Friday, September 30, 2011

Our boys

It's been a while since I posted any pictures of the boys so here goes. Benjamin is 8 months old and follows his big brother all over the house. Samuel is two and a half and attends preschool two mornings a week and he's starting to realize that having a little brother can be fun. Truly, we thank God every day for the gift of these two.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A million dollar friendship

The ancients prized filial love, or friendship, above all the other types of love. C.S. Lewis picks up on this in The Four Loves, and one senses that for Lewis too filial love belonged in a special category. He points out that unlike the more natural loves -- familial (storge) and romantic (eros) -- friendship isn't a necessary part of human survival. Lewis writes, "It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival."

Freud on the other hand viewed friendship with suspicion, believing it to be merely the repression of homosexual or heterosexual eros. In the Freudian universe there's no such thing as "just friends." Our modern society is deeply influenced by Freud so it's not surprising that Hollywood portrayals of unalloyed filial love, particularly between a man and a woman, are few and far between. If there's the possibility of a sexual subtext you can be sure our hyper-sexualized entertainment culture will exploit it. Which brings me to Million Dollar Baby, the 2004 film written by Paul Haggis and directed by Clint Eastwood.

It tells the story of an unlikely relationship between boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (played by Eastwood) and female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald -- a memorable Oscar-winning performance by Hilary Swank. Morgan Freeman plays Dunn's colleague Eddie Dupris "Scrap Iron", and it's through his eyes and voice-over narration that the story is told. Enough time has passed that I don't think I'm spoiling anything by describing the ending of the film, in which Dunn "pulls the plug" on Maggie at her request -- following an injury in the boxing ring which renders her a quadriplegic. When the film came out it was accused by some of being a tract in favor of assisted suicide. In retrospect that was a silly charge. Frankie ends Maggie's life realizing that by doing so he may be damned to a darkness from which he'll never emerge. He's been warned as much in a conversation with his priest (Frankie's conflicted Catholicism is a prominent subtext of Haggis's script). We're not told what happens to Frankie only that he's in a place "somewhere between nowhere and goodbye."

Million Dollar Baby is a boxing picture, but fundamentally it's a most unconventional love story. Yes, Frankie comes to love Maggie like a daughter, but even more as a friend. The film is refreshing in the way it shows the relationship of teacher/student evolving into one of deep filial love unclouded by even a hint of eros. Well, you might say, he's old enough to be her father. True enough, but that's never stopped Hollywood from presenting a view of male/female relationships in which carnal instinct always prevails in the end.

A few nights ago I watched the movie again for the first time in a long while. It's an example of the kind of elegant uncomplicated filmmaking Eastwood the director has become known for. Swank, Eastwood and Freeman are as superb as I remembered, and the movie holds up well, primarily I think because of the beautiful doomed friendship at its heart. Here's the scene where Frankie finally reluctantly agrees to be Maggie's trainer.

Getting the rich off welfare

Who said this?

“We want to stop subsidizing corporations. We want to stop subsidizing wealthy individuals."

"[We should be] focusing the benefits on the people who need it and away from those who need it the least."

Was that a quote from the "socialist" Obama? More class warfare rhetoric from Nancy Pelosi? Nope, that's Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Here's more on Ryan from Marc Thiessen writing in The WashPo.

President Obama is campaigning for reelection by casting Republicans as the party of the rich because they oppose his plan to raise tax rates on wealthy Americans. “If you’ve done well,” Obama declared in Cincinnati last week, “then you should do a little something to give something back.”

One person who agrees with that sentiment is Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee — though not in the way Obama means it. Ryan wants the wealthy to give something back: the billions of dollars in government benefits, taxpayer subsidies and corporate welfare they receive each year and do not need. Instead of raising taxes, which would hurt growth and job creation, Ryan told me: “We want to stop subsidizing corporations. We want to stop subsidizing [wealthy] individuals. And you can get more money for savings to reduce the deficit without damaging the economy this way.”

Call it “soak the rich” economics, GOP-style.

