Thursday, September 30, 2010

Gladwell on the limits of social media

Malcolm Gladwell, the man who came up with the "tipping point" hypothesis, is someone worth listening to. Writing in The New Yorker he challenges the conventional wisdom that social media is effecting a revolution in social and political activism. Gladwell presents the civil rights movement as a case study of how revolutionary change happened before e-mail, Facebook and Twitter -- and uses it to illustrate the weakness of social media in getting people to take action beyond clicking the "Like" button on Facebook.

As Gladwell see it effective movements of social change -- like the one led by Martin Luther King in the 60s -- require the kind of commitment fostered by the "strong ties" of close personal connection. For example if you had a best friend who was going to Mississippi during Freedom Summer you were more likely to go and risk your neck than if you didn't have that kind of connection. The same principle holds true whether you're talking protest movements or terrorist groups. On the other hand what social media does best is foster "weak ties" which are great for a lot of things, but not for rousing people to take action that requires real commitment and sacrifice.

He explains:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

. . . .

[Social media} makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.

I'm interested in what the implications of this critique are for the church. I'm an avid user of Facebook and I administer our church's Facebook page so obviously I'm not against social media. It can be a beneficial tool, but I think the talk about it revolutionizing the way we "do church" is overblown. A cool Facebook page does not an effective church make. If the New Testament tells us anything it's that "strong ties" are just as integral to building the Kingdom as they are to toppling governments. The recipe for creating those ties hasn't changed much in 2000 years. I mean, how did the Apostle Paul plant all those churches without Twitter?!

Jonah Lehrer's friendly critique of Gladwell's conclusions is worth reading too.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Warrendale (dir. Allan King, 1967)

What's Hell really like? I've read Dante, but it's not a subject I care to dwell on. There's a moment in the black and white documentary Warrendale that must at least approximate what it sounds like. It's when Carol, one of the residents of Warrendale (a home for emotionally troubled children somewhere in Canada), wails in grief and rage after the news is broken of the sudden death of Dorothy, the institution's cook, who we've seen in an earlier scene clowning around with the kids. Never has the sound of despair been so disturbingly captured on film. The closest thing to it I've seen and heard is Emilie Ekdahl's wails of grief over her dead husband in Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.

Of course, that's fantastical fiction, this is an unfiltered real-life moment captured by a master documentarian who now has a chance to become better known thanks to the recent release by Criterion of The Actuality Dramas of Allan King. If you've never heard of this Canadian filmmaker you're far from alone. I hadn't until two weeks ago when this tribute piqued my interest. King's method was a variation of the "fly on the wall" approach, eschewing narration and on-screen interviews, though fully cognizant of the mediating influence of the camera and its propensity to influence the behavior of its human subjects. Indeed, there are scenes in Warrendale where the camera is pointed out by its subjects and the filmmaker's name invoked.

The details of the cruel traumas that landed these children in this strange institution remain a mystery, as is the exact clinical nature of their dysfunctions. If there's a common thread it's that these are kids that haven't (can't?) grown up. Think teenagers with the emotional maturity of toddlers. The antics of the terrible two's in a teenager are not merely annoying they're downright dangerous. The "attachment therapy" practiced by the professionals of the home consists in liberal use of "holding" -- in which the child's arms and legs are pinned in order to create a safe space for them to vent rage, grief, whatever. The goal seems to be to prime the pump of pent-up emotions, to get it all out. At other times infantile behavior is encouraged. At bedtime the staff conduct rituals more appropriate for babies. In one peculiar scene Terry -- a caregiver of quiet strength and beauty -- gives a bottle to 15-year old Carol while telling the story of Rapunzel in a reassuring whisper.

One can't help but speculate as to the ethics and practical value of this sort of treatment. Yet one comes away admiring the dogged dedication of staff members Terry Adler, Maurice Flood and Walter Gunn. Walter is the most compelling character of Warrendale. It's evident early on that he has a special rapport with the children. He's the one brought in when the others can't make any headway, like when Carol refuses to get out of bed, or when a group of boys go missing. When Walter's around the kids light up. Looking like a more rakish version of Bobby Kennedy he's part pied piper, part surrogate big brother -- especially to potty-mouth angel-faced Tony. In keeping with the non-narrative structure of the film we learn nothing of the personal lives or motivations of Walter and the rest.

