Friday, January 28, 2011

Fed up in Cairo

"The elections are fraudulent. The people in power monopolize all the resources. There are no jobs. There's no health care. And I can't afford good schools for my children."

- 53 year old Abdel Zaher Dandarwi explaining why he joined this week's mass protests against the Egyptian government

The gift of a happy childhood

Becoming a parent has produced a sudden awareness of my mortality. I'm also beginning to realize that I have less control than I thought I had -- or like to think I have -- over Samuel and Benjamin's future. So much is out of my hands! But there is something. A happy childhood is no guarantee of a happy life (and as a Christian I have higher aspirations for my children than mere happiness) but giving them a happy childhood is something I do have a great deal of control over right now.

I was moved by these lines from author Alison Gopnik (The Philosophical Baby):

Parents often feel a kind of existential anxiety as they watch their children grow up—as we say, it goes by so fast. We watch that infinitely flexible, contingent, malleable future swiftly harden into the irretrievable, unchangeable past. Japanese poets have a phrase, mono no aware, for the bittersweetness inherent in ephemeral beauty—a falling blossom or a leaf in the wind. Children are a great source of mono no aware.

But there is another side to the ephemerality of childhood. There is a kind of immunity about a happy childhood, not an immunity from the disasters and catastrophes that may, that almost certainly do, lie ahead, but an intrinsic immunity. Change and transience are at the heart of the human condition. But as parents we can at least give our children a happy childhood, a gift that is as certain, as unchanging, as rock solid, as any human good. (p. 201)

Gopnik writes from a naturalistic worldview, so, naturally, there were things I disagreed with in this book, but overall I found it to be an illuminating glimpse into the minds of baby humans. I enjoyed the film references sprinkled throughout the book (the author must be a film buff). At one point she suggests that the unself-conscious consciousness of infants is like that of an adult watching an absorbing Hitchcock film. "For a baby, watching a Mickey Mouse mobile may be like being utterly, blissfully, selflessly captivated by a good movie." (p. 122) Sounds like a great life!

Quotes from The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life (Picador, 2009)

Photo of our two sons taken 1/12/11

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Murch and Ebert give thumbs down to 3D

Film editor Walter Murch thinks moviegoers should be "fed up" with 3D and explains why in this letter to Roger Ebert. Ebert agrees.

Murch is one of my heroes so what he says carries a lot of weight. I did a two-part tribute to Mr. Murch several years ago. Is he right? Are 3D films just a gimmick, or are they the wave of the future? I suppose time will tell.

Ancient traditions making a comeback in Northern California

Story from Rob Reynolds of Al Jazeera. . .

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Something to hang your hat on

"Folks, CNN has it's own headlines. In the West history is divided into periods -- ancient, medieval, modern, postmodern. Most recently it's been said that September 11, 2001 changed everything. But really, that's not true. The most decisive turning point was the year 33 when a Jewish rabbi, the Messiah, was raised from the dead in Roman-occupied Palestine -- vindicating his claim as God incarnate, Savior and Lord of the world. All authority on heaven and on earth has been entrusted to him. This turning point is not only celebrated, but is deepened and widened in its effects every Lord's Day. Whenever this gospel is taken, and wherever this gospel is taken, a piece of heaven, the age to come, begins even now to dawn in the dusty corners of this passing evil age."

- Michael Horton (from last week's White Horse Inn podcast The Gospel of the Kingdom)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Obama's abortion blindness

Here are the closing paragraphs of Albert Mohler's article on President Obama's shameful statement celebrating the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Ever since Barack Obama emerged on the national political scene, he has been promoted and protected by a corps of preachers and religious leaders who have tried their best to explain that he is not so pro-abortion as he seems. Nevertheless, his record is all too clear — as is this most recent statement. There was not one expression of abortion as a national tragedy, even as a report recently indicated that almost 60 percent of all pregnancies among African American women in New York City end in abortion.

How can any President of the United States fail to address this unspeakable tragedy? There was no hope expressed that abortion would be rare, only the expression that he would remain “committed to protecting this constitutional right.” The only words that even insinuate any hypothetical reduction in abortion were addressed to reducing “unintended pregnancies” and promoting adoption. But no goal of reducing abortion was stated or even obliquely suggested. No reference at all was made of the unborn child. There was no lament — not even a throwaway line that would cost him nothing in terms of his support from abortion rights forces.

