Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Controlling principles

The controlling principle of fire is that fire will keep burning until it's extinguished. As long as there is fuel a fire won't go out on its own. It has to be acted upon. Either you take away its fuel or you pour water on it. The same is true of sin. Sin won't "go out" on its own.

James uses the metaphor of conception and childbirth to describe sin's natural progression.

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:14-15

John Owen:

Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins. . . . Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head.

Is Owen being hyperbolic? I don't think so. "Be killing sin or it will be killing you," he writes. These are scary warnings from the inspired apostle and the Puritan pastor. They should cause us to be more diligent in "killing sin". Sin's ultimate goal and outcome is death. The good news is that by the Spirit's power the child of God will win the fight against sin, and the Spirit's controlling principle is life.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Romans 8:13

Quote from Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, pp. 52-3 of this edition

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What it does and doesn't mean to say that Jesus is the only way

I take at face value Jesus's claim -- in John 14:6 and elsewhere -- to be the way not a way. Quoting Kevin DeYoung this means that I believe:

1) The saving work of Jesus is the only way to be saved.

2) Putting faith in Jesus is the only way to appropriate that saving work.

There in a nutshell is the position that's often called "exclusivism." It's been the majority opinion of the Christian church down through history, though Rob Bell and others are right to point out that there have been differences of opinion. Other Christians have held to positions that usually fall under the headings "universalism" (everyone will be saved in the end) and "inclusivism" (explicit knowledge of and faith in Christ isn't necessary to be saved). Frankly, there are good arguments for some form of inclusivism, and I wouldn't want to put limits on the extent of God's saving grace. However, I can't escape the compelling and overwhelming Scriptural evidence that there is salvation in no other name but Jesus. What God may do in extraordinary cases is beyond me. I like how Michael Horton puts it:

As in all theological questions, we must restrain our curiosity and refuse to speculate beyond God's own instruction. Apart from God's self-disclosure in Scripture, we do not know what God has ordained from all of eternity. Whatever God might choose to do in any given case, he has promised to save all of those—and only those—who call on the name of his Son. (The Christian Faith, p. 983)

Going back to the exclusivist position I think it's fair to say that it's been caricatured by its opponents. I haven't read the Rob Bell book that's caused so much controversy, but I've read enough excerpts and heard enough interviews to conclude that Pastor Bell is spending a lot of time attacking straw men (and exorcising the ghosts of his cramped fundamentalist upbringing). For that reason I found this post by the aforementioned Kevin DeYoung very refreshing because it clarifies what exclusivism isn't. You can read the whole thing, but here are his four main points.

In saying that Jesus is the only way. . .

1. I am not saying there is nothing decent or honorable in other religions or in people from other religions.

2. I am not saying that Christianity is nothing more than saying the right prayer.

3. I am not saying that children who die at a young age, or those mentally incapable of expressing faith, cannot be saved.

4. I am not saying that unbelievers are punished because they did not put faith in a Jesus they never heard of.

We can debate the fate of the millions who haven't heard the gospel, but I'm certain that those of us who have heard are without excuse.

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Doctrine and drama

Thanks to Zondervan for making available the Introduction and Chapter 29 (The Last Battle and Life Everlasting) of Michael Horton's new systematic theology for pilgrims (pdf). This volume will be on my shelf eventually, but for now it's good to have a free appetizer.

Dr. Horton writes in the introduction that theology (the study of God) and doctrine (teaching) are central concerns of every believer. "The baptized are privileged and obligated to learn the language of Zion." (p. 24) Riffing on Dorothy Sayers ("the dogma is the drama") he presents the study of theology as essential to locating ourselves in the still unfolding greatest story ever told. Why is this important? It's in this theo-drama that Christians find their very identity amidst all the competing stories that the world offers.