What government spending on the wealthy would Ryan target? “Everything,” he says. He would start with entitlements. The two biggest and fastest-growing areas of federal spending are Social Security and Medicare, both of which provide the richest Americans with growing benefits. To help stabilize both programs, Ryan wants to scale back those benefits for the wealthy. . . .

Ryan's also willing to risk antagonizing another powerful interest group that tends to vote Republican.

Ryan would also means-test farm subsidies. He points out that, while the rest of the economy struggles, the American agricultural sector is booming. Yet the government continues to make agriculture support payments to farmers with joint-incomes as high as $2.5 million. Ryan sees no reason why the federal government should be making direct cash payments to multimillionaires. He would limit agricultural support to those making less than $250,000 and has proposed cutting $30 billion over the next decade in price supports and other agriculture subsidies.

In addition to cutting cash payments to wealthy individuals, Ryan wants to end what he calls “wasteful welfare for corporations such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, big agribusinesses, well-connected energy companies, and others that have gotten a free ride from the taxpayer for too long.” He points out that the president’s stimulus spending bill allocated $80 billion specifically for politically favored renewable energy businesses, such as the now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received $500 million in federal loan guarantees from the Obama administration. “I mean, Solyndra, that’s half a billion dollars in one company,” Ryan says. He would do away with such loan-guarantees and “stop subsidizing businesses with industrial policy and crony capitalism.”

This gives a struggling working person like myself hope that the Republican party hasn't gone completely off the deep end when it comes to fiscal and tax policy. You have to wonder when you see Republicans arguing with a straight face that low and moderate-income people aren't paying their fair share of taxes. The truth is that wealthy individuals and big business have been getting a virtual free ride. While many of us have seen our financial futures going up in smoke they have prospered even more during these recessionary times. Fairness and shared sacrifice are conservative values. Paul Ryan gets that.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I hate 'em!

Where everybody (or at least the pastor) knows your name

Lately, Carl Trueman has been beating the drum pretty hard against the megachurch celebrity pastor syndrome that has become ubiquitous -- even in circles that claim the name Reformed. More specifically, he argues, this approach to ministry isn't consistent with Reformation principles. Since CT is by all accounts a superb historian of the Reformation period I think his warnings are worth considering. He writes as a scholar and a concerned churchman. Here are the concluding paragraphs from his recent article: "Is the Reformation nearly over? Perhaps, but maybe not for the reason you think".

The problem with the way 'Reformed' is often used today is that it divorces certain things (typically the five, or more often, four points of Calvinism) from the overall Reformation vision of pastoral care, church worship, Christian nurture and all-round approach to ministry. The Bible becomes sufficient for the doctrines of grace; but what works, what pulls in the punters, becomes the criterion for everything else, especially ecclesiology and pastoral practice.

I have noted before how grateful I am that my sons grew up in churches where the pastor knew their names, chatted to them after the service and even stood on the occasional touchline or track to cheer them on at school sports events. If they ever abandon the faith, it will not be because they never knew the pastor cared for them as individuals, rather than just as mere concepts or numbers or pixels on a two way videolink. I am also grateful that my pastors really cared about my wife and me, prayed for us regularly by name and, I am sure, even occasionally shaped parts of their sermons to give a word of needed encouragement and to help us with trials through which they knew we were going. These pastors were not perfect -- far from it; but they were at least actually there, really available and genuinely concerned. In short, they tried to embody true Reformation -- biblical! -- church leadership.

The Reformation was about more than a doctrinal insight into justification; it was also about abolishing the fetishisation of certain great figures as if they possessed some special magic and about instituting an ideal of educated, personal, local ministry. Maybe the Reformation is nearly over; and maybe it is not Benedictine Catholicism but actually the new reformation, with its multi-sites and its virtual pastors, that is finishing it off. That is quite a sobering and ironic thought.

I've been deeply impacted by the ministry of some of the big-name pastors that lurk between the lines of Trueman's critique. But, when looking for a community of faith to call home the Reformation ideal of "educated, personal, local ministry" is for me a sine qua non. And the kind of church described is the kind I want my sons to grow up in, even if that means sacrificing whiz-bang programming or the cachet of attending an "exciting" church. I'll take faithfulness over flash.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

New feature from Google

Jamie Smith suggests that to really know a person you shouldn't ask them "What do you know?" or "What do you believe?" A better question is "What do you love?" Jesus would agree. Throughout the gospel narratives he is always probing into the heart seeking to expose what or who his hearers love.

