Friday, October 28, 2011

Jackie Brown goes to work

Jackie Brown (1997) was Quentin Tarantino's third feature. It was bound to disappoint some fans (which it did), but it's my favorite Tarantino film. The number one reason I like it is Pam Grier and the number two reason is Robert Forster. Tarantino took these two stars of B-moviedom and gave them a big stage on which to shine. Jackie Brown is crowded with A-list stars, but their relationship is the heart of the film.

Another thing to like about this picture is the opening credits sequence. It doesn't explode off the screen like the credits for Pulp Fiction, but it's no less effective, and clearly announces that this is Pam Grier's movie. In a series of gliding dolly shots the camera worshipfully follows Grier to her job as an airline stewardess for a second-rate regional airline. Bobby Womack's 70s R&B hit "Across 110th Street" provides tempo, mood and subtext. This is how it's done.

Choosing symbol over substance

Here's the conclusion to Conor Friedersdorf's excellent piece arguing that by taking aim at symbolic Wall Street (which many Americans see as synonymous with capitalism) versus actual Wall Street the Occupy folks are missing a chance to advance real reform.

What I wonder is how many of the protestors realize that the case against symbolic Wall Street is actually much weaker than the one against actual Wall Street. Symbolic Wall Street is the financial center of earth's most prosperous country. Actual Wall Street's most powerful firms bear responsibility for the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression. At times, actual Wall Street violated the law. It squandered many billions of dollars, inflating the market for mortgage backed securities that the people in charge didn't even understand. Taxpayer money was subsequently redistributed to these firms. That is a powerful case that reform is needed.

There is, however, a robust market in America for ideological thinking, for turning every matter into an epic battle in the war between right and left, red and blue, "the 53 percent" and "the 99 percent." Doing so swells the profits of Fox News and the email lists of Occupy Wall Street organizers and their allies, among many others. They're all in theoretically defensible businesses; but perverse incentives are at play, and we ought to insist, regularly, that we won't go along.

We ought to avoid always treating politics as "an infinitely romantic notion," for while there is a time for doing so, it's too often indulged. We too seldom address problems with solutions characterized by pragmatism and narrowness; we too seldom celebrate a proposal precisely because it permits us to improve the status quo without having to grapple with the bigger questions.

In their own ways the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have drawn attention to some serious national problems. For that they should be thanked. Government debt, deficits, rising income inequality, lack of ethics in politics and business, and the shrinking economic prospects of low and moderate-income families are all problems that have the potential to sink us if not fixed. It remains for other voices to emerge with constructive solutions.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The greatest mercy of Providence

I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me. Psalm 57:2 (KJV)

With typical Puritan thoroughness John Flavel mines that text in The Mystery of Providence. Here David is declaring under perilous duress his faith in a God who is intimately involved in his affairs. Another translation renders the second phrase as "God the transactor of my affairs" and the ESV helpfully translates it "God who fulfills his purpose for me." God is not a dispassionate puppet-master pulling the strings. His providential ordering of the lives of those like David who set him apart as "God most high" is motivated by steadfast love and faithfulness. That's why David can confess in Psalm 16: I say to Yahweh, "You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you."

That's quite a statement! No good apart from you, Lord.

Flavel's exposition of the various performances of Providence in the lives of the saints crescendos with a chapter on conversion. Were you born into a Christian home and can't remember a time when you didn't know Christ? This was Providence. Did you respond to the preaching of the gospel as an adult? This too was Providence. Many there are who have heard and not responded. Were you led to Christ by the witness of a roommate in college? Again, this was orchestrated by Providence. Salvation is the greatest blessing that Providence has to give.

Flavel writes:

There are mercies of all sizes and kinds in the hands of Providence to dispense to the sons of men. Its left hand is full of blessings as well as its right. It has health and riches, honours and pleasures, as well as Christ and salvation to dispense. The world is full of its left hand favours, but the blessings of its right hand are invaluably precious and few there be that receive them. It performs thousands of kind offices for men; but among them all, this is the chiefest, to lead and direct them to Christ.