Warrendale contains moments of happiness. Like when Walter gathers the boys around the telly for "Hockey Night in Canada" accompanied by cigar-smoking and wagering. I told you this was an unorthodox place. If there weren't moments of joy then watching it would be an impossibly grim exercise. It turns out that Warrendale isn't quite hell and Carol's scream isn't the cry of the damned. Because there's still hope. I wonder. Did the children of Warrendale grow up to be well-adjusted adults with kids of their own? They would be retirement age now. Possibly spending winters in Florida like thousands of other Canadian snowbirds. Hard to believe, but possible.

Allan King concludes his deeply human piece of cinema verite at the graveside of Dorothy. We watch as a young priest with a hacking cold (remember this is real life) performs the last rites. His perfunctory words are scant consolation to the troop of grieving juveniles standing by, but within them are the seeds of hope for a broken world full of Warrendales.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Even Bishops need accountability

It's not surprising that the secular media would be drawing the wrong inferences from the Bishop Eddie Long scandal. Since Pastor Long may (I emphasize may) turn out to have been a big fat hypocrite -- coercing young men into sex at the same time he was preaching against homosexuality -- then parishioners of African-American evangelical churches should re-evaluate their historic opposition to things like same-sex marriage. Or so the story goes. Professor Shayne Lee writes: "As long as African-American Christians adhere to biblical mandates as authoritative prescriptions from God, they won't be easily dissuaded from rejecting same-sex lifestyles as viable alternatives to heterosexual norms." Well, yeah. Pastor Long wouldn't be the first who didn't practice what he preached, but that doesn't mean the message is wrong.

If there's soul-searching to be done here I think it has to do with the issues of power and accountability. Bishop Long is a prominent example of a celebrity preacher accumulating power and wealth while preaching some variant of the "prosperity gospel." You can get the flavor of Long's message just from the titles of his books -- Called to Conquer, Taking Over, It's Your Time! Preachers like Long preach a theology of glory, nicely summed up by the title of the old spiritual "We are climbing Jacob's ladder." The theology of the cross, which recognizes that "through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22), doesn't sell as well and doesn't accord with the gold-plated lifestyles of these evangelists.

The other big issue this story brings to the fore is accountability. Ecclesiastical power has the same potential to corrupt as political power. I find it hard to believe that this situation (and similar ones of recent years) would/could have gone this far if Long was accountable and answerable to a group of godly men within his church. The congregants of Long's church treated him like a rock star and he was happy to bask in the adoration. The adoration and cult of personality continued yesterday as Long compared himself to David fighting Goliath. It might actually be the other way around.

Over and over a charismatic pastor with unchecked power has proven to be a recipe for disaster. I'm convinced the best safeguard is leadership by a representative group of ordained elders, but there are other ways to do it. The flock is too precious to be left in the hands of any one shepherd. Oh, and another thing . . .

Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Costly discipleship revisited

I remember well my first encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was late 2000 or early 2001 and I was newly plugged in to a large Southern Baptist congregation after many years of no church involvement. I don't remember why I picked up a copy of The Cost of Discipleship, but I was immediately struck by the powerful directness of the message -- here was someone trying to seriously reckon with the hard teachings of Jesus. The book had a quality I hadn't run into before. The fact that Bonhoeffer wrote it when he was the same age I was at the time only added to its appeal. There was a clarity and conviction to the writing that made a profound impression. Of course, that influence continues. Bonhoeffer is one of my personal heroes.

What does a young German Lutheran pastor of the early twentieth century have to say to us today? More specifically what does he have to say to modern-day evangelical Christians? A lot, says Jon Walker. If you haven't heard of Pastor Walker I'm sure you've heard of his former boss -- a fellow named Rick Warren. Thanks to the good folks at Abilene Christian University Press I've had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Walker's just published book Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship.