These words were not imposed upon this President. This is his own personal statement. It is one of the most revealing — and tragic — statements made by any political figure in our times.

Clearly, the moral seriousness that the President has displayed in other instances (e.g. his response to the Tucson shootings) is missing here. Apparently he's oblivious to the fact that the lives of children are also at stake in the abortion debate -- boys and girls of every race -- who if allowed to be born would grow up to be very much like his daughters. It's unfathomable to me that a loving father (as I'm sure he is) could be such an unabashed cheerleader for abortion on demand. Tragic indeed!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The all-important thing (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen:

If you regard religion merely as a means to attain worldly ends, even the highest and noblest of worldly ends—if you regard religion for example, merely as a means of meeting the present emergency in this world, then you have never even begun to have even the slightest inkling of what the Christian religion means. God, as He is known to the Christian, is never content to be thus a mere instrument in the hands of those who care nothing about Him. The relation to God is the all-important thing. It is not a mere means to an end. Everything else is secondary to it.

Quote from "The Present Emergency and How to Meet It" (1935)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Christian worship as covenant renewal

In Letter XVI of Letters to a Young Calvinist author Jamie Smith gently chides Jesse (his fictional correspondent) for choosing a church home based on the fact that it "teaches Calvinism." Smith writes that this is the wrong criteria because it sees church as primarily a lecture hall where one goes to be taught.

Instead Smith wants Jesse to pay more attention to how a church worships -- and not just the music. This is one way, Smith argues, in which the Reformed tradition runs counter to the "ethos of American evangelicalism." In that ethos worship is reduced to music (there's even a genre called "praise and worship"), and the sermon is reduced to teaching. Even if that teaching is Calvinistic it isn't enough to make it a Reformed church. Smith:

In the Reformed tradition, the entire service is worship. While psalm singing and hymn singing might be an important part of worship, in fact they are just a slice of the entire drama that constitutes a service of Christian worship. And while the sermon is important, it too is only a part of the drama of worship. There is a specific "logic" to the entire shape of worship that flows out of the conviction that Christian worship replays the drama of the covenant. In fact, Michael Horton, in A Better Way, has very helpfully described the service of Christian worship as a "covenant renewal ceremony." Worship is the site of God's action, where we dialogically encounter our Redeemer and covenantal Lord, in offers of praise and thanksgiving—but also in confession and reverence. Each week, worship invites us into the narrative of God's redemptive history. Indeed, the entire drama of worship replays that story each week and invites us to situate ourselves in that story. (pp. 81-2)

I love that description of worship! This approach has the added benefit of reminding us that worship is about something bigger than ourselves. Yet, within this framework is plenty of room for cultural or musical variation. A few more quotes. . .

[. . .] worship is a matter of both Word and sacrament. Worship is not just an opportunity to get "information" in the Word preached; it is also a ceremony in which we (re)enact the covenant with our promise-keeping God. (p. 83)

[. . .] worship is not only what is rightly owed to God; it is also a kind of training, a means of discipline and formation that God provides for our sanctification. Worship not only expresses our praise and adoration of God; it also forms our habits and desires. Rightly ordered worship is a crucial part of our discipleship and sanctification. (p. 84)

I'll have one more post on this book later...including some nitpicks. BTW the author is answering questions via video about the book at his blog.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The obligation of Christian politicians

I know I linked to Ross Douthat already this week, but this is too good to not pass along.

There is no definitive Christian approach to politics. There are lines a believer cannot cross and ideologies that cannot be embraced, but a libertarian and a social democrat can both claim a Christian warrant for their approach to political affairs, and likewise a neoconservative and a realist, or for that matter a monarchist and a republican.

But the diversity and open-endedness of Christian political thought doesn’t absolve Christian politicians of the obligation to think seriously about the interaction between their personal faith and their public duties. Instead, it sharpens that obligation: Precisely because there is no single model for a Christian politician, every Christian in politics has an obligation to be a model — to make it clear, in words and deeds, how their faith informs their activism, and to constantly test their political convictions against their theological worldview.

