Wednesday, November 30, 2011

An encouraging development

From Jonathan Macey @ Politico:

This time it is the Wall Street bankers and not the Occupiers who are getting hit with pepper spray.

The spray comes straight from the laser printer in the chambers of a federal judge, Jed Rakoff, in New York. The victory that Rakoff gave to the Occupy Wall Street movement Monday came from the federal courthouse — not far from Zucotti Park, the lower Manhattan headquarters of OWS.

Rakoff is the leader of a new wave of judges who take the view that the litigation dance played by the SEC and Wall Street actually affects other people — like investors and home buyers and even the economy as a whole.

He refused to allow the usual chummy settlement between a government agency – the Securities and Exchange Commission — and a major bank – Citigroup. He instead created a new legal paradigm — in which the big banks and their purported government watchdogs must give the rest of us a look at the backroom machinations that have ruined the U.S. economy.

The SEC sued Citigroup earlier this year for fraud — alleging that the bank sold investors mortgage-bank securities that the bank knew would default, while claiming that the securities were safe and had been “rigorously selected by an independent investment adviser.” Investors lost $700 million. The bank made a profit of $160 million by taking a short position in the very assets it foisted on clients, according to the SEC’s complaint.

The SEC and Citi agreed to a business-as-usual settlement. The lawyers for the SEC and the bank, all old pros, agreed that Citi would pay a $285-million fine. As is typical, in the settlement agreement Citi agreed to go forth and do no more wrong. But, also following standard operating procedure, the SEC settled with Citi without the bank have to admit that it did anything wrong in the first place.

. . . .

“In any case like this,” Rakoff wrote, “that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth.”

Way to go, Judge Rakoff!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Moses' story. . . and mine

Psalm 90 is the only psalm attributed to Moses. It is a confession of faith and a prayer. The foundational truth is expressed at the beginning.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Bible scholars surmise that this prayer of Moses comes from the time when the Israelites were wandering the wilderness because of their unbelief. The psalm alternates between exalted affirmations of God's transcendent eternal characteristics, and plaintive descriptions of man's transitory finite existence. It's full of sublime poetry and rich theology.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Importantly, this psalm arises out of the story of Moses and his generation. They had seen God's mighty hand of salvation in ways you and I probably never will. When's the last time God parted a large body of water for you, or led you on a journey with a pillar of fire and cloud? Moses had seen that, and much more. Indeed, he had come as close to Yahweh as any mortal ever had and lived to tell about it. Moses' expression of God's faithfulness arose out of his (and Israel's) history.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

If this is Moses' story then what connection do I have to this ancient text, other than to admire it from afar? Can I -- a Gentile living thousands of years later -- make the same confession of faith as Moses? Can my generation be included in that "our"?

Moses himself predicted that a prophet like himself would come from Israel (Deuteronomy 18:15). After Moses came other great prophets, but they all pointed forward to one even greater. Jesus of Nazareth clearly saw himself as this one. After delivering his first recorded sermon in the Nazareth synagogue he sat down in the seat of Moses. He exposed the unbelief of the Jewish leaders by saying that if they truly believed Moses they would believe in him. After his resurrection he explained to the Emmaus disciples that everything in the Scriptures from Moses to the prophets was about him.

Later, the Apostles would make explicit what the Hebrew prophets hinted at -- Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, came to bring salvation to the nations. By his blood he destroyed the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile and brought near those who before were far off. Now we are being made a "dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Jesus is both the culmination and continuation of Israel's story. That story continues in the church, built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles. It continues in families who love and fear the God that Moses loved and feared, and it continues in the hearts of individual Christians. This grand story of redemption is brought into sharper focus during the season of Advent.

In Christ, my story and Moses' story merge into one. That's why I can say. . .

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The advantage of a thankful heart (Flavel)

One more quote from John Flavel's The Mystery of Providence. . .

This I dare presume to say, that whoever finds a careful and a thankful heart to record and treasure the daily experiences of God's mercy to him shall never lack new mercies to record to his dying day.

We are prone to forget God's mercies toward us, which is why the psalmist preaches to himself: "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits" (Psalm 103). What a good reminder as we gear up for the Thanksgiving holiday!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Howard Zinn, the 99%, and the problem of the 100%

If the Occupy Wall Street movement had a sacred text it should be A People's History of the United States. This polemical history was Howard Zinn's attempt to take an anti-Establishment sledgehammer to the Great Men Theory of History in which little or no attention is paid to people's movements welling up from below. Zinn inveighed against what he called "the idea of saviors" and wanted to rouse the ordinary citizenry to rise up and take matters into their own hands instead of looking for salvation from Washington or Wall Street or other locations of elite power.

