howard Zinn:

The inferior position of blacks, the exclusion of Indians from the new society, the establishment of supremacy for the rich and powerful in the new nation—all this was already settled in the colonies by the time of the Revolution. With the English out of the way, it could now be put on paper, solidified, regularized, made legitimate, by the Constitution of the United States, drafted at a convention of Revolutionary leaders in Philadelphia.

When economic interest is seen behind the political clauses of the Constitution, then the document becomes not simply the work of wise men trying to establish a decent and orderly society, but the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support.

Were the Founding Fathers wise and just men trying to achieve a good balance? In fact, they did not want a balance, except one which kept things as they were, a balance among the dominant forces at that time. They certainly did not want an equal balance between slaves and masters, propertyless and property holders, Indians and white.

As many as half the people were not even considered by the Founding Fathers as among Bailyn's "contending powers" in society. They were not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, they were absent in the Constitution, they were invisible in the new political democracy. They were the women of early America.

Quotes from A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present (New York: HarperCollins, 1980) pgs. 89, 97, 101-2

Howard Zinn (1922 - 2010) was one of the last of a dying breed. An iconoclastic lefty, he fought Fascists in Europe, marched in the civil rights movement, protested the Vietnam War, and found time to teach, write plays and books. I have a soft spot for iconoclasts (and their books) so I've long wanted to read his magnum opus, A People's History of the United States. As the excerpts above indicate this isn't a nuanced analysis, nor was it meant to be. A People's History was Zinn's attempt to write a narrative that self-consciously told the stories of the victims of the American project that most history books gloss over. At the time of our founding those included Indians, blacks, women and landless white males. They say history is written by the victors, and it's usually written about the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots". This book is a frontal assault on history as told from the standpoint of governments, conquerors and rich men. I like it.

Friday, May 14, 2010

An outsider experiences CF

religioUSA is the blog of four UPenn students who spent their last two spring breaks visiting large evangelical churches across the South. Last March they made a stop at South Florida megachurch Christ Fellowship. After grabbing prime seats down front . . .

The lights suddenly cut out and a quiet piano melody took over the space. A chorus filed on to a set of risers, and a band got set up in front of them. Words like "HONOR," "GLORY," and "REACH" flashed across two enormous screens to the sides of the stage. The service had begun.

As the musicians finished up their act, though, I noticed that I had to make a concerted effort to keep my focus on the live action taking place right in front of me. Yes, I had a phenomenal view, and yes, there was really no other logical place for me to rest my eyes without turning my neck, but I could not keep my focus on what was happening directly in front of me. The two huge screens (and the camera/production crew of at least 20) were doing a fantastic job of keeping my attention focused directly on their handy editing and intercutting; in all honesty, watching the TV version of church is a hundred times more exciting than watching church in person, kind of inverting the way that a live concert is much more fun than watching the over-produced DVD.

When the head pastor took the stage and started a short sermon about the church's recent trip to Israel, he also made sure to mention the value and importance of baptism to the mission of Christ Fellowship. After a brief introduction and background story, the screen cut away to Jose (a church member who was about to move from Palm Beach Gardens to Virginia) hanging out with another church official in a nondescript black room. They each said a few words, and then WHOOSH - Jose was dunked, and the crowd roared with applause.

Only as the cameras cut away and shifted their focus to the onstage action did I realize that the whole production had taken place directly above the stage in the previously hidden baptistry. The camera cutting away did not immediately line up with the change of lighting (the baptistry was directly above the stage and had been lit up for the occasion), so for a second, the illuminated baptistry was startlingly clear between the two screens.

What struck me about this was the fact that I had no idea that the baptism was going on right in front of me; it could have been happening in some different part of the church, or in another building altogether for all I knew. Instead, it was right above the stage I had jockeyed so hard to get a good view of. In a service where the pastor made sure to mention the presence of simultaneous webstream broadcasts on the church's website and on the other campuses, it seemed as though the major emphasis was on the power of technology to spread the sermon as far as possible. There are even whole areas devoted to showing just a broadcasted image of the sermon; it's like going to the movies, but instead, it's church. It sort of changed the experience of physically being inside the church, and to some degree, we were just members of the live studio audience.

You can read more of their impressions of CF here, here, here and here.