Read the quote in context here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Andy Crouch on Steve Jobs' secular gospel of hope

Steve Jobs’s medical leave of absence is the top story in today’s newspapers. The Wall Street Journal says his brief and poignant memo raises “uncertainty over his health and the future of the world’s most valuable technology company.” These two questions—Jobs’s health and Apple’s health—are the focus of almost all the coverage today.

But I’m interested in the health of our culture, and what will happen to it when (not if) Steve Jobs departs the stage for the last time.

As remarkable as Steve Jobs is in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (ruthless and demanding) leader—his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple’s early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and made it a sign of promise and progress.

Continue reading. . .

Monday, January 17, 2011

When the church forgets its mission

Richard Lovelace's Dynamics of Spiritual Life is one of the most interesting and edifying books I've ever read. I'm tempted to call it a magisterial work, but that would be going too far. I'll stop at saying it's a must read for anyone interested in church history, the intersection of theology and practice, revival movements of the past, and renewal of the church in the present. The figure of Jonathan Edwards looms large too.

Here's one of the scariest paragraphs in the book. Scary, because I recognize this danger in myself and in the Reformed tradition.

It is possible for both individuals and churches to become devoted mainly to personal spiritual culture and forget outreach, especially if the process of reaching out involves touching those who may contaminate us. Thus many Protestant churches have in effect become closed systems for the nurture and servicing of the inheritors of a denominational tradition. (p. 149)

Lovelace was "missional" before missional was cool, and what he's describing is a church that's lost an orientation toward mission. When this happens churches become "ingrown and socially apathetic" places for the faithful to hunker down.

Another kind of ingrown church is one that becomes a kind of country club for the successful to network. Churches where. . .

The main business of the laity of all persuasions was business and not the kingdom of God. The church and religion served as spokes on the wheel of life, the hub of which was personal success. (p. 150)

Lovelace is describing the Protestant mainline at a time when being Presbyterian or Methodist was essential to respectability, but the same danger exists for evangelical churches today, even those that have the "right" theology.

Palin and the media

Conservative Ross Douthat attempts an intervention in the increasingly co-dependent marriage of the liberal media and the relentlessly self-promoting Sarah Palin. This grim spectacle reached new lows in the wake of the Tuscon shooting. The title of his column ("Scenes From a Marriage") is a nice Ingmar Bergman reference too!

Palin, meanwhile, officially despises the “lamestream” media. But press coverage — good, bad, whatever — is clearly the oxygen she craves. She supposedly hates having her privacy invaded, yet her family keeps showing up on reality TV. She thinks the political class is clueless and out-of-touch, but she can’t resist responding to its every provocation. Her public rhetoric, from “death panels” to “blood libel,” is obviously crafted to maximize coverage and controversy, and generate more heat than light. And her Twitter account reads like a constant plea for the most superficial sort of media attention.

It’s a grim spectacle on both sides, and last week’s pointless controversy was a particularly low point. So let me play the relationship counselor. To the media: Cover Sarah Palin if you want, but stop acting as if she’s the most important conservative politician in America. Stop pretending that she has a plausible path to the presidency in 2012. (She doesn’t.) Stop suggesting that she’s the front-runner for the Republican nomination. (She isn’t.) And every time you’re tempted to parse her tweets for some secret code or crucial dog whistle, stop and think, this woman has fewer Twitter followers than Ben Stiller, and then go write about something else instead.

To Palin: You were an actual politician once (remember that?), but you’re becoming the kind of caricature that your enemies have always tried to make of you. So maybe it’s time to turn off your iPad for a while, and take a break from Facebook and Fox News. The world won’t end if you don’t respond to every criticism, and you might even win a few more admirers if you cultivated a lighter touch and a more above-the-fray persona. Oh, and when that reality-TV producer sends you a pitch for “Sarah Plus Five Plus Kate Plus Eight,” just say no.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, January 10, 2011

When the bread is broken do you see Jesus?

It's hard for us to imagine how big a deal bread was to the society that Jesus of Nazareth was born into. We have grocery stores filled with an array of culinary choices, but for the average first century Palestinian bread was what was for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If the bread gave out you were in danger of starving to death. This is one of the reasons why Jesus' claim to be the bread of life was so astounding. He wasn't claiming to be one option among many, he was claiming to be the only option.