Google wants to know too.

Here are three things I told Google that I love -- the first two vastly more important than the third -- and the rather comic results.

The gospel

My wife

Craft beer

So? What do you love?

Monday, September 26, 2011

The death penalty

I've written before about my conflicted feelings about capital punishment. Some of the reasons for my ambivalence could be seen in the case of Troy Davis -- executed last week in Georgia -- such as witnesses changing their story, jurors having second thoughts, lack of forensic evidence, and a defendant going to his death insisting he was innocent. Of course none of this proves definitively that an innocent man was put to death, but it raises questions. Does the Davis case (and others like it) raise enough doubt to justify abolishing the death penalty? Ross Douthat says no and if I was to support the continuance of capital punishment it would be on the basis he lays out.

If capital punishment disappears in the United States, it won’t be because voters and politicians no longer want to execute the guilty. It will be because they’re afraid of executing the innocent.

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.

Also related to the death penalty was an incident at a recent GOP presidential debate where Texas Governor Rick Perry claimed he'd never had a hard time sleeping at night in view of the 234 people executed under his governorship. Perry's answer was met by loud cheers from the audience. I was happy to see this response from Chuck Colson.

Now, I have to admit that I was deeply troubled by the governor’s response. I recall the life-and-death decisions I participated in when I was in the White House. Some nights I would go home deeply concerned that I might be putting people in peril. I know that I lost sleep — it’s hard to imagine anybody not being troubled by having to make those kinds of decisions.

What’s more, my experience with the criminal justice system, which, like any human institution, is capable of grave errors, doesn’t instill in me a level of confidence anywhere approaching that of the governor’s.

Let me be clear: I think that there are times when capital punishment is necessary and justified. But the thought of taking another person’s life, however heinous their crimes, should give us pause. It’s never to be made lightly or causally [sic].

And it certainly shouldn’t be the occasion for cheering as the crowd in California audience did twice. If the governor’s response troubled me, the crowd’s cheering chilled me.

Colson goes on to express his hope that the folks doing the cheering weren't Christians. Indeed.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Feeling time

Here's an excerpt from a fascinating piece (the first in a series) by Astrophysicist Adam Frank on how the invention of "modern" time is killing us. He posts this in honor of the Autumnal Equinox. Did you know it was today?

Let me start by asking you a simple question: What time is it right now?

To answer this query you probably looked at the clock on your computer or on your cell phone. It told you something like 9:12 a.m. or 11:22 a.m. or 1:37 p.m. But what is 1:37 p.m.? What is the meaning of such an exact metering of minutes?

Mechanical clocks for measuring hours did not appear until the fourteenth century. Minute hands on those clocks did not come into existence until 400 years later. Before these inventions the vast majority of human beings had no access to any form of timekeeping device. Sundials, water clocks and sandglasses did exist. But their daily use was confined to an elite minority.

In ancient Rome, for example, noon was called out by someone watching to see when the sun climbed between two buildings. That was how exact it got for most people. Asked what time it was back then, the best you could have answered — the best you needed to answer — would have been "after lunch."

So did 1:37 p.m. even exist a thousand years ago for peasants living in the Dark Ages of Europe, Song Dynasty China or the central Persian Empire? Was there such a thing as 1:37 p.m. across the millennia that comprise the vast bulk of human experience?

The short answer is "no."

But 1:37 exists for you. As a citizen of a technologically advanced culture, replete with omnipresent time-metering technologies, you have felt 1:37 in more ways then you probably want to think about. Waiting for a 1:30 train into the city you feel the minutes crawl by when the train is late. The same viscous experience of these minutes (and seconds) oozes into your life each time you wait for the microwave to cycle through its 2-minute and 30-second cooking program.