Created in God's image yet fallen into sin, we have our identity shaped by the movement of this dramatic story from promise to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. This drama also has its powerful props, such as preaching, baptism, and the Supper—the means by which we are no longer spectators but are actually included in the cast. Having exchanged our rags for the riches of Christ's righteousness, we now find our identity "in Christ." Instead of God being a supporting actor in our life story, we become part of the cast that the Spirit is recruiting for God's drama. (p. 19)

The drama of theology should lead us in a natural progression to doxology and discipleship. Horton sets out to erase the false dichotomy prevalent in contemporary evangelical Christianity between doctrine vs. life/theology vs. discipleship/knowing vs. doing. (p. 14) "Deeds not creeds" is a catchy slogan, but it leads to empty moralism. On the flip side, mere knowledge -- doctrine that doesn't lead to doxology and discipleship -- doesn't honor God or equip us to love our neighbor. Being a faithful disciple is more than being a student (Latin: discipulus) but it's never less.

Merely imitating Christ's example is different from being united to Christ through faith, bearing the fruit of his resurrection life. It is the creed that gives rise to praise and therefore to informed and heartfelt love, service, and witness to our neighbors in the world. Doctrine severed from practice is dead; practice severed from doctrine is just another form of self-salvation and self-improvement. A disciple of Christ is a student of theology. (p. 24)

If we're in a personal relationship with someone we'll want to know more about their character, what they've done in the past, and their plans for the future. This is true of a spouse or friend, and it should be true of our relationship with God. This is exactly what theology is for. The Christian Faith looks to be a challenging book, but one that's accessible to the average reader. This is a systematic theology for the whole church.

BTW if you're interested the Westminster Bookstore has it at a whopping 41% off retail.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why do we let our daughters dress like prostitutes? (Jennifer Moses)

Good question! Though I don't have daughters (yet) it's one I've wondered about myself. Walking through the mall or our local college campus (Christian btw) I'm struck by the similarity of female attire to what one sees on the women plying their trade on Broadway a few blocks from where I live. Short shorts, miniskirts and plunging necklines have become elements of the standard kit. Maybe I'm turning into a middle-aged curmudgeon, but the trend leaves me frequently muttering to myself, "you gotta be kidding."

Author and mom Jennifer Moses writes on this in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:

Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this—like prostitutes, if we're being honest with ourselves—but pay for them to do it with our AmEx cards?

I posed this question to a friend whose teenage daughter goes to an all-girls private school in New York. "It isn't that different from when we were kids," she said. "The girls in the sexy clothes are the fast girls. They'll have Facebook pictures of themselves opening a bottle of Champagne, like Paris Hilton. And sometimes the moms and dads are out there contributing to it, shopping with them, throwing them parties at clubs. It's almost like they're saying, 'Look how hot my daughter is.'" But why? "I think it's a bonding thing," she said. "It starts with the mommy-daughter manicure and goes on from there."

I have a different theory. It has to do with how conflicted my own generation of women is about our own past, when many of us behaved in ways that we now regret. A woman I know, with two mature daughters, said, "If I could do it again, I wouldn't even have slept with my own husband before marriage. Sex is the most powerful thing there is, and our generation, what did we know?"

We are the first moms in history to have grown up with widely available birth control, the first who didn't have to worry about getting knocked up. We were also the first not only to be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputations but actually pressured by our peers and the wider culture to find our true womanhood in the bedroom. Not all of us are former good-time girls now drowning in regret—I know women of my generation who waited until marriage—but that's certainly the norm among my peers.

So here we are, the feminist and postfeminist and postpill generation. We somehow survived our own teen and college years (except for those who didn't), and now, with the exception of some Mormons, evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, scads of us don't know how to teach our own sons and daughters not to give away their bodies so readily. We're embarrassed, and we don't want to be, God forbid, hypocrites.

Still, in my own circle of girlfriends, the desire to push back is strong. I don't know one of them who doesn't have feelings of lingering discomfort regarding her own sexual past. And not one woman I've ever asked about the subject has said that she wishes she'd "experimented" more.

This self-confessed "New Millenium Mom" concludes. . .

We wouldn't dream of dropping our daughters off at college and saying: "Study hard and floss every night, honey—and for heaven's sake, get laid!" But that's essentially what we're saying by allowing them to dress the way they do while they're still living under our own roofs.

