Friday, July 29, 2011

I'll have extra cheese with my harangue

As political theater it would be hard to top the goings-on at the Capitol yesterday. I had to laugh out loud at this recap of House Speaker John Boehner's attempt to round up votes for his debt ceiling plan. As reported by Jennifer Steinhauer and Robert Pear of The New York Times:

After two hours of impassioned debate, the Capitol was braced for the grand finale of Speaker John A. Boehner’s days of strong-arming members on the most important vote of his Congressional career. Suddenly, with no warning and just minutes from a vote Thursday evening, the conversation on the House floor turned to naming post offices.

Thus began the great pizza seduction. One after another, recalcitrant Republicans were marched into Mr. Boehner’s office, where he begged, implored and, when that failed, berated them in a desperate effort to win support for his proposal to resolve the debt crisis.

Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House whip, bought a pile of pizzas, and asked those members who were against the bill to come on over for a slice, and some haranguing.

The speaker was forced to delay the vote on Thursday on his debt ceiling bill, when it became clear that his Republican members were not going to put him over the top. Some of those who left Mr. Boehner’s office looked stricken, but said they were unyielding. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas emerged, saying he was “a bloody, beaten-down no.”

. . . .

The whipping effort had begun early in the week, and included pizza parties and one-on-one meetings with freshmen, cellphone calls and text messages from Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader, and nice dinners over wine.

On Thursday, Mr. Boehner and his leadership team continued to press their case long before the bill was pulled, Mr. Boehner emerged from his ceremonial office to a sea of reporters, whom he met with a mild curse, grabbed members from the floor and marched them through the speaker’s lobby in full view of their colleagues for a talking-to back in his den.

When Representative Chuck Fleischmann, Republican of Tennessee, came out, he did not look as though he had been picnicking. . .

My sympathies are with Mr. Boehner, but if I had to choose my favorite politician right now it would be the independent senator from Vermont. His floor speech on Wednesday was so good I watched it twice. He is a voice in the wilderness. Alas, on other issues me and Bernie wouldn't agree, and so I still await my ideal candidate -- someone with the social conservatism of Tom Coburn and the economic populism of Bernie Sanders.

I have a feeling I'll be waiting a long time.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

John Stott finishes his race

I just heard the news that John Stott died at age 90. Stott was a faithful minister of the gospel, theologian, and contender for orthodox Christianity at a time when many of his contemporaries were abandoning the "faith once delivered to the saints." He was probably the most influential English-speaking evangelical of the 20th century despite not being known widely outside the UK. Christianity Today says that he "shaped the faith of a generation." Stott never married, but he was a spiritual father and mentor to many, including my own pastor. He spent the last few years living quietly in a retirement home. His legacy lives on in the lives of those who came to faith in Christ as a result of his ministry. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Here are some quotes from Stott's essential book The Cross of Christ. On the necessity of the cross. . .

Our insistence that according to the gospel the cross of Christ is the only ground on which God forgives sin bewilders many people. "Why should our forgiveness depend on Christ's death?" they ask. "Why does God not simply forgive us, without the necessity of the cross? . . . It sounds like a primitive superstition that modern people should long since have discarded."

The crucial question we should ask, therefore, is a different one. It is not why God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible at all. As Emil Brunner put it, "Forgiveness is the very opposite of anything which can be taken for granted. Nothing is less obvious than forgiveness." Or, in the words of Carnegie Simpson, "forgiveness is to man the plainest of duties; to God it is the profoundest of problems."

The problem of forgiveness is constituted by the inevitable collision between divine perfection and human rebellion, between God as he is and us as we are. The obstacle to forgiveness is neither our sin alone nor our guilt alone, but the divine reaction in love and wrath toward guilty sinners. For, although indeed "God is love", yet we have to remember that his love is "holy love", love which yearns over sinners while at the same time refusing to condone their sin.