Flavel's distinction between "left hand" and "right hand" blessings mirrors the distinction often made by Reformed theologians between "common grace" and "saving grace". An example of common grace is the rain that God sends on the "just" and the "unjust" (see Matt. 5:45). The most virulent atheist benefits in hundreds of ways from the common grace gifts of God, but absent the mercy of saving grace those good gifts have an expiration date. All the good things once enjoyed will be taken away, just as they were taken away from Jesus on the cross.

Another writer has said that God is kind to all in some ways, and kind to some in all ways. If you're in the second group you can say with Paul: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Quote from The Mystery of Providence, pp. 73-4

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Global football

In the last few years I've come to understand why the world considers football (the one where using your hands is frowned on) the beautiful game. I'm not yet an aficionado, but I'm getting there. At the top of my sports bucket list is watching the US Men's National Team win the World Cup -- an achievement the women came heartbreakingly close to this summer. Confession: the only time I've ever wept for joy over a silly game was when Landon Donovan scored the winning goal in stoppage time to beat Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. Mind you I still love American football, but there's a purity and simplicity about the other football that the American version lacks.

Another reason soccer is so compelling is that it's inextricably bound up with history and culture. Sure, that's true to some extent of all sports, but even a rivalry as fierce and colorful as the Yankees vs. the Red Sox can't compare to Barcelona/Real Madrid aka "El Clásico", Arsenal/Tottenham, Brazil/Argentina, England/Germany, or a dozen others one could mention.

All of this -- sport, history, economics, and more -- is mixed together in the book How Soccer Explains the World. It's a potent cocktail. In the book author Franklin Foer uses soccer as a lens to look into the promise and perils of globalization circa 2004. Since soccer is so closely identified with local cultures and traditions one would think that globalization has resulted in the homogenization of the beautiful game. As Foer writes in the prologue, this was one of the theories he set out to test when he took eight months off from his job at The New Republic to travel the world attending soccer matches and talking to soccer people.

[Soccer] is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community's fabric, a repository of traditions. During Franco's rule, the clubs Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad were the only venues where Basque people could express their cultural pride without winding up in jail. In English industrial towns like Coventry and Derby, soccer clubs helped glue together small cities amid oppressive dinginess.

By the logic of both its critics and proponents, the global culture should have wiped away these local institutions. Indeed, traveling the world, it's hard not to be awed by the power of mega-brands like the clubs Manchester United and Real Madrid, backed by Nike and Adidas, who have cultivated support across continents, prying fans away from their old allegiances. But that homogenization turned out to be more of an exception than I anticipated. Wandering among lunatic fans, gangster owners, and crazed Bulgarian strikers, I kept noticing the ways that globalization had failed to diminish the game's local cultures, local blood feuds, and even local corruption.

Foer concludes that if soccer is an accurate object lesson then religious and ethnic identities continue to be remarkably resilient. The traditionalist warning that economic globalization will turn us into McPlanet seems not to have come true. Despite attempts to get people to think of themselves as Latin American or European, older identities like Brazilian and English are still more important. For good and ill this is strikingly evident in the wacky wonderful world of football/fútbol/soccer. Nationalism is alive and well on the pitch and in the stands. If you want to take a tour of the good, bad and ugly of that world this is the book to read.

Quote from Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (pp. 4-5)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sabbath rest

Quote from John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (pp. 146-7):

The fourth commandment directs people to observe the sabbath based on God's rest in Genesis 1. Throughout human history interpreters of Scripture have struggled to work out the implications of this directive. What constitutes rest? What activities are ruled out? Part of the difficulty is that the Bible offers little detail as it tends more toward vague generalizations. Furthermore most of the statements are negative (what one should not do) rather than positive (approved or even mandated activities).