Much ink has been spilled in recent years lamenting the "mile wide and inch deep" nature of commitment among evangelicals in America. Despite the impressive numbers some observers see the same warning signs in ostensibly Bible-believing churches as were seen decades ago when the mainline churches began their slide into theological liberalism and irrelevance. Several years ago Willow Creek -- one of evangelicalism's flagship churches -- published its Reveal study which showed a surprising lack of correlation between participation in church programs and spiritual growth. From his vantage point as a pastor at Saddleback, Walker has seen similar signs of a dearth of genuine discipleship -- and to put it in Bonhoefferian terms -- cheap grace.

A simple glance across the evangelical landscape reveals that we've overwhelmingly embraced the lesser grace. We're barely willing to adjust our schedules let alone our lifestyles.

We're glad to follow Jesus. His yoke does seem easy: a few hours each week in worship, a Bible study, a small group, a bit of service at the church and perhaps a mission trip each year. We try to be good people, to help others, and to thank God for our blessings. . . . But a peculiar people? A royal priesthood set apart? What? Does Jesus really mean I'm supposed to abandon my __________ (fill in the blank)?

Walker concludes his hard-hitting critique by concluding that "we've settled for cheap grace for so long that we've allowed it to become the norm for Christian living." I think he's right, and I plead guilty. Too often we've chosen cheap grace and lukewarm discipleship, which is no discipleship at all. And as Walker quoting Bonhoeffer reminds us: "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ." The result is what another writer, Michael Horton, has dubbed "Christless Christianity."

Costly Grace is written in such a way that it can stand alone or as a companion to Bonhoeffer's book. The author quotes liberally from The Cost of Discipleship and does a good job of summarizing Bonhoeffer's arguments and applying them to contemporary situations. Each chapter concludes with examples of what Walker calls "Fallen Thinking" or "Kingdom Thinking". These could easily be used as discussion starters for a small-group book study. I can also see how this book would lend itself well to a private, contemplative approach -- perhaps as part of one's daily prayer and study.

I would hope (and I'm sure Walker does too) that readers wouldn't stop with Costly Grace, but would read the book that inspired it, as well as Bonhoeffer's other writings to get a fuller picture of his theology and ecclesiology. In addition to rampant "easy-believism" I think American evangelicals have often had too low a view of the visible church, the communion of the saints, and the centrality of the sacraments to the Christian life, all things which Bonhoeffer wrote eloquently and passionately about. Most of all I hope this book leads readers to a renewed obedience to the one who bids us come and die that we may have true life.

Quotes from Jon Walker, Costly Grace: A Contemporary View of Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship (Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2010) pp. 29-30

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The poverty of human greatness

A penetrating observation from John Wesley's journal:

I was in the robe-chamber, adjoining to the House of Lords, when the King put on his robes. His brow was much furrowed with age, and quite clouded with care. And is this all the world can give even to a King? All the grandeur it can afford? A blanket of ermine round his shoulders, so heavy and cumbersome he can scarce move under it! A huge heap of borrowed hair, with a few plates of gold and glittering stones upon his head! Alas, what a bauble is human greatness! And even this will not endure.

via Collin Hansen

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The final authority (Newbigin)

It's been too long since I posted anything from Lesslie Newbigin. The following quote is from a 1993 article "Religious Pluralism: a Missiological Approach".

The final authority for the Christian faith is the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ. If I am pressed to give reasons for being a Christian, I can only reply by speaking of the calling of Jesus Christ which has come to me through his Church and is authenticated by the working of the Holy Spirit as mediated to me through the word and sacraments of the gospel and the life of the believing community. If I have accepted that calling, I cannot accept the widely prevalent custom of putting the cross in a whole list of symbols of the world's religions. The cross is not a mere symbol like the OM often used to denote Hinduism, or the crescent denoting Islam. The crucifixion of Jesus was an event in history, the mighty act of God by which at infinite cost he reconciled the fallen world to himself and rescued it from perdition. To suggest that there is a reality more inclusive than this is to deny it.

Newbigin wasn't one to shy away from dialogue with people of other faiths; going so far as to say that Christians should look eagerly for "evidence of the work of God's grace" in the life of devout adherents of other religions. If Jesus is "the eternal word of God active in all creation and in all human life" then this shouldn't be surprising. But for Newbigin "dialogue" didn't mean (as it often does these days) giving in to religious pluralism in which all truth claims are equally valid -- the kind of sentiment I suspect is behind the popular bumper sticker above. One of Newbigin's unique contributions as a theologian is to provide a model for how to coexist in a pluralistic world without compromising the uniqueness or universality of the Christian gospel.