I note that the writer is part of the younger demographic that's supposed to be impressed by multimedia razzle-dazzle. Could it be that it's the boomers and busters who really dig this stuff? Not to say that megachurches don't draw a lot of young people. They do. Every Sunday morning I watch hordes of Bible-toting students walking by our little brick church to attend the local campus of CF several blocks away. I'm sure there are lots of good reasons for this (teaching that's more relevant, hipper music, age affinity, a more casual atmosphere), but could one reason be that this way of doing church is all these kids have known? For a generation that's grown up in the food court it must seem entirely normal. Once they marry, start having families, and push on into middle age I think something more organic and multi-generational, more rooted in centuries of church history will be more appealing.

"A social disaster as well"

Graphic aerial footage of the BP oil gusher from Alabama resident John Wathen:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Praying against hypocrisy (Watson)

Thomas Watson:

Christian, if you mourn for hypocrisy, yet find this sin so potent that you cannot get the mastery of it, go to Christ. Beg of him that he would exercise his kingly office in your soul, that he would subdue this sin, and put it under the yoke. Beg of Christ to exercise his spiritual surgery upon you. Desire him to lance your heart and cut out the rotten flesh, and that he would apply the medicine of his blood to heal you of your hypocrisy. Say that prayer of David often: 'Let my heart be sound in thy statutes' (Psa. 119:80). 'Lord, let me be anything rather than a hypocrite.' Two hearts will exclude from one heaven.

All Christians should regularly pray like this. Truth be told even the most godly saint doesn't always live up to his or her profession, nor especially does "the bruised reed." Those of us in the latter category need not despair though. As Watson says elsewhere -- the bruised reed "is as true a plant of the heavenly paradise as the other [the cedar]." God can read the work of his Spirit on our hearts whether it's "written in capital letters" or "only faintly stamped." I continue to be strengthened for the journey by reading this great Puritan.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The gospel for little idolators

John Calvin wrote in Book I of the Institutes that "man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols." Idolatry was the sin that tripped up Israel time and time again. The first commandment is first for a reason. Luther said the first commandment is "like a hoop in a wreath, joining the end to the beginning and holding them all together" (The Large Catechism). Violation of the other nine flow out of violation of the first. 21st century people are no different from those ancient Israelites though our idolatry takes different forms. Calvin was right—all of us are natural born idolators. Tedd Tripp effectively frames the problem, and the glorious solution—the gospel—in the context of Christian parenting.

Parenting that focuses only on behavior does address the heart. The problem is that the heart is addressed wrongly. Changing behavior without changing the heart trains the heart toward whatever you use as your means. If it is reward, the heart is trained to respond to reward. If approbation, the heart is trained to strive for approval, or to fear disapproval. When the experts tell you that you must find what works with each child, they are saying you must find the idols of the heart that will move each child.

Your child is a covenantal creature. The heart is the well-spring of life. Addressing the child's heart unbiblically plays to the corruption of his heart as an idolater and provides him with functional idols around which to organize his life. In this sense, whatever you do addresses the heart. When I note above that the heart is not addressed, I mean it is not addressed biblically.

There is another problem. If you address only behavior in your children, you never get to the cross of Christ. It is impossible to get from preoccupation with behavior to the gospel. The gospel is not a message about doing new things. It is a message about being a new creature. It speaks to people as broken, fallen sinners who are in need of a new heart. God has given his Son to make us new creatures. God does open-heart surgery, not a face-lift. He produces change from the inside out. He rejects the man who fasts twice a week and accepts the sinner who cries for mercy.

Shepherding a Child's Heart (Shepherd Press, 1995), pp. 66-67

Father God, give me grace and wisdom to shepherd my son's heart away from idols and toward you. In your Son's name. Amen.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sayers on good work

In preparing to kick off a Sunday school series on a biblical approach to work, I came across an essay by Dorothy Sayers called Why Work? It's a magnificent polemic. It was written in the midst of World War II which she takes to be a sort of judgment on wasteful consumption and consumerism. "War is a judgment that overtakes societies when they have been living; upon ideas that conflict too violently with the laws governing the universe." Sayers wonders if Britons really want to go back to "a social system based on Envy and Avarice" once the forced constrictions of war are over. She looks forward to a day when shareholders of a brewery, for instance, cared not only for profits, but would loudly ask "What goes into the beer?" Sayers writes, "a society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built upon sand." Just because poeple can be induced to buy something doesn't mean it should be made. Nowadays talk like that might get you called a socialist.

Sayers really hits her stride in the second half of the piece when she sets out a Christian understanding of work, and out-Luthers Luther in hammering the church for looking down on secular vocation. This section is worth quoting at length.