You feel minutes in a way that virtually none of your ancestors did. You feel them pass and you feel them drag on with all the frustration, boredom, anxiety and anger that can entail. For you, those minutes are real.

Click through to read Frank's thoughts on what this tyranny of modern time is doing to us. I'm reminded of some lines from Pink Floyd.

You run and you run
To catch up with the sun
But it's sinking
Racing around
To come up behind you again

The Redwoods of church history

I came across this illuminating quote on English Puritanism in the biographical introduction to John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence.

The history of Puritanism is quite remarkable. As a movement for thorough reform of the Church on the basis of the Word of God, it was indeed as old as the Reformation. But if the Reformation revived preaching, the Puritans came to stand for preaching of a particular kind. It has been the verdict of competent judges ever since that, for applying the Word of God to the conscience with power, thoroughness and unction, the Puritans stand alone. Yet it is difficult to define in detail how they differ from preachers of other ages. It is as difficult to explain how the movement arose, in a short time producing a host of outstanding preachers, and then, a hundred years or so later, how this supply dried up. If we take the view that the Puritan movement was nothing less than an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in England, then it is a signal instance of the principle of divine working enunciated by our Lord: 'The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth. . . .'

This writer notes that John Flavel was one of the few Puritan leaders still in ministry at the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. The overthrow of James II and ascension to power of William and Mary meant that England would never be Roman Catholic. Yet, this decisive victory for Protestantism in England wasn't a victory for the Puritans. In fact, in the wake of the Great Ejection of 1662 which saw non-conformist pastors expelled from the national church, the principles of total reformation advocated by the Puritans had been largely defeated. The high church Anglicanism they saw as only partial reformation had carried the day.

One could look back and say that the Puritan movement was a failure. On the other hand, which English-speaking Christians of that period are still being read today? Who was it that profoundly influenced George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, helping to spark the great revivals of the 18th century? Answer: it was Puritans like John Flavel, John Owen, Thomas Watson, and many others, who continue to provide a model of robust Calvinistic doctrine and deep piety. Rightly have they been compared to the giant Redwood trees of California.

"As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age of crushing urban collectivism, when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants on an anthill and puppets on a string. In this situation the teaching and example of the Puritans has much to say to us." (J.I. Packer)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The next next big thing

So today Facebook rolled out their latest revamp -- Facebook's Revamped News Feed Is Faster, Newsier, More Like Twitter. Judging from the chatter on my homepage/newsfeed/ticker it's not going over too well with some of the natives. Comments like "HATE HATE HATE HATE THE NEW FACEBOOK" and "If it ain't broke don't fix it" proliferate.

However, I suspect the bigwigs at Facebook headquarters aren't too worried about the negative feedback. The thing is, Facebook is after more than a steady state condition of "not brokeness." In an age of ever shorter attention spans and ever faster technological change they need to keep coming up with the next next big thing. The death knell for Facebook would be to become boring and predictable. Unless the annoyed people on my friend's list hate the changes enough to stop logging on to the site -- which I don't see happening -- the latest version of Mark Zuckerberg's beautiful machine is a smashing success.

And I bet the programmers in Palo Alto are already hard at work coming up with algorithms for the next "new" Facebook. Which will come out just as we've gotten used to this one.

The Facebook goes live

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010)

Monday, September 19, 2011

What does it mean to confess a belief in one holy catholic church?

I like this from Mike Horton:

Scripture’s focus is on what God is doing rather than on what we are doing. The Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament. There is “one holy catholic and apostolic church” not because individual believers realized that they could more effectively reach the world and accomplish their goals in tandem. Rather, this church exists because of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel. We are recipients of a kingdom; the Father is the builder, by his Son and Spirit, through the Word.

Therefore, there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it. Same thing with the holiness of the church: holy in Christ, it is nevertheless “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

This quote comes from a blog post "Have Denominations Had Their Day?" that's well worth reading.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Killing: a parable of destructive desire

Coincidentally, this week I've been reading through 1 Timothy while also revisiting Stanley Kubrick's 1956 film The Killing. The latter is just out on Criterion Blu-ray. What a treat! And what a great time to be alive if you're a film buff!