This is an excellent and honest piece. Read the whole thing. Though I agree with a point made by Justin Taylor -- which is that the missing element in her analysis is the role of men and dads in all of this. Lord knows I'm not a neo-Victorian, but seems to me the spiritual, emotional and aesthetic health of our society demands the "push-back" called for by Moses.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Desire, pork-chops & heaven (Chesterton)

The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and for ever spoilt for all purposes of science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this mortal has put on immortality. Even what we call our material desires are spiritual, because they are human. Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man's wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man's desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven.

Quote from Heretics ("Science and the Savages"), pp. 61-2 of this edition

Monday, March 21, 2011

Inside Job (dir. Charles Ferguson, 2010)

I watched Inside Job over the weekend (trailer below). In a down year for documentaries this one won the Academy Award. It's a good, not great, film. Done in conventional documentary style with lots of talking head interviews and earnest voice-over supplied by Matt Damon (which gets to be a bit tiresome) it does a good job of explaining how the Wall Street Big 5 and their enablers at the rating agencies destroyed the housing market and brought the global economy to its knees with acronyms (MBS's, CDO's, etc). Guess what? It wasn't an accident. They were warned. And people should have went to jail.

The film begins with a prologue on the bankruptcy of an entire nation -- Iceland -- which acts as a case study for what happens when banks are given a blank check by their supposed overseers. Human nature being what it is, the temptation to get rich gambling with other people's money proved irresistible. Private gain at public risk turned into private gain at public loss. Much the same thing happened on Wall Street with disastrous consequences for American taxpayers and homeowners.

Yes, Inside Job has an idealogical axe to grind, but in this case I think the grinding is justified. To wit, that systematic deregulation, and the revolving door of key players from Republican AND Democratic administrations to academia and the boards of these Wall Street firms (and back again) led to what happened. This was a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house, and the biggest foxes got away with their $$$. In some cases they even got to be Secretary of the Treasury.

The filmmakers properly point out that the U.S. didn't have a major financial crisis for 40 years after the Great Depression. It wasn't until capital requirements and regulations on banks and investment houses began to be loosened that we had a string of costly disasters beginning with the the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Of course, the 125 billion cost of that failure is chump change compared to the trillions lost in 2008. The scary thing is that nothing has really changed so something similar could happen again.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Anselm's prayer

I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.

From St. Anselm, Proslogium and Monologium as quoted by Michael Horton in The Christian Faith, p. 23

Friday, March 18, 2011

Letter to Benjamin on your baptism

Dear Benjamin,

On Sunday you will be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Ancient words will be spoken over you, words that signify entrance into an eternal Kingdom, a Kingdom based on love and mercy. Just as you will carry the name that mommy and I gave you for the rest of your life; even though you had nothing to do with choosing it, so you will carry the mark of baptism; even though you didn't have anything to do with the decision to be baptized. In fact, you won't even remember it! By presenting you for baptism mommy and I are publicly affirming that it's God who has the first word as to your eternal destiny. Your baptism marks a beginning not an end.

There are some who sincerely believe, based on their understanding of the Bible, that you shouldn't be baptized because you're too young to make a profession of faith. Others misunderstand baptism as being a guarantee of salvation. Mommy and I believe, based on our understanding of Scripture, that the infant children of Christian parents have a special status, are set apart, and should be welcomed into the visible covenant community called the church (what the Apostle Paul called "the Israel of God") by the sign and seal of baptism. We also believe baptism is primarily a demonstration of God’s action not our action. We’re thankful to be members of a church, and part of a faith tradition, that grants you the privilege of receiving this sacrament.

We also understand that baptism doesn't save anyone, child or adult, apart from faith in Christ. Though what will happen on Sunday is not a guarantee of your salvation, it's more than symbolic, and it's more than merely a rite of dedication. Just as our Lord and Savior promises grace through the common elements of bread and wine at his table, so the grace of baptism is tied to the common element of water by the promises of God's Word.