The Gospel of Mark, chapter 8, has the account of the feeding of the 4,000. This is followed in Mark's narrative by an odd conversation between Jesus and his disciples as they made the trek back across the lake. The disciples are fretting because they're almost out of bread when Jesus turns the conversation into a "teaching moment." What's evident is that though the disciples had seen Jesus break the bread and miraculously satisfy the physical hunger of the multitudes, they hadn't yet seen Jesus for who he really was. "Do you not yet understand?" Jesus asks them.

Once they reach their destination Jesus continues the teachable moment with another miraculous demonstration that pointed to a spiritual reality -- the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. He leads the poor man outside the village; apparently to drive home the point that the primary audience for this miracle was the twelve. Rather than fully restore the man's sight in one fell swoop Jesus performs a two-stage healing involving some spit on the eyes and laying on of hands. Throughout the gospels the disciples' spiritual sight is like that of this man's before Jesus finishes the job -- "I see men, but they look like trees, walking." Rather comic, isn't it?

Certainly, for those original disciples, seeing Jesus and the reality of his kingdom was a process. Even Simon Peter's stunning flash of realization at Caesarea Philippi ("You are the Christ") was followed by an equally stunning moment of blindness to which Jesus responds: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man."

Later on, after the events foretold by Jesus had taken place, some other disciples encountered a stranger on the way to a village called Emmaus. This stranger expounded the Scriptures in a way they had never heard before. But that wasn't enough. It still hadn't dawned on them who he was. It wasn't until he blessed and broke bread that "their eyes were opened and they recognized him." (Luke 24:30-31) Once again Christ revealed himself through the breaking of bread.

Jesus still comes to his disciples in the guise of bread. Every time the bread is broken in the Lord's Supper he's present in a mysterious yet real way. Jesus knew that the teaching of the word isn't enough. Because of our weak faith we need something more tangible, and he gives it to us in the bread and wine of holy communion. (If you're part of a church where the sacrament isn't a regular frequent part of worship you might want to ask your leadership why not.) Like those first disciples, once our eyes were kept from recognizing him, but now the Spirit gives us the eyes of faith to see. . . and believe.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Listening to Brian

I first heard Jake Warga's taped conversation with his college friend Brian on This American Life. It's one of the most haunting things I've ever heard on the radio. Here's TAL's description:

This story wasn't originally made to broadcast on a radio show. It's a tape made by a guy named Jake Warga, who'd never put anything together for radio. He made it to give to his friend Brian, who wanted to kill himself. After Brian tried to overdose, Jake took him out to a park bench to talk, and brought along a recorder. Later, Jake decided to edit the conversation down and give it to Brian as a gift, hoping that if Brian heard what he was saying, if he heard how he sounded, it might stop him from trying again.

I tracked down the original piece which is slightly different than the version aired on TAL. The link is below. Among other things Brian talks about his Lutheran upbringing, his fears about life after death, views on sin and forgiveness, and the limits of self-motivation. "As my therapist says -- it has to come from within. There doesn't feel like there's much within. You know."

Listen here

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Republocrat: Chapter 5 "Rulers of the Queen's Navee"

I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party's call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!

- "Sir Joseph Porter's Song" from H.M.S. Pinafore

Carl Trueman's been known to quote Rush on occasion -- that's Rush the Canadian rock trio not the voice of the EIB network -- but in the final chapter of Republocrat he quotes Gilbert & Sullivan to illustrate an approach to politics that eschews thoughtful analysis in favor of sloganeering and reductionistic arguments. Politics, especially party politics in a representative democracy, is a messy business that more often than not involves the art of compromise. Most political issues resist easy analysis, and rare is the politician that consistently puts principle first.

In light of all this Christians should be wary of uncritically hitching their wagon to any political party or platform. Trueman isn't saying that believers should give up on politics out of cynicism or despair. Far from it. Christians, especially, should "set good examples of civic engagement", an important part of which is voting.

Indeed, I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p. 83)

Thoughtful and realistic political engagement means being aware of several prominent cultural forces that shape contemporary Western politics. As described by Trueman they are (and here I'm quoting his section headings) 1. The rise of aesthetics and the decline of discourse 2. Never mind the argument, tell me a good story 3. It's not the economy, it's character and rhetoric, stupid!