Given the view of Genesis 1 presented in this book, we get a new way to think about the sabbath. if God's rest on the seventh day involved him taking up his presence in his cosmic temple which has been ordered and made functional so that he is now ready to run the cosmos, our sabbath rest can be seen in a different light. Obviously, God is not asking us to imitate his sabbath rest by taking the functional controls. I would suggest that instead he is asking us to recognize that he is at the controls, not us. When we "rest" on the sabbath, we recognize him as the author of order and the one who brings rest (stability) to our lives and world. We take our hands off the controls of our lives and acknowledge him as the one who is in control. Most importantly this calls on us to step back from our workaday world—those means by which we try to provide for ourselves and gain control of our circumstances. Sabbath is for recognizing that it is God who provides for us and who is the master of our lives and our world. We are not imitating him in sabbath observance, we are acknowledging him in tangible ways.

That doesn't say everything that could be said about the significance of the 4th commandment under the new covenant, but I think it's a fruitful way for Christians to think about keeping the sabbath day holy. I hope to write more about Walton's fascinating -- and paradigm altering -- view of Genesis 1, but now I'm going to take a Sunday afternoon nap!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Visitor

I completely get that illegal immigration is a big problem. Living in South Florida I see the effects on everything from law enforcement to health care to our educational system. What I don't get is how hot under the collar some people get when talking about it. They take it as a personal affront that someone could be living here without a green card. It's almost like they believe their citizenship is in jeopardy unless we round 'em all up and send 'em back where they came from. Pronto! If a presidential candidate says something compassionate-sounding about illegals they drop in the polls. What's going on here?

The 2008 surprise hit The Visitor from writer/director Thomas McCarthy moves beyond abstract arguments about immigration to tell the story of two typical illegal immigrants living and working in Manhattan. Tarek is a Palestinian, by way of Syria and Detroit, who earns a living playing the djembe (an African drum) in Village jazz clubs. His Senegalese girlfriend Zainab sells her handcrafted jewelry at one of the many open-air markets downtown. They live in an apartment, which as it turns out, has been illegally sublet to them by a man they know only as "Ivan". Tarek and Zainab are played affectingly by newcomers Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira.

However, before meeting those two we meet Walter Vale, a widowed economics professor at a northeastern college. Walter is a classic case of someone going through the motions. He has the look of a man who's been "mailing it in" for a while. The loss of his wife and midlife ennui has taken it's toll. He teaches his one class and is supposedly working on a book. Mostly we see him moping around the house, or attempting to play the baby grand piano in his living room. The significance of this latter detail will be revealed later on. Indeed, McCarthy adroitly reveals little surprises along the way even though we have a pretty good idea where the overall plot is going. Walter is played by veteran character actor Richard Jenkins, who made the most of his chance to play a lead by scoring a richly deserved Oscar nomination.

Rounding out the quartet of characters is Tarek's mother Mouna. She's played by Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, a veteran of Middle Eastern films. Of the four performances her's is my favorite. Later it will emerge that Mouna's husband died as a result of spending years in prison for writing an article critical of the dictatorial Syrian regime. Mouna is a proud woman trying to navigate between her traditional Arab culture and the liberating possibilities of living in America. The subtle onscreen chemistry between Jenkins and Abbass is a primary strength of the picture.

The Visitor is a film about immigrants, both legal and illegal. It's about a middle-aged white guy's surprising journey of self-discovery. It's about the immigrant experience as it plays out in the boroughs and neighborhoods of New York City (The Visitor was shot entirely on location). And it's about the human cost of post-9/11 immigration policy. Detention and deportation have a horrifying finality when it means the severing of families and relationships. One may come away from this realistic depiction of our immigration system wishing that there was more correspondence between the rule of law and justice.

Beyond all that I found The Visitor to be a meditation on the meaning of kindness and hospitality. Not very sexy I know, but where would our world be without those virtues? Hospitality has it's origins in Latin words that mean "stranger" and "to have power". Hospitality is a Christian virtue, and as far as I know the same is true in all the major religions. In this scenario Walter is the one with all the power (he's the actual owner of the apartment!) and he has every right to kick these interloping strangers out onto the street. Instead he chooses hospitality. By doing this Walter opens himself up to a new world of experience. As Walter gets more involved in the lives of his visitors he's like a sleepwalker waking up for the first time in years. In the beginning it's Walter bestowing the blessings of kindness. By film's end it's clear that he is the one that's been blessed most of all.

