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. . .