Our church's confession of faith tells us that the effectiveness of baptism isn’t tied to the moment in time it happens. And so our passionate prayer is that you will turn to Christ in faith and repentance as soon as you're old enough to understand your need for a Savior, and that you'll grow up never remembering a time when you didn't believe in him. That's why we sing you songs about Jesus even though you're too young to understand the words. Your baptism will remind us that the God whose steadfast love reaches from generation to generation often works through families to carry out his saving purposes.

In a way your baptism day has “snuck up” on us. We vividly remember the day your big brother was baptized, and it's still hard to believe that only two years later we’ve been blessed with another son. You’re our little mystery man. We probably haven’t prayed for you as much as we should; since we’ve been so busy with your rambunctious brother and the challenges of our growing family. Nevertheless, we know that God has his hand on you.

Sunday morning mommy and I will stand before the church and make vows to set a godly example before you, teach you the doctrines of the Christian faith, and bring you up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. These are awesome responsibilities, but we intend to carry them out in God's strength. We'll have other helpers too. The members of our family of faith -- of which you will become the newest member -- will also take vows to share in the responsibility for your Christian nurture. You already have a biological family, but tomorrow you'll gain a spiritual family. Membership in that family has privileges, but it also comes with responsibilities. It will be up to us to explain the meaning of those privileges and responsibilities to you as you get older.

When we hand you to the minister it will be symbolic of our giving you back to the Heavenly Father who created you "to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." We pray that you grow up to be "like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither" (by the way I'll teach you Psalm 1 when you get older). Mommy and I have many hopes for you. We hope you never have to go to war. We hope you grow up to live in a more peaceful and just society. We hope you love Old Forge pizza. But our greatest hope is that you'll be counted righteous in Christ and make Heaven your eternal home. We feel unworthy to be your parents, little Ben. We love you more than words can say!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the positive, eliminate the negative (Hart)

I don't always agree with Daryl Hart, but when he's not lobbing "old school Presbyterian" hand grenades at my man Tim Keller he often hits the nail on the head. From a post arguing that a constant drumbeat for revival (i.e. revivalism) breeds an unhelpful discontent toward the ordinary ministry of the local church. . .

To be sure, Christians can be cold and casual about matters of faith. After all, saints are still sinners and so prone to various spiritual afflictions that impede sanctification. But why do churches have to engage in extraordinary ways of displaying their commitment to Christ? Why do evangelistic rallies, intense meetings of small groups, suffusing water cooler banter with God-talk, numerous conversions, or visible displays of piety (such as listening to inferior Christian music) constitute a work of God? Why doesn’t the weekly worship by word and sacrament, or a regular meeting of session, presbytery, or General Assembly count as a work of God’s Spirit? Why can’t genuine Christian piety be ordinary?

In the case of the church, what is ordinary is actually extraordinary. If you start with the supposition that people are sinners and in rebellion against God, and then find a gathering of believers for a worship service, you may actually think that something remarkable has happened in the lives of these people. And if you consider that most Americans don’t know how to sing independently of singing along with the radio or Ipod, and then you see people on Sunday holding hymnals singing praise to God, you may actually be struck by how extraordinary congregational song is. And if you think about the history of the Christian church and recognize how prone she is to error and unfaithfulness, and then you find a communion that is orthodox in its teaching and sane in its worship, you may be tempted to think that you have experienced a taste of heaven.

Well said. It's easy to look around on Sunday morning and find our fellow worshipers, and the worship, lacking. But maybe the problem is our yen for the unusual "mountain-top experience" when God intends instead to shape us through the week-in week-out means of ordinary grace and interactions with the redeemed sinners in the pews around us.

Speaking of session meetings -- of all the lousy luck Florida's first round NCAA tournament game tips off tonight smack dab in the middle of our monthly meeting. I thought about excusing myself, but alas, duty calls. Hopefully the boys in Orange & Blue will take care of business without me. Losing to the Gauchos of UC Santa Barbara would make this an infamous St. Patrick's Day for Gator Nation!