All inadequate doctrines of the atonement are due to inadequate doctrines of God and humanity. If we bring God down to our level and raise ourselves to his, then of course we see no need for a radical salvation, let alone for a radical atonement to secure it. When, on the other hand, we have glimpsed the blinding glory of the holiness of God and have been so convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit that we tremble before God and acknowledge that we are, namely "hell-deserving sinners," then and only then does the necessity of the cross appear so obvious that we are astonished we never saw it before.

A little perspective

While we fuss and fume about the gridlock in Washington hundreds of thousands across the Horn of Africa are in a life or death search to find food and water in the face of a catastrophic drought. I'm not saying the debt debate isn't important. . . well, you know what I'm saying.

Photo of Somali refugees carrying their sick children to a MSF (Doctors Without Borders) feeding center.

More photos and info here

Monday, July 25, 2011

Norway's 9/11

I don't have time to write more than a few lines on the cowardly mass murder carried out in Norway. For the citizens of that fair country July 22 will have the same significance as September 11 has for us.

I'm happy to see that the initial reports labeling this homegrown terrorist as a "Christian fundamentalist" are giving way to the fullness of the facts. I have little interest in defending the term "fundamentalist" but to call this guy a Christian of any definition is a slander. The media seized on some sketchy info from a Facebook profile and immediately ran with it. Of course, this was after many media outlets already had egg on their face for jumping to the conclusion that this was Islamic terrorism. I'll admit I made the same assumption on Friday morning when the first surreal images of bombed out buildings in downtown Oslo came across. The greater horror of what was happening 20 miles away -- and that it was being carried out by a Norwegian -- had yet to be discovered. As far as the rush to connect these acts to a Christian extremist I think Mollie Hemingway has the definitive response.

What's emerging instead is a portrait of someone who doesn't really have a coherent political ideology or religious belief beyond unfocused hatred of Muslims and fears about "multiculturalism" (there is a legitimate case to be made against mass immigration and multiculturalism -- see Ross Douthat's Sunday column). I guess in Anders Brievik's twisted mind slaughtering your own countrymen and women was a way to strike a blow against Islam. More than anything he strikes me as an incorrigible narcissist; spending hours alone in his room on the internet airing his grievances against a society that gave him so much. Look at the ridiculous photos and the hundreds of pages of ponderous "manifesto". Once again we're reminded of the banality of evil. And for what it's worth -- Brievik wasn't a member of some exploited or marginalized group. Like the Arab hijackers of 9/11 he was a well-educated child of affluent parents.

There's a part of me that would rejoice to see him taken out at dawn and shot, but that won't happen since Norway doesn't have the death penalty. Call that humane or naive, but he will have it to thank for whatever remaining years of life he has. Then again, a more just fate might be spending decades peering into the abyss of darkness from which his deeds originated. Hopefully this will happen after a speedy trial in which he has no more opportunity to garner the attention he so obviously craves.

God bless Norway and may she look to Him in faith!

UPDATED: Good post by Michael Horton

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What's the point of beauty?

Jonah Lehrer speculates:

But why does beauty exist? What’s the point of marveling at a Rembrandt self portrait or a Bach fugue? To paraphrase Auden, beauty makes nothing happen. Unlike our more primal indulgences, the pleasure of perceiving beauty doesn’t ensure that we consume calories or procreate. Rather, the only thing beauty guarantees is that we’ll stare for too long at some lovely looking thing. Museums are not exactly adaptive.

Here’s my (extremely speculative) theory: Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out. Art hijacks this ancient instinct: If we’re looking at a Rothko, that twinge of beauty in the mOFC is telling us that this painting isn’t just a blob of color; if we’re listening to a Beethoven symphony, the feeling of beauty keeps us fixated on the notes, trying to find the underlying pattern; if we’re reading a poem, a particularly beautiful line slows down our reading, so that we might pause and figure out what the line actually means. Put another way, beauty is a motivational force that helps modulate conscious awareness. The problem beauty solves is the problem of trying to figure out which sensations are worth making sense of and which ones can be easily ignored.

. . . .