Quote from Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian: a Reader (p. 179)

Monday, September 20, 2010

David Simon on WNYC

Here's a 15-minute interview with David Simon, creator of The Wire, chatting about Paths of Glory (novel and film), politics, the future of journalism and the American city. The interviewer is Brian Lehrer. Simon is in New York to introduce a special screening of Kubrick's masterpiece tonight at Film Forum. Oh to be there.

The rage of the rich (Krugman)

Paul Krugman writes yesterday that the angriest people these days aren't the Tea Partiers, they are the wealthy one percent facing the prospect of higher taxes. It's the kind of anger that led one fund manager to compare Obama's proposal to close a tax loophole that benefits the mega-rich to Hitler's invasion of Poland. Krugman goes on to point out that those arguing against allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire aren't even trying to argue this will benefit the economy as a whole.

Tax-cut advocates used to pretend that they were mainly concerned about helping typical American families. Even tax breaks for the rich were justified in terms of trickle-down economics, the claim that lower taxes at the top would make the economy stronger for everyone.

These days, however, tax-cutters are hardly even trying to make the trickle-down case. Yes, Republicans are pushing the line that raising taxes at the top would hurt small businesses, but their hearts don’t really seem in it. Instead, it has become common to hear vehement denials that people making $400,000 or $500,000 a year are rich. I mean, look at the expenses of people in that income class — the property taxes they have to pay on their expensive houses, the cost of sending their kids to elite private schools, and so on. Why, they can barely make ends meet.

And among the undeniably rich, a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes — but that was a long time ago.

The spectacle of high-income Americans, the world’s luckiest people, wallowing in self-pity and self-righteousness would be funny, except for one thing: they may well get their way. Never mind the $700 billion price tag for extending the high-end tax breaks: virtually all Republicans and some Democrats are rushing to the aid of the oppressed affluent.

You see, the rich are different from you and me: they have more influence. It’s partly a matter of campaign contributions, but it’s also a matter of social pressure, since politicians spend a lot of time hanging out with the wealthy. So when the rich face the prospect of paying an extra 3 or 4 percent of their income in taxes, politicians feel their pain — feel it much more acutely, it’s clear, than they feel the pain of families who are losing their jobs, their houses, and their hopes.

And when the tax fight is over, one way or another, you can be sure that the people currently defending the incomes of the elite will go back to demanding cuts in Social Security and aid to the unemployed. America must make hard choices, they’ll say; we all have to be willing to make sacrifices.

But when they say “we,” they mean “you.” Sacrifice is for the little people.

Indeed! Believe it or not I used to be a cheerleader for what was called back in my youth -- Reaganomics -- or "trickle-down economics" by its detractors. I read Hayek and Friedman and flirted with becoming a Libertarian. No more. Now that I've lived a decade or so in the real world I don't buy the argument that cutting Rush Limbaugh's taxes is somehow going to make it better for the rest of us, or that raising Rush's taxes is an intolerable affront to his individual liberty which will soon send us all down the slippery slope to serfdom. My Grandpa Ed Ley (rest his soul) a lifelong working-class Democrat would have told me such if I'd have listened. The older I get the more I realize Grandpa was right about a lot of things.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

From Mount Gerizim to Golgotha

The writer of Hebrews says "Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Heb. 9:22)

As I've written before Hebrews is in many ways a commentary on Leviticus, where the sacrificial system of forgiveness for sins was spelled out in detail. As Jews around the world observe Yom Kippur "Day of Atonement" it's worth pausing and reflecting on the significance of this day for Christians.

The video below helps me see more clearly the awful significance of Heb. 9:22 and Lev. 17:11. Don't watch it if you get queasy at the sight of blood.

The Sacrificial Lamb from SourceFlix on Vimeo.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Modern Times (dir. Charlie Chaplin, 1936)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. . .