Danny Boy

Scene from Brassed Off (dir. Mark Herman, 1996)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An unusual fast

I just came across a pretty amazing Lenten project. Iowan J. Wilson is following an ancient monastic tradition of fasting from solid food for 46 days while drinking only beer and water. Not just any kind of beer though, Wilson will be getting all his calories from doppelbock beer -- a style developed by Bavarian monks to provide maximum nourishment during their Lenten fasts. For this reason the style came to be known as "liquid bread." This isn't a stunt, and carrying it out will be considerably more difficult than your more typical fasting from meat or sweets. Nor, Wilson makes clear, is it an excuse to go past the bounds of moderation. I think he'd agree with G.K. Chesterton's dictum: "We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them."

Here's Wilson writing at Diary of a Part-time Monk:

I’m a little torn that I’m sharing this experience with you. Matthew 6:16-18 tells us that Jesus fasted in private and in Isaiah 58, the reader is chastised for unrighteous methods/motives.

I’m sure there will be folks out there that question my motives. I thought I’d take this first post to be clear that I simply find this to be an interesting story. When I realized its dimension and difficulty, I decided to blog so others might follow along in real time.

The other edge of that noble sword is that there are blogs and media outlets all over the world that have really jumped on board in the last couple of days. My ugly mug was on the front page of the Des Moines Register on Sunday, and tonight at 6 p.m., I’ll be on KCCI-Channel 8 talking about the project. I’ve fielded a number of requests for interviews and just got off the phone with DRAFT Magazine a while ago.

So I’m out there. From a beer drinker’s perspective, that’s fun, and I’m glad that everyone seems as intrigued as I am.

But this project isn’t about me. It’s a historical study into the lives of these Christian monks centuries ago. I’m just the vessel. I want to be clear about that. I hope beer lovers’ learn something reasonable about Christianity, and I hope Christians learn something reasonable about beer.

You can follow Wilson's journey here. I've also added his blog to the Top Ten list at right.

Martin Bashir 1 Rob Bell 0

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Christ who is (already and forever) there

These stirring words from J. Gresham Machen are all the more powerful in light of recent world events.

We have trusted in Jesus. But how far can we trust Him? Just in this transitory life? Just in this little speck that we call the earth? If we can trust Him only thus far we are of all men most miserable. We are surrounded by stupendous forces; we are surrounded by the immensity of the unknown. After our little span of life there is a shelving brink with the infinite beyond. And still we are subject to fear—not only fear of destruction but a more dreadful fear of meeting with the infinite and holy God.

So we should be if we had but a human Christ. But now is Christ our Saviour, the one who says, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," revealed as very God. And we believe. Such a faith is a mystery to us who possess it; it seems folly to those who have it not. But if possessed it delivers us forever from fear. The world to us is all unknown; it is engulfed in an ocean of infinity. But it contains no mysteries to our Saviour. He is on the throne. He pervades the remotest bounds. He inhabits infinity. With such a Saviour we are safe.


Quote from "What Is the Deity of Christ" in The Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Starting family worship

Last night my wife and I started something we hope will become a daily practice. We had family worship. While Shannon nursed Baby Ben in the recliner, me and 2-year-old Samuel sat on the couch. We read a Psalm, prayed, and "sang" a hymn. The first two elements went smoothly, but the hymn-sing descended into chaos as Sam and I played tug-of-war with the hymnal -- with him shouting I do! I do! I do! -- while I tried to lead us in "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." By verse two mommy was cracking up, and daddy was getting aggravated, so we cut it short. Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy!

I say all that to recommend a couple of helpful articles on this neglected practice from Jason Helopoulos, a PCA pastor in East Lansing. He offers 11 reasons for family worship and 9 practical suggestions for actually doing it. The last one is the most important. Persevere!

Maybe the most important advice for family worship is to persevere in it. There will be moments and even weeks where it seems like a chore and that little fruit is being born: your toddler has trouble sitting still, your teenager complains every night, or the tune keeps getting lost in the middle of singing. Just keep going! You are not alone, and your situation is not unique. Just keep gathering with your family in worship. Perseverance is the best remedy for all these ills. Over the course of time, most of these struggles will be overcome, and fruit that was invisible at the time will begin to show itself in the future.

We'll be gathering again tonight.