Somewhere it is written, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Freeway prophet

Paris, Texas (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When all is set right (Dostoevsky)

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

Quote from The Brothers Karamazov, Chapter 34

Rod Dreher calls out Limbaugh

Loathing is not too strong a word for how I feel about Rush Limbaugh's show. Interesting, since it wasn't too many years ago that I listened to him religiously (with all the connotations that word inspires). Anyway, it's nice to see a conservative calling Limbaugh's act what it is. Evil.

What Limbaugh is doing here — defending terrorists and child rapists because it helps him make a political argument that Obama hates Christians — is spectacularly contemptible. It is, frankly, evil. Can’t conservatives see that?

Click through to get the background and context.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A short history of (John Travolta) dancing

From Tony Manero to Vincent Vega. . .

Saturday Night Fever (dir. John Badham, 1977)

Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Monday, October 17, 2011

The leap of doubt (Keller)

I'm finally getting around to reading The Reason for God by Tim Keller. Being a pastor for twenty years in one of the most secular and skeptical corners of the globe -- Manhattan NYC -- must have been good preparation for writing this book. I figured it would be a good read, but so far it's exceeded my expectations.

Keller introduces the book by presenting a paradox. On the one hand a sizeable segment of Western society is alarmed by a rise of robust religious belief. These "secular liberals" fear this will lead to intolerance and a "turn back the clock" mentality. On the other side are religious believers -- especially of the Judeo-Christian variety -- spooked by the rise of secularism and disbelief, which these "traditional conservatives" fear will lead to moral relativism and permissiveness. So which is it? Is our society, and the world, becoming more or less religious? The answer is yes. Both religious belief and secular skepticism are on the rise. The author counsels secularists to let go of the cherished 20th century idea that scientific advance has made the demise of religion inevitable -- and he urges believers not to dismiss skepticism out-of-hand and to wrestle seriously with the doubts of our nonbelieving neighbors. Both sides need to stop the name-calling and seek to reason with each other. It's this new way forward that animates the book.

Keller proposes that each side look at doubt in a new way -- an approach he says has been fruitful in talking to skeptical New Yorkers over the years. What does this mean for believers?

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person's faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. . . . Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. (p. xvii)

I really appreciate this point that faith doesn't mean the absence of doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is unbelief. In my experience Christian communities that discourage the asking of hard questions aren't very successful in keeping the next generation once they go out into the wider world.

What does Keller's approach mean for skeptics?

. . . skeptics must learn to look for a type of faith hidden within their reasoning. All doubts, however skeptical and cynical they seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs. You cannot doubt Belief A except from a position of faith in Belief B. For example, if you doubt Christianity because "There can't be just one true religion," you must recognize that this statement is itself an act of faith. No one can prove it empirically, and it is not a universal truth that everyone accepts. . . . The reason you doubt Christianity's Belief A is because you hold unprovable Belief B. Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith. (p. xviii)

This same principle holds true with other common objections too -- like the person who can't accept the existence of moral absolutes because he or she believes morality is determined by each individual. Again, that person is making a statement based on a deep-seated personal belief that can't be proven. Or the person who simply sees no need to investigate the existence of God. That person is taking a leap of faith that "no God exists who would hold you accountable for your beliefs and behavior if you didn't feel the need for him." Keller's thesis can be summed up by the phrase doubt your doubts.

The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it. How do you know your belief is true? It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens. In fairness you must doubt your doubts. (p. xviii-xix)

Keller suggests that by taking doubt seriously both believers and nonbelievers will find greater clarity and humility in their respective positions, and will find mutual understanding and respect where it didn't exist before. As followers of Jesus this is something to be desired (1 Peter 3:15).

Quotes from this edition of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Thursday, October 13, 2011

What is a ruling elder?

Other than being a husband and father the highest calling and greatest privilege of my life is serving as a ruling elder at our church. In Presbyterianism there are two types of elders -- "ruling elders" and "teaching elders". Teaching elders are typically pastors who have the primary responsibility for teaching and the sacraments (such is the case at my church where the pastor is the only teaching elder), but that doesn't mean ruling elders don't also have a responsibility to teach and promote the spiritual health of the congregation. They do, as texts like 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:9 make clear.