The concluding chapter of 1 Timothy contains the oft-quoted (and mis-quoted) proverbial saying about the love of money being the root of all evil. The love of money verse is preceded by others commending contentment and warning about the desire to be rich.

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:9)

This reads like a proverb of Solomon or a saying from Ecclesiastes. The Apostle Paul is addressing his son in the faith Timothy in the context of his first century Christian community, but Paul's warning has general application beyond that original context. Scripture is sprinkled with similar warnings on the danger of there's that "eye of the needle" thing in the gospels. All of this raises the question of how to define "rich" and where contentment ends and ruinous striving begins, but that's a subject for another day. Stanley Kubrick probably didn't intend it, but with The Killing he provided an exquisite parabolic demonstration of Paul's warning in 1 Timothy. At least that's how it struck me as I watched it again this week as the apostle's words rang in my head. The Killing provided a template for filmmakers of later generations to fashion their own parables of destructive desire. Anyone seen Fargo?

One of the things that makes Kubrick's tale about the planning and execution of an intricate heist so compelling is that it invites us to empathize with these characters' desires to be rich. There's the henpecked and mercilessly belittled husband George Peatty (Elisha Cook, Jr.), who thinks that with this score he can finally gain the love and respect of the woman he naively is in love with. Then there's faithful caregiver Mike O'Reilly (Joe Sawyer) who needs the cash so he can get the "best doctors" for his bedridden sick wife. There's real tenderness when Mike tells her that soon everything will be alright. Even ringleader Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) is sympathetic, despite being the only professional thief of the lot. All he wants is to go off, get married, and live happily ever after with his sweet and loyal girlfriend Fay, played by Colleen Gray, who would go on to be a staple of 60s and 70s television.

Clay is the mastermind of the get-rich scheme -- an intricate plan to knock off a racetrack during the running of a high stakes derby. As I said, the other men by and large are law-abiding citizens, but as Clay knowingly quips -- they each have a bit of larceny in their hearts. Each man has a part to play, but only Johnny knows the whole plan. And it's a beautiful plan. Even though I've watched the film multiple times I still found myself rooting for it to succeed. But alas, each time, the plans of mice and men are foiled by human frailty and what in the Kubrickian universe one could call fate. What was supposed to be only a killing in cash descends into killing of a bloodier kind.

The Killing is a virtuosic piece of cinema. Kubrick was 28 when he made it and coming off his second feature Killer's Kiss the year before. Killer's Kiss is included as a bonus on the Criterion disc...and it's not bad. It's a sweet tale of love triumphing against the odds with some wonderful visual flourishes, but it's the work of a filmmaker one would have predicted had gone on to have a respectable career making conventional genre films within the Hollywood system. Kubrick, though, was determined to take a different path, and the jump in originality from his second to third features is like the difference between Beethoven's Second (not a bad little symphony) and Third (the mighty Eroica). Critic Haden Guest writes: "The film’s dark, unrelenting irony and complexly fractured narrative immediately distinguished it from his previous work and revealed the posture of the willfully, often provocatively, 'difficult' director that he would cultivate throughout his career."

What Killer's Kiss lacked was a strong voice, and apparently the young filmmaker realized that writing original stories and dialogue wasn't his strong suit. For The Killing he brought in pulp fiction author Jim Thompson to help him adapt source material from elsewhere (a novel by Lionel White called Clean Break). Thompson gets a dialogue credit, but in actuality was just as responsible for the final screenplay as Kubrick: who gave himself the sole writer's credit. In any case, this pattern of adapting novels in collaboration with accomplished writers would be Stanley Kubrick's standard developmental procedure from then on. To say the least, this model served him well.

Sterling Hayden is fabulous in The Killing. His rugged all-American good looks are one of the reasons you find yourself rooting for Johnny Clay. After all, he's plotting to rob a racetrack -- not the most honest of enterprises -- and his careful plan is calculated to avoid the possibility of any "rough stuff." But in the end he's proven to be just as naive as the pitiful George Peatty. His face and body language register the mounting frustration of seeing a perfect plan unravel, penultimately so on an airport tarmac, as he and Fay wait to board a flight to what they hope is a happy future. The circumstances are tragicomic, involving an officious airline agent and a yapping poodle. In a scene that anyone who's seen the film will never forget, Johnny Clay watches as his riches are blown away like so much chaff. It's painful to watch.