Accidental optimists (Trueman)

I'm a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist, and frankly, I believe that's what a Biblically-informed worldview requires. So does Carl Trueman -- as he writes today at the Ref21 blog. I'm in good company.

Read the whole thing, but here's the conclusion:

If we really believe Matt. 16:18, I would suggest that we will not panic with every wind of false doctrine which comes our way, nor will we be intimidated by astronomical sales figures for bad books or tickets to hear false preachers. We will rather focus on what we should be doing: humbly preaching and teaching and believing the word. Sometimes, I suspect the over-the-top panic and outrage of the orthodox when faced by the latest challenge are really functions of self-importance and an impoverished doctrine of God. They seem to imply that our age is unique, the future of Christianity really does depend solely on us, and the church is really jeopardised by the latest heterodox blockbuster.

Such behaviour is the flipside of that which, for example, claimed Mel Gibson's The Passion was the greatest evangelistic opportunity for the church since the resurrection itself, and chided those of us who felt it was, among other things, a breach of the Second Commandment, as fuddy-duddy reactionaries who were hindering the church's outreach and needed to get with the program. It was not; life went back to normal very quickly; and, whatever else Gibson is now known for, it is not for being a great evangelist. Sometimes cynical indifference to the latest thing, good or bad, is actually quite healthy and reflects the reality of Matt. 16:18 in perhaps unexpected ways.

Neither we, nor any of those who oppose the Bible's teaching, are actually that important. The church is not, after all, built on us or our efforts; nor is it in any danger of being annihilated by any human scheme or schemer. And that is enough to make even me into an optimist. Almost by accident, I might add.

Astonishing video from Japan

UPDATED: more amazing video -- this of Tokyo skyscrapers swaying. If not for the engineering that kept these buildings standing thousands more would have lost their lives.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On solitude and silence (Thomas a Kempis)

More good words from The Imitation of Christ . . .

Seek a convenient time to search your own conscience, meditating on the benefits of God. Restrain curiosity; read only those things that will move you to contrition rather than give you distraction.

If you will withdraw from unnecessary talk and useless running about and listening to the latest gossip, you will find the time to occupy yourself in devout meditation. The greatest Saints avoided the company of worldly people as much as possible, for they preferred to be alone with God.

Unless you like solitude, it is not safe for you to appear in public.

No one can be in the lead who is unwilling to remain in the background, and no one can govern with safety who does not know how to obey. No one is truly happy who is aware of an unclean conscience.

It's possible to take this advice to extreme (Jesus sought solitude away from the crowds, but he also hung out with worldly people), however, I doubt if many of us are in danger of loving solitude and silence too much. Admittedly it's hard to find space for quiet contemplation in our noisy society, but how often do we take advantage of the opportunities we do have to experience the benefits of spending time in silent isolation before God?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What are you receiving for Lent?

On this Ash Wednesday Christians from a variety of traditions will begin observing Lent with some form of fasting. My wife comes from a Roman Catholic background. In her experience "giving up something for Lent" was done out of guilt -- and you were made to feel guilty if you didn't participate -- along with an implicit belief that it gained you brownie points with God. I know those aren't the motivations and beliefs of all Catholics, or Protestants, who practice Lenten fasting. But it was her perception, and to this day she has conflicted feelings about it.

Last night I suggested to her that instead of asking the perennial question "What am I giving up for Lent?" we should ask "What am I receiving for Lent?" Scripture calls disciples of Jesus to disciplines of introspection and self-denial, but those practices aren't ends in themselves. Taken that way they can easily lead to legalism and despair. Giving up chocolate, or Facebook, or whatever, to try and assuage our guilt and make God love us more simply doesn't work. Instead, our goal in giving up those things should be to replace them with something more infinitely satisfying, namely Christ.

This is one of the ways the Bible pictures sanctification: the process of becoming increasingly like Jesus -- of living into our status as saints set apart as holy. The Christian life, or sanctification, involves a process of putting off something and putting on something, subtraction and addition. The old theologians used the words mortification and vivification to describe this two-fold process.