A mustard seed is considered by Jesus' contemporaries the smallest of seeds. The kingdom, Jesus is saying, is not like a palatial paradise but a small seed. It is like a mustard plant, not like a tall sequoia or a powerful oak. Jesus (according to our standards) apparently knows nothing of marketing strategies or attractive packaging, for he markets his kingdom in the little spiritual paradox called a mustard seed.

Why does a mustard seed attract comparison to the kingdom of God? Because for Jesus the kingdom is about the ordinariness of loving God and loving others. The kingdom is as common as sparrows, as earthy as backyard bushes, as routine as breakfast coffee, and as normal as aging. He hallows the ordinary act of love, making it extraordinary. Instead of finding it in the majestic, Jesus sees God's kingdom in the mundane. The kingdom of God is the transforming presence of God in ordinary humans who live out the Jesus Creed*.

Quote from Scot McKnight, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2004) pp. 135-6

*The "Jesus Creed" is Mark 12:29-31 (see also Matt. 22:37-39)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Wanted: Generalists

I should simply link to everything Carl Trueman writes and call it a day! His ongoing series of posts on Martin Luther and Turbulent Priests are the closest thing to required reading for evangelicals of a Reformed bent that you'll find on the present-day world wide web. Plus he's just flat-out fun to read, though his typos drive me nuts. You can find his stuff at the Ref21 blog.

Today Trueman concluded a series in praise of "generalists." The Problem: Western society (education, law, medicine) is increasingly given over to specialization. We're in danger of becoming a dictatorship of the experts. In the groves of academe where Professor Trueman toils this trend manifests itself in the proliferation of PhD students. He argues, correctly in my opinion, that "the cult of the specialist" isn't a good thing for the church. What we need, especially among pastors and elders, are well-rounded generalists. As much as I enjoy being "an authority" on one or two subjects, the type of person Trueman describes is what I aspire to.

Read on:

In Praise of the Generalist I: The Problem

In Praise of the Generalist II: The Possibility and the Imperative

In Praise of the Generalist III: Some Suggestions

Friday, September 10, 2010

Beyond Belief

The story of two 9/11 widows planting seeds of hope among the widows of Afghanistan. . .

via Nicholas Kristof

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Should every sentence be easy to read?

When it comes to technology I'm a late adopter. Whether it was getting a cellphone, switching from VHS to DVD, or making the jump from analog to hi-def, I've always been several years behind my peers. I don't have a smartphone and have no plans to get one, nor do I feel the need to get a Kindle or Nook. I'm still buying books at a good clip, which lately have been accumulating in ever taller stacks around our crowded bungalow.

Yet, I suspect in a few years I'll have one of those e-reading devices (maybe I'll get one for Christmas). And perhaps then I'll wonder how I lived without it, as I now wonder how I ever watched sports on my old analog television set. If my buddy invites me over to watch the Gators game and he doesn't have HDTV -- I ain't going! Even if he does have chicken wings.

Jonah Lehrer is one of my sharpest tacks out there and today he writes about the future of reading. He points out that consumer technology moves in one direction.

[Toward] making it easier for us to perceive the content. This is why your TV is so high-def, and your computer monitor is so bright and clear. For the most part, this technological progress is all to the good. (I still can’t believe that people watched golf before there were HD screens. Was the ball even visible? For me, the pleasure of televised golf is all about the lush clarity of grass.) Nevertheless, I worry that this same impulse – making content easier and easier to see – could actually backfire with books. We will trade away understanding for perception. The words will shimmer on the screen, but the sentences will be quickly forgotten.

What's interesting, Lehrer explains, is that there's a neural reason for his worry that making books easier to read could have baneful unintended consequences. He cites the work of French neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene who discovered "two distinct pathways" for making sense of what we read.

Most of the time when we read we're using the "ventral pathway" of our brain. This route enables us to easily slip into a sort of autopilot when we're reading familiar words and sentence structures. But when we encounter something unfamiliar, even bad handwriting or an unusual font, this activates the "dorsal stream" of our literate brain forcing us to sit up and pay attention. We're no longer on autopilot. In Lehrer's phrase "the automatic act has lost its automaticity." If that experience of struggling with a hard-to-read text is taken away Lehrer worries that. . .

before long, we’ll become so used to the mindless clarity of e-ink – to these screens that keep on getting better – that the technology will feedback onto the content, making us less willing to endure harder texts. We’ll forget what it’s like to flex those dorsal muscles, to consciously decipher a literate clause. And that would be a shame, because not every sentence should be easy to read.