As two plainclothes cops close in with guns drawn Fay urges him to run, but Johnny knows the game is up. "What's the difference?" he bitterly mutters. His riches gone, his hope gone, Johnny's ruin is complete.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Tarantino religion

"The set is church, Quentin is God, the script is Bible. And no heretics allowed."

- Brad Pitt on working with Quentin Tarantino

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The mestizo's confession

Another brilliant vignette from The Power and the Glory. . .

But the man wouldn't stop. The priest was reminded of an oil-gusher which some prospectors had once struck near Concepción — it wasn't a good enough field apparently to justify further operations, but there it had stood for forty-eight hours against the sky, a black fountain spouting out of the marshy useless soil and flowing away to waste — fifty thousand gallons an hour. It was like the religious sense in man, cracking suddenly upwards, a black pillar of fumes and impurity, running to waste. ‘Shall I tell you what I've done? — It's your business to listen. I've taken money from women to do you know what, and I've given money to boys . . . ’

‘I don't want to hear.’

‘It's your business.’

‘You're mistaken.’

‘Oh no, I'm not. You can't deceive me. Listen. I've given money to boys — you know what I mean. And I've eaten meat on Fridays.’ The awful jumble of the gross, the trivial, and the grotesque shot up between the two yellow fangs, and the hand on the priest's ankle shook and shook with the fever. ‘I've told lies, I haven't fasted in Lent for I don't know how many years. Once I had two women — I'll tell you what I did . . . ’ He had an immense self-importance; he was unable to picture a world of which he was only a typical part — a world of treachery, violence, and lust in which his shame was altogether insignificant. How often the priest had heard the same confession — Man was so limited he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization — it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt. He said, ‘Why do you tell me all this?’

There's more of sin and grace in this novel than in many a theology textbook.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Judge Jesus

In the 1970s, when J.I. Packer wrote Knowing God, the concept of divine judgment was falling out of vogue. That's even more true today. At the very least the biblical truth that God will fully and finally judge humanity is often soft-pedaled among self-proclaimed Bible-believing Christians. It might come as a shock that Jesus is the primary New Testament authority on the certainty of final judgment, heaven, and hell. He talked about these things repeatedly. Not only that he proclaims himself the agent of God's judgment.

Packer writes:

Rightly does the Anglican burial service address Jesus in a single breath as "holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal." For Jesus constantly affirmed that in the day when all appear before God's throne to receive the abiding and eternal consequences of the life they have lived, he himself will be the Father's agent in judgment, and his word of acceptance or rejection will be decisive. . . . God's own appointment has made Jesus Christ inescapable. He stands at the end of life's road for everyone without exception. [italics emphasis mine]

Those last lines express a truth awesome to contemplate. Do we really believe it? Packer goes on to elucidate another awesome truth -- those who to Jesus for refuge have fled will have nothing to fear on that day when Jesus appears as judge.

Paul refers to the fact that we must all appear before Christ's judgment seat as "the terror of the Lord" (2 Cor 5:11 KJV), and well he might. Jesus the Lord, like his Father, is holy and pure; we are neither. We live under his eye, he knows our secrets, and on judgment day the whole of our past life will be played back, as it were, before him, and brought under review. If we know ourselves at all, we know we are not fit to face him. What then are we to do? The New Testament answer is: Call on the coming Judge to be your present Savior. As Judge, he is the law, but as Savior he is the gospel. Run from him now, and you will meet him as Judge then—and without hope. Seek him now, and you will find him (for "he that seeketh findeth"), and you will then discover that you are looking forward to that future meeting with joy, knowing that there is now "no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1).

Packer has a knack for explaining and defending the difficult -- but essential -- truths about God in simple, direct language. In a follow-up post I'll share some snippets from Packer on that oft-ignored and oft-misunderstood attribute of God -- his wrath.