Colossians 3:9-10 describes it this way.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Lent is the perfect time to take stock and see how well we're doing in the daily battle to put off the old self and put on the new. This spiritual inventory will definitely involve repentance -- and it may involve giving up some things -- but it's all to the end of receiving something, or more precisely some-one. Whether you come from a tradition where Lent is a big deal, or one where it isn't, I hope these weeks leading up to Easter will be a time of receiving more of Christ -- "who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption." 1 Cor. 1:30

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Bible's view of God vs. deism and pantheism (Machen)

J. Gresham Machen:

The God of the Bible is not just another name for the universe itself, nor is He a name for a spiritual purpose supposed to run through the universe, or for any impersonal principle of goodness. No, He is a person. That much is clear at the start. We shall speak in a subsequent talk of the deeper mystery of the three persons in one God. But at least it is clear that God is personal. He is not a force or a principle or a collective somewhat of which we are parts. He is a person, to whom we can say "Thou," a person who can, if He will, speak to us as a man speaketh to His friend, and who can, if He will, become to us a heavenly Father.

What an awesome thought that the Creator of the cosmos wants to be a friend and father to us!

Quote from "God, the Creator" in The Christian Faith in the Modern World (1936)

Friday, March 4, 2011

How Netflix (and people like me) killed good mainstream movies

As sky-is-falling screeds go Mark Harris's "The Day the Movies Died" in GQ is a fine example. His fundamental point is that mainstream Hollywood is no longer in the business of telling stories. An original story like Christopher Nolan's smash hit Inception is an anomaly, not a foretaste of things to come. I laughed out loud at Harris's description of what we have to look forward to this summer.

. . . let's look ahead to what's on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children's book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.

One of the main culprits, according to Harris, is the cohort of 40-something studio execs for whom Top Gun was their filmic epiphany. Then there are the marketers. Nowadays the main question about a potential project isn't "Is it good", it's "Can we sell it?" The cool poster and marketing campaign comes first, the actual content is something of an afterthought. But there's another group of culprits, another group responsible for the fact that we can look forward to a fifth(!) installment in the The Fast and the Furious franchise.

Blaming the studios for everything lets another culprit off too easily: us. We can complain until we're hoarse that Hollywood abandoned us by ceasing to make the kinds of movies we want to see, but it's just as true that we abandoned Hollywood. Studios make movies for people who go to the movies, and the fact is, we don't go anymore—and by we, I mean the complaining class, of which, if you've read this far, you are absolutely a member. We stay home, and we do it for countless reasons: A trip to the multiplex means paying for parking, a babysitter, and overpriced unhealthy food in order to be trapped in a room with people who refuse to pay for a babysitter, as well as psychos, talkers, line repeaters, texters, cell-phone users, and bedbugs. We can see the movie later, and "later" is pretty soon—on a customized home-theater system or, forget that, just a nice big wide-screen TV, via Netflix, or Amazon streaming, or on-demand, or iPad. The urgency of seeing movies the way they're presumably intended to be seen has given way to the primacy of privacy and the security of knowing that there's really almost no risk of missing a movie you want to see and never having another opportunity to see it. Put simply, we'd rather stay home, and movies are made for people who'd rather go out.

So true. And I plead guilty. Even before kids came along there were precious few movies that compelled me to make the effort to see them on the big screen. After all, I can catch them on DVD later. Want to know why Hollywood isn't primarily in the business of telling stories anymore? Take a trip to your local Muvico on a Friday night. Check out the demographic. Those are the folks Hollywood is making movies for these days.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

"I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us."

Here's video of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti talking about his faith in Jesus and willingness to die for his beliefs. Bhatti was the only Christian cabinet minister in a country where publicly confessing Christ costs something. He was assassinated by Islamic extremists earlier this week (story here).

I wonder. . . would I be so bold?

UPDATE: John Piper tribute to Bhatti

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sweet Smell of Success - Introducing J.J.

Orson Welles coined the phrase "the Mr. Wu device" to describe a dramatic situation where a character is talked about but never seen until well into a play or film. This has the effect of ratcheting up an audience's expectations and increasing the drama when the mysterious character finally makes his appearance. Welles himself played one of the most famous Mr. Wu roles in film history -- Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949). Literary examples include Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. You can probably think of others.