Both types of elders are ordained and take vows, and in the Presbyterian form of government are, in a real sense, equals. One of the reasons I like this system -- other than the fact that I believe it to be both wise and biblical -- is that it allows someone like myself with no formal theological education or experience to be selected by a congregation to serve in an ordained leadership role within the church. As I said, it's a great privilege!

Here's more on the responsibilities of a ruling elder from Carl Trueman.

Doctrinal competence is non-negotiable. It is the one major difference between qualifications for being a deacon and being an elder and it speaks clearly to the nature of the office. Elders have responsibility for the doctrinal integrity of the congregations in which they are placed. They are to be sound in life and doctrine and be able to teach. This does not necessarily mean pulpit ministry; but it does mean the ability to instruct others in the faith in some church context, as, for example Sunday school or pastoral visitation or in so [sic]

This means that the elders are [sic] have a responsibility to make sure that the minister's teaching each week is orthodox. If it is not so, and if they then fail to act, they are as culpable for the propagation of error as the minister himself.

It also means that the elders are to help ensure an environment conducive to the sound teaching of the word. This may take many forms. Most significant, I believe, is the consistent protection of the minister from hypercritical members of the congregation. This is not because the minister is above criticism but because he is always vulnerable to discouragement at the hands of cranks with assorted axes to grind. Elders should function as his bodyguard, weeding out unfair criticism and rebuking crackpots.

Because of the huge responsibility towards the church which elders carry, they are also to continue to study diligently and thus to make sure that their knowledge of theology is constantly being strengthened.

There you have it. A ruling elder should be a mix of teacher, listener, encourager, bodyguard and student.

Monday, October 10, 2011

To dilute the meaning of "lost" is to dilute the meaning of "saved"

The "lost" are such as require a "Seeker" and "Savior"; when tempted to dilute or tone down the meaning of this word, it should suffice to remember that in the same proportion as this is done we also detract from the Savior-title of our Lord a substantial part of its significance. And conversely, if we allow ourselves to lose sight of even the smallest part of what the words "to save" and "Savior" connote, it necessarily modifies the sound which the word "lost" carries to our ear. There is no escape from this; it is the inherent logic of the structure of the gospel.

Quote by Geerhardus Vos, "Seeking and Saving the Lost" (sermon on Luke 19:10)

Once again on pastors and politics

Over the weekend I happened to catch the pastor of First Baptist Dallas being interviewed by Anderson Cooper on CNN. Earlier, this pastor spoke at the Values Voter Summit in favor of Rick Perry while making the case that evangelical Republican voters shouldn't support Mitt Romney because of his Mormon religion and questionable conservative credentials. In the interview with Cooper he defended his Romney comments and went on to cite the "unbiblical" policies of President Obama as reason why he would reluctantly support Romney if in fact he turns out to be the nominee.

Now I agreed with the substance of some of what he said, but the whole thing made me sad because of the collateral damage being done to the cause of Christ and this pastor's standing as a minister of His gospel. The context and tone were all wrong. It seemed to me that he was doing what the Apostle Paul said he would never do: putting obstacles in the way of the gospel.

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor. 9:12)

The "right" Paul is talking about here is the right to be compensated by the Corinthian church. He hasn't taken advantage of this right for fear that it would interfere with his ability to be heard as an apostle of Christ. And not just here. Throughout the New Testament we see Paul jealously guarding his ability to preach the gospel without hindrance.

Yes, prominent pastors have rights, including the right to publicly speak out on politics. But should they make use of that right? By taking such a public stand in support of Rick Perry -- and making inflammatory statements about Romney and Obama -- this pastor has pretty much guaranteed that at least 50 percent of the population of Dallas/Fort Worth will never consider darkening the door of his church or listening to anything he has to say about Jesus. Plus there's the matter of his flock. Might not some of the members be troubled by the fact that their senior pastor has made their church a de facto arm of the Rick Perry for President Campaign? Was it worth it?