Hear, hear! The future of books and reading may be digital, but I'm in no hurry to trade my pages for megabytes. The idea of settling down with a beverage in one hand and a Kindle in the other doesn't give me as much pleasure as the lo-tech alternative. Then again, with another baby on the way we sure could use the extra space!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Standing for truth. . . in love

The most anticipated event in Gainesville on Saturday isn't the Florida/USF football game, it's the ritualistic burning of copies of the Qur'an at Dove World Outreach Center church. (I hesitate to call DWOC a church but I'll keep my Reformed ecclesiology out of it.) With counterdemonstrations planned, and the inevitable media circus, the Gainesville P.D. are going to have their hands full! Everyone from General David Petraeus to the Vatican have weighed in on the wisdom of this stunt. I believe Carl Trueman put it best. Qur'an-burning (and book-burning in general) is "legal but stupid."

I went on DWOC's website and it's obvious that "exposing Islam" is the primary mission of this congregation's senior pastors, Dr. Terry & Sylvia Jones. The church displays a sign on it's property with the words "Islam is of the Devil" and you can buy books and t-shirts with the same message. In support of this message the website reads:

Christians must return to the truth and stop hiding. We need to speak up against sin and call the people to repentance. Abortion is murder. Homosexuality is sin. We need to call these things what they are and bring the world the true message: that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).

Any religion which would profess anything other than this truth is of the devil. This is why we also take a stand against Islam, which teaches that Jesus is not the Son of God, therefore taking away the saving power of Jesus Christ and leading people straight to Hell.

I'm actually going to agree with those statements, and say that the New Testament does too. For example 1 John 2:22-23 says:

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

Not only could one say that Islam is of the devil because it denies that Jesus is the Christ -- that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life -- one could also say that Hinduism is of the devil, and Mormonism is of the devil, and Buddhism, and Unitarianism, get the idea. If we set about burning the holy books of every religion that denies that Jesus is Lord we'd need a lot of wood.

Of course, Pastor Jones would probably remind me that adherents of those religions didn't kill thousands of Americans on 9/11. True, but the New Testament also commands Christians to love our enemies and to do everything in our power to live peaceably with all men. It admonishes us to speak the truth in love and to count it a privilege to suffer for the sake of Christ. What's lacking in Jones' crusade against Islam is what the Bible calls discernment. Tragically this episode will be seen as representative of more than what it is, which is a fringe "church" with a very distorted view of what it means to stand up for the exclusive truth-claims of the gospel.

In Acts 17 we have a counterexample of how to stand up for truth in a pluralistic society. The Apostle Paul arrives in Athens and Luke reports that "his spirit was provoked" (ESV) when he saw the idols that filled the city. "Provoked" actually isn't a strong enough translation. From my limited understanding of Greek, it's more like Paul was enraged -- his whole being was gripped with indignation. Note that Pastor Jones says burning the Qur'an is his way of expressing hatred of Islam.

However, Paul doesn't go out and take a sledgehammer to the idols or go out of his way to provoke the worshippers of same. Rather the text says he "reasoned . . . every day" in the synagogues and marketplaces of Athens. Eventually his apologias for Christ (1 Peter 3:15) gained him an audience at the Areopagus -- the center of Greek antichrist philosophy. Here Paul seeks common ground while at the same time preaching a message of repentance. The result? Some mocked Paul, but others believed.

I won't be surprised if the event on Saturday fizzles. But the damage has been done. No follower of Islam will be tempted to believe in the Jesus presented by the organizers of Burn a Koran Day.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

D.A. Carson on the Psalms

I love the Psalms, and I love hearing them taught by gifted expositors of scripture. That's why I was eager to listen to the incredibly gifted Don Carson preach from the Psalms at a recent conference in Australia. Carson chose Psalms 1, 2, 40, 48 and 110. These are dynamite! Click on the link below to access the audio.

Redefining the "gospel of wealth"

David Brooks writes about a Baptist minister who's challenging the notion that American-style materialism and Christian discipleship are compatible.