I see beauty as a form of curiosity that exists in response to sensation, and not just information. It’s what happens when we see something and, even though we can’t explain why, want to see more. But here’s the interesting bit: the hook of beauty, like the hook of curiosity, is a response to an incompleteness. It’s what happens when we sense something missing, when there’s a unresolved gap, when a pattern is almost there, but not quite. I’m thinking here of that wise Leonard Cohen line: “There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Well, a beautiful thing has been cracked in just the right way.

Lehrer, always worth reading, is on to something. His musings lead me to ask: What is the missing 'something'? Where is the resolution? Where does completeness lie? And jumping off from Leonard Cohen -- Where does that light come from? All this gives me an excuse to quote C.S. Lewis (and I don't need much of an excuse to do that!).

"The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited." (Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life)

So. What then is the point of beauty?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I'd rather be ruled by a competent [fill in the blank]

Fox News talking head Ainsley Earhardt has gotten herself into some hot water for declaring on teevee that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney isn't a Christian. The Christian Post reports the details here.

My response is that unless Ms. Earhardt is an authorized officer of a Christian church examining Romney's fitness to be a member, then, speculations about the genuineness of his faith in Christ are beside the point. On the other hand maybe she's reacting against those who confuse traditional family values and social conservatism with Christianity, in which case it's worth repeating that Mormonism -- in spite of its wholesome characteristics -- is indeed a false gospel by any New Testament definition.

But. If Governor Romney turns out to the best candidate I'll have no problem casting my vote for him despite our theological differences. On this one I'll let Martin Luther have the last word. "I would rather be ruled by a competent Turk (i.e., Muslim) than an incompetent Christian."

Dinner party on the 405

In case you haven't seen this. . .

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mark Galli on the "most risky profession"

Christianity Today editor Mark Galli has written a spot-on analysis in response to the C.J. Mahaney leave of absence, etc. I believe he pinpoints many of the unhealthy things that are bound to occur when we expect our pastor to be a CEO/charismatic motivational speaker, instead of a shepherd, which is in fact how the New Testament describes the office. Galli's basic point is that these expectations leave pastors much more vulnerable to the sins of hypocrisy and pride -- sins that Jesus most vociferously condemned.

Here's an excerpt:

The modern American church is very much a product of its culture—we're an optimistic, world-reforming, busy, and ambitious lot, we Americans. In business, that means creating a better widget, and lots of them, and thus growing larger and larger corporations. In religion, that means helping more souls, and along the way, building bigger and better churches. Alexis de Tocqueville marveled in the 1830s how American Christians seemed so blasé about doctrine compared to their enthusiasm for good works. Religious busyness will be with us always, it seems.

Translate that into church life, and we find that American churches exalt and isolate their leaders almost by design. Our ambitious churches lust after size—American churches don't feel good about themselves unless they are growing. We justify church growth with spiritual language—concern for the lost and so forth. But much of the time, it's American institutional self-esteem that is on the line. This is an audacious and unprovable statement, I grant, but given human nature (the way motives become terribly mixed in that desperately wicked human heart) and personal experience, I will stick to it.

With this addiction to growth comes a host of behavioral tics, such as a fascination with numbers. The larger the church, the more those who attend become stats, "attenders" to be counted and measured against previous weeks. Pastoral leaders are judged mostly on their ability to enlarge their ministries. It's not long before we have to rely on "systems" to track and follow newcomers. It is the rare church now that can depend on members naturally noticing newcomers, or on their reaching out to them with simple hospitality. That has become the job of a committee, which is overseen by a staff member. With increasing size comes an increasing temptation to confuse evangelism with marketing, the remarkably efficient and effective if impersonal science of getting people in the doors.