Quotes from Knowing God, pp. 144-5 & 146-7

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Marking 9/11/01

The week leading up to the solemn 10-year-anniversary on Sunday has elicited boatloads of commentary, etc. Here are some links I've found worthwhile. I'll be updating this list as I find more. Check back.

9/11: The Week Before (In Focus with Alan Taylor) - This is a photo essay of events taking place around the world on the week before that unforgettable day, including some poignant shots of the twin towers. Do you remember what you were doing on the days before everything changed?

Prayer at Ground Zero (Michael Horton) - Horton reacts to the outrage of some Christians over NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision not to allow prayers at the official ceremonies. Whether you agree or disagree this fine piece will prompt you to think more deeply about the Christian understanding of prayer and the role of religion in public life.

New York's Post-9/11 Church Boom (John Starke) - A terrific piece of reporting on the surprising resurgence of evangelical churches in the Big Apple.

It's Still the 9/11 Era (Ross Douthat) - One of my favorite columnists asks Reagan's famous question: "Are we better off than we were 10 years ago?"

In an odd way just about any New York City movie made after September 11, 2001 is touched by that day. Though Spike Lee's 2002 film 25th Hour isn't explicitly about 9/11 -- the novel and screenplay were written before -- the events hang like a spectre over it, and I find the opening credit sequence (embedded below) to be the most beautiful cinematic remembrance I've seen. I was moved when I first saw it in the theater in 2002 and still am today.

Simply Evil (Christopher Hitchens) - Here's Hitch at his best calling the perpetrators of 9/11 what they were. Evil.

Simply Incoherent (Douglas Wilson) - And here's Doug Wilson pointing out the irony of Hitchens (the guy that wrote God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) calling anything "evil".

Slain Priest: 'Bury His Heart, But Not His Love' (NPR) - A remembrance of Father Mychal Judge by the police lieutenant who carried his body out of the North Tower and the priest who gave his funeral homily.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mass at dawn

I'm reading The Power and the Glory for the first time, widely considered Graham Greene's signature work. Previously I've know Greene only from the many film adaptations of his novels and short stories. John Updike described a key element of Greene's genius: the ability to fashion "abrupt, cinematic" scenes filled with "brilliant, artfully lit images" (I suppose that's one reason why so many filmmakers have been attracted to his fiction). Here's an example of what Updike was talking about. I don't think you have to know the context to appreciate the dramatic power of this prose.

He kissed the top of the packing-case and turned to bless. In the inadequate light he could just see two men kneeling with their arms stretched out in the shape of a cross — they would keep that position until the consecration was over, one more mortification squeezed out of their harsh and painful lives. He felt humbled by the pain ordinary men bore voluntarily; his pain was forced on him. ‘Oh Lord, I have loved the beauty of thy house . . .’ The candles smoked and the people shifted on their knees — an absurd happiness bobbed up in him again before anxiety returned: it was as if he had been permitted to look in from the outside at the population of heaven. Heaven must contain just such scared and dutiful and hunger-lined faces. For a matter of seconds he felt an immense satisfaction that he could talk of suffering to them now without hypocrisy — it is hard for the sleek and well-fed priest to praise poverty. He began the prayer for the living: the long list of the Apostles and Martyrs fell like footsteps — Cornelii, Cypriani, Laurentii, Chrysogoni — soon the police would reach the clearing where his mule had sat down under him and he had washed in the pool. The Latin words ran into each other on his hasty tongue: he could feel impatience all round him. He began the Consecration of the Host (he had finished the wafers long ago — it was a piece of bread from Maria's oven); impatience abruptly died away: everything in time because a routine but this — ‘Who the day before he suffered took Bread into his holy and venerable hands . . .’ Whoever moved outside on the forest path, there was no movement here — ‘Hoc est enim Corpus Meum.’ He could hear the sigh of breaths released: God was here in the body for the first time in six years. When he raised the Host he could imagine the faces lifted like famished dogs.

I'll be reading a lot more Graham Greene.