[David] Platt earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate from the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. At age 26, he was hired to lead a 4,300-person suburban church in Birmingham, Ala., and became known as the youngest megachurch leader in America.

Platt grew uneasy with the role he had fallen into and wrote about it in a recent book called “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.” It encapsulates many of the themes that have been floating around 20-something evangelical circles the past several years.

Platt’s first target is the megachurch itself. Americans have built themselves multimillion-dollar worship palaces, he argues. These have become like corporations, competing for market share by offering social centers, child-care programs, first-class entertainment and comfortable, consumer Christianity.

Jesus, Platt notes, made it hard on his followers. He created a minichurch, not a mega one. Today, however, building budgets dwarf charitable budgets, and Jesus is portrayed as a genial suburban dude. “When we gather in our church building to sing and lift up our hands in worship, we may not actually be worshipping the Jesus of the Bible. Instead, we may be worshipping ourselves.”

Next, Platt takes aim at the American dream. . .

Read the whole thing

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Learning the art of the craft (Bogdanovich)

One of my favorite moviemen, Peter Bogdanovich, adds blogger to his many titles. From the introduction to Blogdanovich:

The state of movie culture—indeed, the state of culture in the U.S.A.—is at a distressingly low level. At film schools all over the country, most of the students act as though picture history begins somewhere around “Raging Bull”. The knowledge of, or interest in, films made during the fifty-year Golden Age of Pictures—1912-1962—is generally either non-existent or extremely spotty.

I was lucky: The late 1950s and most of the 1960s were terrific years for talk and writing about the great picture work that had been made in America, just at the time it all came tumbling down. New York’s prestigious, influential Museum of Modern Art finally did retrospectives on Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock in l961-62-63. I arranged them. The directors in my generation—Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, almost all of them—had quite a good sense of older pictures. But that doesn’t seem to be the case much of the time now.

Why should it be so important to see the work that has preceded us? Again, I was lucky: My European father was not only a fine painter, he was a vastly knowledgeable expert on the entire history of painting and sculpture; dealers and museum curators would ask him to judge if a work was genuine or fake. He was also a brilliant classical pianist, and knew the whole opus of the great composers. So I picked up at an early age that if you want to be of some quality in your chosen field, you had better have a damn good idea of all the superb or transcendent work that has been done before your advent. Not for the purpose of remakes, but in order to learn the vocabulary, grammar, the humanity, the art of the craft. Bach did precede Mozart.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Where the grapes of wrath are stored

"I think any young man or any man who isn't angry at one time or another is a waste of time. No, no. Anger is a symbol of thought and evaluation and reaction: without it what have we got?"

- John Steinbeck

Recently I've been captured anew by John Ford's 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. If the Hollywood studio system needed any justification, the fact that it could produce a motion picture like this one is justification enough. Much credit goes to 20th Century Fox Studios chief Darryl Zanuck. Even though Zanuck was an anti-labor Republican he had the artistic integrity to let Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson make a film that was true to the spirit and sensibilities of the novel. It's actually astonishing that a movie this controversial and overtly political emerged at that time.

Steinbeck was clearly a man of the left, though he took flak from some for not being radical enough. By all accounts he had nothing but good things to say about Hollywood's treatment of his work. When watching the movie later on in the 50s he remarked that it made him believe in the book all over again. Ford's politics were a complicated mix of conservative and liberal, but he always had a soft spot for the underdog and the common folk. If I had to label Ford I'd call him a bleeding-heart conservative.

Of course, some of the content of the novel was too shocking to put on film, and the economic and political messages were somewhat watered down. Not only that, the arc of the novel -- ending on a pessimistic note -- was turned around to give the movie version a more upbeat (Hollywood?) ending. This is forgiveable though, since it allowed Ma Joad -- played memorably by Jane Darwell -- to deliver one of the great uplifting closing lines in American cinema history. "We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people!" It gives me goose bumps every time.