I'm sure this pastor sincerely believes that America needs Rick Perry as president, but at most Governor Perry if elected will be in the White House for eight years. A minister of the gospel is an agent of the Kingdom of God entrusted with a message of eternal consequence. Later in chapter nine of 1 Corinthians Paul gives a model for ministry that Christian leaders would we wise to consider before jumping into the fever swamp of presidential politics.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist colleague of the pastor in question, tweeted: "Too many evangelicals want their pastors to be politicians and their politicians to be pastors. That's a pitiful reversal."

Friday, October 7, 2011

"10,000 times better than anything I've ever done"

We may be reaching a saturation point with all the tributes to Steve Jobs. Yet in his case descriptors like genius, man who changed the world, and visionary are all perfectly apt. I'm on the periphery of those millions who claim (rightly) that "Steve changed my life". The only Apple device I own is an iPod which I use almost daily on my commute to and from work. Yes, it's a blessing, and probably if I thought long enough I could come up with less tangible ways my life has been affected by Steve.

The most intriguing thing to me about Steve Jobs bio is his early family history -- born to a single mother and then adopted by a solid middle-class family from whose home he launched his world-changing enterprise. Reportedly he had no relationship with his biological father, despite the latter's wish to one day sit down and have coffee with his famous son. Perhaps we'll learn more in the upcoming biography.

I have little in common with Steve Jobs except that he too was a father. That's probably why I found the following very moving -- this from a NYT account of Jobs' last days ("With Time Running Short, Jobs Managed His Farewells").

“Steve made choices,” Dr. Ornish said. “I once asked him if he was glad that he had kids, and he said, ‘It’s 10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done.’ ”. . . .

“Everyone always wanted a piece of Steve,” said one acquaintance who, in Mr. Jobs’s final weeks, was rebuffed when he sought an opportunity to say goodbye. “He created all these layers to protect himself from the fan boys and other peoples’ expectations and the distractions that have destroyed so many other companies.

“But once you’re gone, you belong to the world.”

Mr. Jobs’s biographer, Mr. Isaacson, whose book will be published in two weeks, asked him why so private a man had consented to the questions of someone writing a book. “I wanted my kids to know me,” Mr. Jobs replied, Mr. Isaacson wrote Thursday in an essay on “I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.”

So human. So understandable. It seems that in the end Jobs found most significance not in the things that set him apart -- his business empire, his technological achievements, his iconic status -- but in those things that bound him to the human race from time immemorial.

Seeing Providence in our economic circumstances (John Flavel)

Debates about economic issues dominate the news and the political discourse in Washington. Slogans and buzzwords fill the air. One man's "economic justice" is another man's "class warfare". One group yells about corporate greed and the evils of big business while another excoriates big government. I'll admit I'm much more sympathetic to the arguments of the first group, and I'll continue to be a participant in these debates since they involve issues that have affected my family. But through it all the child of God can thankfully rest in the fact that God is working even our economic circumstances for our good, and his glory.

I love this quote from John Flavel (The Mystery of Providence).

Though the wisdom of Providence has ordered you a lower and poorer condition than others, yet consider how many there are that are lower than you in the world. You have but little of the world, yet others have less. Read the description of those persons (Job 30:4, etc.). If God has given you but a small portion of the world, yet if you are godly He has promised never to forsake you (Heb. 13:5). Providence has ordered that condition for you which is really best for your eternal good. If you had more of the world than you have, your heads and hearts might not be able to manage it to your advantage. A small boat must have but a narrow sail. You have not lacked hitherto the necessities of life, and are commanded 'having food and raiment (though none of the finest) to be therewith content.' 'A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked' (Ps. 37:16): better in the acquisition, sweeter in the fruition, and more comfortable in the account.

Quote from The Mystery of Providence, p. 78 [italics emphasis mine]

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Who abides?

The Apostle John's first epistle is much less linear than any of Paul's epistles. John presents his material in a circular fashion that makes it harder to connect the dots. He'll state an argument one way and then later state it in a slightly different way. A book like 1 John defies proof-texting. With Paul you can usually pick out a verse and say this is the summary statement that Paul's argument has been leading up to. John seems to be making one summary statement after another.