E.J. Dionne on why we should rename it "Capital Day"

Warning: ideological axe-grinding ahead, but I believe the axe-grinder is spot on in this case.

Imagine a Republican saying this: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

These heretical thoughts would inspire horror among our friends at Fox News or in the Tea Party. They’d likely label them as Marxist, socialist or Big Labor propaganda. Too bad for Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, who offered those words in his annual message to Congress in 1861. Will President Obama dare say anything like this in his jobs speech this week?

As for the unions, they are often treated in the media as advocates of arcane work rules, protectors of inefficient public employees and obstacles to the economic growth our bold entrepreneurs would let loose if only they were free from labor regulations.

So it would take a brave man to point out that unions “grew up from the struggle of the workers — workers in general but especially the industrial workers — to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production,” or to insist that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life.”

That’s what Pope John Paul II said (the italics are his) in the 1981 encyclical “Laborem Exercens.” Like Lincoln, John Paul repeatedly asserted “the priority of labor over capital.”

That the language of Lincoln and John Paul is so distant from our experience today is a sign of an enormous cultural shift. In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

Read the whole thing.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The promise of true community

"Jesus says, 'When you enter into a relationship with me I will weave you into a human community deeper and more beautiful than you can imagine.' To be saved by Jesus means not just to have your individual sins forgiven -- it does mean that but it means more -- it means to be woven into a new human community -- a true human community that God is creating."

Tim Keller, The Community of Jesus

72 years ago today

World War II begins -- from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas:

Back in March [1939], when Hitler had marched on Prague, Neville Chamberlain set down his teacup and took notice. It was then, exchanging one of his carrots for a stick, he vowed that Britain would defend Poland if Hitler attacked it. That time had come. But Hitler couldn't simply attack. He must first make it look like self-defense. So on August 22, he told his generals, "I shall give a propagandist reason for starting the war; never mind whether it is plausible or not. The victor will not be asked afterward whether he told the truth."

The plan was for the SS, dressed in Polish uniforms, to attack a German radio station on the Polish border. To make the whole thing authentic, they would need German "casualties." They decided to use concentration camp inmates, whom they vilely referred to as Konserve (canned goods). These victims of Germany would be dressed as German soldiers. In the end only one man was murdered for this purpose, via lethal injection, and afterward shot several times to give the appearance that he had been killed by Polish soldiers. The deliberate murder of a human being for the purposes of deceiving the world seems a perfectly fitting inaugural act for what was to follow. This took place on schedule, August 31.

In "retaliation," German troops marched into Poland at dawn on September 1. Göring's Luftwaffe rained hell from the skies, deliberately killing civilians. Civilians were murdered more carefully on the ground. It was a coldly deliberate act of terror by intentional mass murder, never before seen in modern times, and it was the Poles' first bitter taste of the Nazi ruthlessness they would come to know so well. The outside world would not hear details for some time. It knew only that German forces were cutting through Poland like the proverbial hot knife through butter as Panzer divisions neatly erased thirty and forty miles of Poland per day.

But Hitler gave a speech to the Reichstag, casting himself in the role of aggrieved victim. "You know the endless attempts I made for a peaceful clarification and understanding of the problems of Austria," he said, "and later of the problem of the Sudetenland, Bohemia and Moravia. It was all in vain." Poland had refused his gracious offers of peace and with a callousness not to be borne. The Poles rewarded his good faith with violence! "I am wrongly judged if my love of peace and patience are mistaken for weakness or even cowardice. . . . I have therefore resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us." The long-suffering and peace-loving Führer could take it no more: "This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. Since 5:45 A.M. we have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met with bombs." Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, had long dreaded this hour. He was overcome with emotion at the implications of it all. Hans Bernd Gisevius, a diplomat whom Canaris had recruited to work with him in the Resistance, was at OKW headquarters that day. They ran into each other in a back stairway, and Canaris drew Gisevius aside. "This means the end of Germany," he said. (pp. 347-8)

Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Canaris would later be executed (alongside Dietrich Bonhoeffer) for his leadership of the plots against Hitler.

BTW this excellent biography is just out in paperback.