Even with some of the hard edges smoothed off Steinbeck's prose, the movie has a visceral power thanks to the stellar acting and Ford's impeccable direction. The Grapes of Wrath unfolds as one pitch-perfect scene after another. There's nary a false step. Henry Fonda's Tom Joad is one of a handful of big-screen performances worthy of the adjective iconic. Darwell won a well-deserved Oscar as the matriarch who keeps the family moving forward on their exodus to a hoped-for promised land. Her scenes with Fonda are the dramatic and spiritual center of the film. John Carradine, as disillusioned ex-preacher John Casy, almost manages to upstage Fonda with his laconic delivery and eccentric mannerisms. Some of the finest character actors of Hollywood's "Golden Age" show up in smaller roles e.g., Charley Grapewin and Ford favorite Ward Bond.

What the acting and directing couldn't do to adequately convey Steinbeck's lacerating vision of human struggle against injustice was accomplished through Gregg Toland's cinematography. Toland would achieve legendary status a year later by shooting a little film called Citizen Kane, but his work here is no less impressive. He and Ford achieve a stark visual style that often conveys more than words would have been able to do. In addition, they modeled the film's look on the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange which gives it a documentary-like quality. What the Italian neorealists would do after the war, Ford and Toland were doing in 1939.

Here are two examples of Lange's photography. . .

And some stills from the film. . .

Tom Joad is a fascinating protagonist. If anything, Fonda's characterization makes him more memorable in the movie. When we first meet Tom he seems like a conventional angry young man. He's a wiseacre with a chip on his shoulder and not very likeable. He's more like the solipsistic characters later glamorized by James Dean than a humanitarian crusader. But the example of Casy's Christlike sacrifice, as well as a growing power of observation, transforms Tom into a rebel with a cause. By the time of his famous farewell to Ma he's come to see his destiny as bound up with the downtrodden everywhere. The story of the Joad family is a microcosm of the larger American story. It's a story of change and movement -- movements of adventurers, settlers and migrants looking for a better life. The Grapes of Wrath celebrates some of the people who paid the price on the road of progress, and invites us to channel the spirit of Tom Joad in the continuing struggle for liberty and justice for all.

Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Help for disciples swimming with sharks*

Back in June I shared an excerpt on integrity from Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession by Regent Law School professor Michael P. Schutt. Though I'm not a lawyer I found this a profitable read. However, I do work in the legal field (which is why a friend gave me this book) and the picture Schutt paints of a profession adrift in the waters of pragmatism squares with what I've witnessed. The author believes Christian lawyers are as affected as their secular counterparts, and he issues a call for better discipleship within the church geared for believers in the legal profession. One of the things I appreciated most about the book was its emphasis on the role of the local church.

In the chapter "The American Law School Experience" Professor Schutt describes a process that begins in law school in which the historical, religious and moral foundations of the legal tradition are "ignored or suppressed." Instead, aspiring lawyers are taught a pragmatic, technical approach to the law instead of an approach that values virtue and sees practicing law as a "moral science." In this view a good lawyer is nothing more than a skillful technician, and the law is a tool to be used to achieve a desired outcome. Most students are quickly taken in by this approach, and it takes a tremendous effort for a stressed-out first year law student to swim against this tide.

Schutt cites the work of legal thinker Richard Posner as the epitome of this approach. Posner has written that we are merely "clever animals" who need not waste time trying to discover "metaphysical realities." Instead, we should be content in the knowledge that "there is no deep mystery at the heart of existence. Or at least no deep mystery worth trying to dispel and thus worth troubling our minds about." And you wonder why so many see lawyering as, at best, an amoral calling! Judge Posner, by the way, is hugely influential across the idealogical spectrum.

Redeeming Law draws on an impressive array of Christian thinkers (everyone from Aquinas to John Calvin to Lesslie Newbigin) to make a compelling case for a holistic approach to the law that sees it as a moral science once again, and equips Christian lawyers to integrate their work and their faith. Of course, the "law cannot redeem souls" but Christian lawyers should aspire to be "co-laborers with Christ" and "have redeeming influence on our law practices, our clients, our colleagues, and our professors." (p. 11)

I think the book was longer than it needed to be, and I found some of the author's assumptions about the impact of Christian worldview too sweeping, but those are minor quibbles. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this as "must reading" for any Christian attorney or law student.

*The title is cheesy, but I couldn't help myself.