I won't rehash his arguments -- since it's time to put this series of posts out if its misery! -- but suffice to say several figures beloved of conservatives and one or two beloved of liberals are cited in examples of how politics in the age of 30-second ads and sound bites has become something of a joke. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud lines in this chapter, including Trueman's description of Sarah Palin's embarrassing 2008 interview with Katie Couric as "the equivalent of being savaged to death on live television by a teddy bear." Apparently the author isn't a fan of Mama Grizzly.

This book deeply resonated with me, though if I'd read it ten years ago my reaction probably would have been much different. Over the years I've grown more politically moderate (maybe even liberal) at the same time I've grown more theologically conservative. One of the reasons Trueman decided to write Republocrat was to present an alternative to younger believers who risk being alienated from the church by the linkage of conservative party politics and evangelical Christianity. Trueman wants you to realize that abandoning the agenda of the GOP or Christian Coalition doesn't mean you have to abandon the faith once delivered. Plenty of saints throughout history have remained in the orthodox faith while holding wildly divergent political views. Indeed, the very categories we use to describe our political beliefs are products of our own narrow historical context.

I'll end with the quote from Vaclav Havel that Trueman ends the book with. These inspiring lines are a reminder that politics, messy though it may be, is a noble calling. Whether you call yourself a conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat -- or none of the above -- I hope you agree.

Genuine politics—even politics worthy of the name—the only politics I am willing to devote myself to—is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole. (p. 110)

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

Monday, January 3, 2011

One-point Calvinism. Grace!

A major aim of Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K.A. Smith is to make the case that Calvinism is more than soteriology. The subtitle is key -- this book is an invitation to a tradition that's not reducible to five points, or an acronym. More on that later. That being said, I really like the elegant and concise way Smith explains the Reformed (and I believe biblical) doctrine of salvation.

God's revelation in the Scriptures indicates the radical inability of the sinner to "choose the Good" (as philosophers put it). In fact, the Scriptures describe the sinful human being as "dead" (Eph. 2:1), and, as you know, corpses have no abilities. In other words, the effect of sin is such that, while human creatures remain structured in such a way that they still desire God, that structure is perverted and misdirected toward aspects of the creation rather than toward the Creator (see Rom. 1:21-32). This creational structure—this desire for God—can only be properly re-directed by God himself. What this requires, then, is for God to restore and renew and, in a sense, re-create (2 Cor. 5:17). So when Paul continues in Ephesians 2, he chooses his words very carefully: because we were dead, and lacked the ability to choose God as our proper end, God "made us alive" (Eph. 2:4-6). Note that God is the actor in this sentence, not us. Because we were dead, it could only be "by grace" that we have been saved through faith, and that, we are told, is not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8). What does that mean? Very simply, salvation is a gift—and not just the "objective" work of Christ on the cross, but also the "subjective" appropriation of that work by faith: salvation in its totality. This has to be the case because, for a "dead" sinner, such faith is impossible.

All of this is a testimony to God's grace, not only because it is a gift, but also because God didn't have to do it. As a Pascalian dictum so aptly puts it, "God owes us nothing." That's pretty close to a motto of Calvinism, to which I might add the correlative line: "Everything is a gift." (pp. 16-7)

Often people get stuck on difficult concepts like "predestination" and "election" and "reprobation" (and Smith goes on to discuss those briefly), but what it all boils down to is grace, radical grace, from first to last.

Little scientists

We take it for granted that young children are perpetually "getting into things." In fact, a major job for caregivers is to keep this instinct for getting into such things as plugs and electrical fans from causing harm. As a do-it-yourself exercise in developmental psychology, find any child between one and two, and simply watch her play with her toys for half an hour. Then count up the number of experiments you see—any child will put the most productive scientist to shame.

But when you think about it more closely this is a very odd thing for children to do. They don't get into things in order to satisfy their immediate needs; their immediate needs are taken care of by adults. Why do young children expend so much energy and time, even putting their own safety at risk? It makes perfect sense, though, if you think of toddlers as causal learning machines. Experimentation is one of the best ways of discovering new causes and their effects and understanding the causes you've already observed. The Mars rovers, perhaps the most dramatic recent discovery machines, get into everything too.

By the way, if you're interested in doing the exercise, my wife and I are looking for babysitters for our 2-year-old.

Quote from Alison Gopnik, The Philosophical Baby (New York: Picador, 2010) p. 91