With the longing for size comes a commitment to efficiency. No longer is it a good use of the head pastor's time to visit the sick or give spiritual counsel to individuals. Better for him to make use of his "gift mix," which usually has little to do with the word pastor—or shepherd, the biblical word for this position. Instead, he has been hired for his ability to manage the workings of large and complex institutions. The bigger the church, the less he works with common members and mostly with staff and the church board. To successfully manage a large church, one must be on top of all the details of that institution. This doesn't necessarily mean directly micromanaging things, but it certainly means to do so indirectly. The large church pastor may not personally tell the nursery volunteers to repaint the 2–3 year-old room, but when he notices a spot of peeling paint as he passes by, the pastor will tell someone who will tell someone, and it will get done in short order.

I think you'll find the whole piece thought-provoking. I'm thankful to be part of a church where the pastors still spend a good deal of their time visiting the sick and shepherding individual members of the flock. Nevertheless, the temptation is still there -- even in smaller churches -- to succumb to the imperatives of worldly success. Which is why Galli's other main point is so good -- we should be praying, praying, praying for our pastors! The enemy is just as happy to take down a pastor thru pride as he is to take them down thru sexual or financial scandal.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Why loving our neighbor is harder (Chesterton)

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain. He is Man, the most terrible of the beasts. That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one's duty towards humanity, but one's duty towards one's neighbour. The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. . . . We may be so made as to be particularly fond of lunatics or specially interested in leprosy. We may love negroes because they are black or German Socialists because they are pedantic. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there—a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given to us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

Quote from Heretics, "On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family"

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Casey Anthony, narcissism and the gospel

Like everyone else I was surprised at the not guilty verdicts rendered in the Casey Anthony trial, though I didn't follow the proceedings closely enough to judge whether there was "reasonable doubt" to justify the jury's decision. What little I know of the case comes from the occasional newspaper article and from overhearing conversations of others who did follow the trial religiously. That being said I'll venture a few comments.

Justice has not been served on behalf of this little girl victimized on many levels by those to whom she was entrusted. It seems to me this is a case where the sins of the fathers were passed down, and wherever the truth lies, it's hard for me to believe the defendant's parents are completely innocent. The whole family situation is one of brokenness and dysfunction. The dark side of American suburbia was on display in this trial. Tragically, the truth of what happened to a precious child remains hidden in a web of lies.

Whether she murdered her daughter or not (and I suspect she did) Casey Anthony's ultimate goal in life was personal happiness, and her defining characteristic was narcissism. In this way she's emblematic of our society. Perhaps some of the vitriol directed her way is a subtle form of self-loathing? This is clear in the notorious diary entry; the timing of which was a point of dispute in the trial.

I have no regrets, just a bit worried. I just want for everything to work out okay.

I completely trust my own judgement & know that I made the right decision. I just hope that the end justifies the means.

I just want to know what the future will hold for me. I guess I will soon see -- This is the happiest that I have been in a very long time.

I hope that my happiness will continue to grow -- I've made new friends that I really like. I've surrounded myself with good people -- I am finally happy. Let's just hope that it doesn't change.

Wow, that reads like a manifesto for our age. The self as God, and happiness as the ultimate good -- man's original sin. The paradoxical thing about that way of life is that it's a dead end. Jesus said it best. . .

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.


Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

What good news this is! That I can lay down the heavy burden of self at the foot of Jesus. That I can give up this fruitless quest to create my own happiness. The gospel is for narcissists. Narcissists like Casey Anthony. And narcissists like me.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Important words for the church

John Piper:

My sense is that we do not realize what a calamity is happening around us. The new thing—new for America, and new for history—is not homosexuality. That brokenness has been here since we were all broken in the fall of man. (And there is a great distinction between the orientation and the act—just like there is a great difference between my orientation to pride and the act of boasting.)

What’s new is not even the celebration of homosexual sin. Homosexual behavior has been exploited, and reveled in, and celebrated in art, for millennia. What’s new is normalization and institutionalization. This is the new calamity.

My main reason for writing is not to mount a political counter-assault. I don’t think that is the calling of the church as such. My reason for writing is to help the church feel the sorrow of these days. And the magnitude of the assault on God and his image in man.

Christians, more clearly than others, can see the tidal wave of pain that is on the way. . .

“My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.” Psalm 119:136