What's fascinating is that the more you read 1 John as a whole -- the way it's meant to be read -- the more you begin to see connections and parallels that eluded you earlier. It's like watching a movie with a convoluted plot. The more times you watch it the more you pick up on plot details you might have missed before. An example.

1 John 2:17 - And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Now here is a very important statement and a careful reader will ask, "What exactly is the will of God?" Doing the "will of God" is, on reflection, a quite non-specific imperative linked to a supremely important indicative -- abiding forever -- which here is presented as the alternative to passing away along with the world and its desires. We're talking here the difference between ultimate life and ultimate death! Fast forward to chapter 3.

1 John 3:24 - Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.

So if we assume that abiding in God, and he in us, is parallel to the abiding forever spoken of in 2:17, then keeping God's commandments is connected to doing the will of God. Yes, the imperative to keep God's commandments is more specific than the imperative of doing the will of God, but can we get even more specific? Yes we can because John has just given us a beautiful summary description of God's commandment(s) one verse previous.

1 John 3:23 - And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another. . .

Now we have an answer from John to our original question, "What exactly is the will of God?" Answer: It is to "believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another." An expanded translation of 2:17 might then read:

1 John 2:17 - And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God [believes in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and loves one another] abides forever.

If none of that made sense then blame the guy pictured above.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

J.I. Packer on God's wrath

A while back I posted some bits from Knowing God on the doctrine of divine judgment, or more precisely on Jesus as the Father's agent of judgment. Packer follows up this difficult subject with the equally difficult subject of wrath as an attribute of God. Like judgment, this is a subject many (myself included) would rather not face up to, but it's all throughout the Bible. The very writer, John, who tells us the wonderful news that God is love goes on in the next breath to speak of judgment (see 1 John 4), and it's his revelation on Patmos that provides us with images of God's wrath in action which boggle the mind.

Packer suggests that some believers feel the idea of wrath to be "unworthy of God". We have to understand that when Scripture uses anthropomorphic language such as the word "anger" to describe an attribute or action of God it does so leaving out the imperfections and sinfully mixed motives of human beings. The same is true of "love".

Thus, God's love, as the Bible views it, never leads him to foolish, impulsive, immoral actions in the way that its human counterpart too often leads us. And in the same way, God's wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. God is only angry where anger is called for. Even among humans, there is such a thing as righteous indignation, though it is, perhaps, rarely found. But all God's indignation is righteous.

What this means is that God's anger, or wrath, is never motivated by the things our anger often is -- wounded pride, cruelty, bad temper. God never "loses it". His motivations are always pure. His wrath is as much a part of his moral perfection as his love.

That being said, this doctrine has been much abused. Many folks have been turned off to the Christian message because of an unbalanced presentation of a wrathful God absent the good news of his mercy, grace and love. Wacko sects gleefully consigning people to hell should disgust followers of Jesus. Yet I believe Packer is correct that unless we reckon with the "solemn reality" of God's wrath we'll inevitably end up with a watered down gospel. I heartily recommend his classic treatment of these hard but foundational truths.

Quote from Knowing God (p. 151)

Jesse vs. FNC

Though I'm sympathetic with the concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement/campout taking place in lower Manhattan I suspect it's as much about anarchism and highly degreed angst as it is about advancing any constructive political agenda. Perhaps time will prove me wrong. In any case it's resulted in some interesting street theater, as in this confrontation between a Fox News producer and protestor Jesse LaGreca. Not surprisingly the interview never made it on the air, but was captured by another camera, posted on YouTube, and quickly went viral.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bloodlines (2011)

This is a well-done 18-minute documentary with John Piper revisiting his roots in Greenville, South Carolina and recounting how the gospel delivered him from the racist attitudes of his youth. The main thing I took away from this is that it's possible to grow up in a Christian home as a saved individual and still be in the grip of deep generational and societal sin. Thank God for the gospel of Jesus Christ that turns racists into agents of reconciliation!