It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work. The Church must concern Herself not only with such questions as the just price and proper working conditions: She must concern Herself with seeing that work itself is such as a human being can perform without degradation – that no one is required by economic or any other considerations to devote himself to work that is contemptible, soul destroying, or harmful. It is not right for Her to acquiesce in the notion that a man’s life is divided into the time he spends on his work and the time he spends in serving God. He must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation.

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can any one remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life? The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly – but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate or permit a pious intention to excuse so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.

And why? Simply because She has lost all sense of the fact that the living and eternal truth is expressed in work only so far as that work is true in itself, to itself, to the standards of its own technique. She has forgotten that the secular vocation is sacred. Forgotten that a building must be good architecture before it can be a good church; that a painting must be well painted before it can be a good sacred picture; that work must be good work before it can call itself God’s work.

Let the Church remember this: that every maker and worker is called to serve God in his profession or trade – not outside it. The Apostles complained rightly when they said it was not meet they should leave the word of God and serve tables; their vocation was to preach the word. But the person whose vocation it is to prepare the meals beautifully might with equal justice protest: It is not meet for us to leave the service of our tables to preach the word.

The official Church wastes time and energy, and moreover, commits sacrilege, in demanding that secular workers should neglect their proper vocation in order to do Christian work – by which She means ecclesiastical work. The only Christian work is good work well done.

Reading this reminds me of the account in Luke 3 of the crowds response to John the Baptist's message of repentance. "What should we do?" they ask. If you boil John's answers down his message was basically "share what you have and do honest work." Sayers would say that honest work is work that's true to itself. It's good work that reflect the good work of our Creator God. In the age of Goldman Sachs we could do with a bit more of Sayers' wise approach to work and economics.

Woody's world

Woody Allen has churned out a lot of schlock in recent years but he's still one of the most interesting filmmakers out there. Even if he never matches early perfect films like Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors he's earned his spot in the pantheon of great American artists. One of the things that makes his best work so compelling is the serious way he faces up to the human condition. He usually does it by way of trenchant comedy, but it's no less serious for eliciting laughter more often than tears. No existential compromise for Allen. Either there's a God who gives meaning to life with its attendant happiness and suffering or this is all a cruel joke.

Recently Allen was interviewed by Rev. Robert Lauder in the Catholic magazine Commonweal. Lauder asks astute questions and Allen is his typical self. Here's one illuminating exchange.

RL: At one point in Hannah and Her Sisters, your character, Mickey, is very disillusioned. He is thinking about becoming a Catholic and he sees Duck Soup. He seems to think, “Maybe in a world where there are the Marx Brothers and humor, maybe there is a God. Who knows.” And maybe Mickey can live with that. Am I interpreting this correctly?

WA: No. I think it should be interpreted to mean that there are these oases, and life is horrible, but it is not relentlessly black from wire to wire. You can sit down and hear a Mozart symphony, or you can watch the Marx Brothers, and this will give you a pleasant escape for a while. And that is about the best that you can do…. I feel that one can come up with all these rationalizations and seemingly astute observations, but I think I said it well at the end of Deconstructing Harry: we all know the same truth; our lives consist of how we choose to distort it, and that’s it. Everybody knows how awful the world is and what a terrible situation it is and each person distorts it in a certain way that enables him to get through. Some people distort it with religious things. Some people distort it with sports, with money, with love, with art, and they all have their own nonsense about what makes it meaningful, and all but nothing makes it meaningful. These things definitely serve a certain function, but in the end they all fail to give life meaning and everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way.

This is the scene where Mickey goes to see Duck Soup:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Haunting images from Music City

What a weekend it's been. Floods, environmental catastrophe, a narrowly averted terrorist bombing. No, we're not in control. James 4:14

Russell Moore on creation, dominion and oil in the Gulf

"God gave his image-bearing humanity dominion over the natural creation (Gen. 1:28). But this isn’t a pharaoh-like dominion; it’s a Christ-like dominion. . . .

We need the creation around us, including the waters and all they contain, because we are not gods. We are creatures who thrive when we live as we were made to live. We exercise dominion over the creation not only when we use it, but also when we conserve it for the generations who will come after.

So pray for the Gulf Coast, that the oil wouldn’t devastate a people and a land already devastated by so much. As you do, remember: real conservatives protect what God loves."

Read the whole thing

Monday, May 3, 2010

Time out

Blogging has been slow around here lately. The reason? A few days on the Gulf of Mexico with the family. No email, no internet, no worries. Make that -- not many worries. Vacationing with an infant/toddler hybrid unit has its challenges. The time away was a blessing. A few photos. . .