The Mr. Wu device is also used effectively in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster as god-like gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (inspired by Walter Winchell) and Tony Curtis as the sycophantic press agent Sidney Falco. It's a brilliant film on every level. Sweet Smell is one of those happy Hollywood accidents where everything came together -- direction, dialogue, acting, cinematography, music and subtext -- to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

J.J. is cleverly introduced during the jazzy opening credits sequence by showing the top half of his face on the side of trucks delivering the fictional New York Globe newspaper. "Go with the Globe. . . Read J.J. Hunsecker" they advertise in bold letters. However, we must wait until the second reel for J.J. in the flesh. It's a doozy of a scene that showcases the strengths of this film, particularly writer Clifford Odets' quotable dialogue. Lancaster is terrific here, but I think Curtis is even better. Director Alexander Mackendrick placed him behind Lancaster's right shoulder so we get to see J.J.'s verbal daggers register on Sidney's face. This scene should be rated R for violence, though there's never a punch thrown or a drop of blood shed. Enjoy. . .

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wisconsin. Coming to a state near you.

I think David Frum gets it right in his analysis of the dynamics driving the Wisconsin budget showdown between Republican Governor Scott Walker and the state's public sector unions.

What you are watching in Wisconsin is your future.

Since 2007, Americans have lost trillions of dollars in wealth. And ever since, we’ve been arguing about who should pay and who should be protected.

Wisconsin represents the next — and most painful — round of the argument. During the good years, states and cities made retirement promises to their workers. When you total all the promises – and compare them to the money set aside to pay the promises — you reach a gap of more than $1 trillion, according to the Pew Center on the States.

Where did the trillion go? Some was lost in the declining value of investments after the dot-com crash in 2000 and the financial crisis of 2008. Some of the trillion was unexpectedly added as rising health-care costs inflated the projected costs of state-worker retirements. But the largest part of the trillion dollar gap was accumulated by wishful thinking and political cowardice: States making workers happy by promising them payouts in the future, and trying to keep taxpayers happy by neglecting to set aside the necessary funding in the here and the now.

So, now a question: out of whose pockets should that trillion come? Should state workers be disappointed? Or should taxpayers pay?

There’s no ready answer to the question.

State workers have some valid complaints: states made contracts with them, they relied on the contracts, and now they expect the contracts to be honored. But taxpayers have a complaint too: Private-sector workers earn less than government workers. They enjoy less job security. And now they’re expected to pay an unbudgeted extra trillion in taxes to support the superior health and retirement packages of the public sector?

If there’s no ready answer, then how is the issue to be settled?

In the New York Times this week, David Brooks offered a wise ideal: “The cuts have to be spread more or less equitably among as many groups as possible. There will never be public acceptance if large sectors of society are excluded. … [T]here is going to have to be a credible evaluation process to explain why some things are cut and some things aren’t. … The process has to be balanced. It has to make everybody hurt.”

Brooks describes exactly how the job of adjustment should be done. He also is describing exactly how the job won’t be done. The United States is not the country of rational and disinterested decision-making for which Brooks and so many others yearn. Maybe it once was that country, but it is not that country now. As we have seen through the debate over TARP, over stimulus, over healthcare – and now over public-sector pensions — whoever can muster the more powerful interest groups, whoever can mobilize more public anger, that side gets its way.

Bondholders have more muscle than mortgaged homeowners. Seniors have more muscle than the young. Upper-income taxpayers have more muscle than the unemployed.

So those first three groups usually win, and the latter three groups usually lose.

The public-sector workers of Wisconsin have learned that lesson, and they are adapting it. They want to break Gov. Scott Walker before he breaks them. They chant slogans about justice. But there is no justice, there is only muscle. The unions are flexing to test how much muscle they have. The taxpayers of Wisconsin — and all the other states to which this battle will soon come — have no choice but to do the same.

To paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve: "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy decade!" Meanwhile, those of us who don't enjoy financial clout or lavish public sector benefits will continue to get the shaft in a dozen different ways.