Thirty years ago Zinn wrote about the concept of the 99 percent. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess that's where the Occupy people got the idea for their slogan. Zinn argued that the 1 percent employ a divide and conquer strategy to maintain control. This is done by giving "small rewards" to millions of the 99 percent to keep them from joining the discontented "troublesome minority" agitating for change. Zinn thought that if a day ever came when those middle-class millions woke up and realized they no longer had a stake in the system, then there would be a possibility for a widespread grass roots uprising (see my post from last summer Glenn Beck, Howard Zinn and middle-class discontent).

Here are some excerpts from the chapter in which Zinn introduces this idea. The chapter is hopefully titled "The Coming Revolt of the Guards."

One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. [The percentage is higher today] The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.

Against the reality of that desperate, bitter battle for resources made scarce by elite control, I am taking the liberty of uniting those 99 percent as "the people." I have been writing a history that attempts to represent their submerged, deflected, common interest. (p. 632)

In a highly developed society, the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going: the soldiers and police, teachers and ministers, administrators and social workers, technicians and production workers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, transport and communications workers, garbagemen and firemen. These people—the employed, the somewhat privileged—are drawn into alliance with the elite. They become guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes. If they stop obeying, the system fails.

That will happen, I think, only when all of us who are slightly privileged and slightly uneasy begin to see that we are like the guards in the prison uprising at Attica—expendable; that the Establishment, whatever rewards it gives us, will also, if necessary to maintain its control, kill us. (p. 635)

. . . the more of the 99 percent that begin to see themselves as sharing needs, the more the guards and the prisoners see their common interest, the more the Establishment becomes isolated, ineffectual. The elite's weapons, money, control of information would be useless in the face of a determined population. . . . We readers and writers of books have been, for the most part, among the guards. If we understand that, and act on it, not only will life be more satisfying, right off, but our grandchildren, or our great grandchildren, might possibly see a different and marvelous world. (pp. 640-1)

From where I stand Howard Zinn's narrative has a lot of explanatory power (and it has some problems which I'll point out in a second). We live in a society in which forces are at work to keep us living atomized self-absorbed existences rather than coming together to make common cause for the common good. Some trends that Zinn was identifying in the 70s and 80s have continued, even accelerated, like the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. And the gap continues to widen.

I wonder, as the father of two young boys, what kind of opportunities will they have if the trends of the last decade continue? Will a quality education be available only to the affluent? Even some politicians and commentators on the right are beginning to notice the erosion of social mobility that's been one of the things we Americans have pointed to as evidence of our exceptionalism. The idea that all you have to do to get ahead is work hard and play by the rules has been dealt a grievous blow in recent decades. So yes, I'm sympathetic to the idea of the solidarity of the 99 percent. I'm sure I wouldn't agree with many of the things espoused by what is a diverse group of people, but the Occupy protestors have put the focus on issues we should be discussing. They get to questions of what kind of nation do we want to be? And what are the characteristics of a good and just society?

Some problems. . .

Both Zinn and OWS are naive to think that fundamental change can happen without at some point working within the system. In the long run people's movements that don't lead to legislation won't change anything. The women's suffrage movement led to the 19th Amendment. The civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act. All the protest marches in the world won't do any good unless they lead to a constructive use of the levers of power. It's naive to think we can, or should, eliminate all hierarchical structures from society. My answer to anyone advocating anarchy? No. A hundred times no.

The bigger problem with A People's History is that it doesn't take into account the problem of the 100 percent, a problem we all share, which is the pervasive effect of human fallenness. The Bible calls it sin. Taking this into account a Christian view of human nature will recognize the difference between working for a more just and peaceful society, and the dangerous delusion that we can create heaven on earth. Howard Zinn was an atheist, and so didn't believe in sin and the need for divine rescue. I think he believed we could create a utopian society if only the 99 percent would get together, and work hard enough.

Howard Zinn's dream of a different and marvelous world for our children resonates with me. The insurmountable problem, though, is that the new worlds of our own creation carry within them the same potential for injustice and oppression as the ones they replace. That is, until the kingdoms of this world become the Kingdoms of our Lord.

Quotes from A People's History of the United States: 1492 - Present


One of the marks of a great fiction writer is the knack for creating vivid three-dimensional characters with a minimum of fuss and type space. John Steinbeck had it. . .

A tall man stood in the doorway. He held a crushed Stetson hat under his arm while he combed his long, black, damp hair straight back. Like the others he wore blue jeans and a short denim jacket. When he had finished combing his hair he moved into the room, and he moved with a majesty achieved only by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.

Paragraphs like that separate the men from the boys.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Which Christianity? (Keller)

The first half of Tim Keller's The Reason for God deals with some common objections secular Westerners have to Christianity.

How could a good God allow suffering?
You can't take the Bible literally.
The church has been responsible for so much injustice.
Hasn't science disproved Christianity?

Questions and statements like these constitute what Keller has called elsewhere "defeater beliefs" -- beliefs that have to be confronted before you can gain a hearing for the gospel message. The second half of the book is devoted to making the positive case for the Christian faith.

But before getting to that, Keller anticipates a question in an Intermission chapter -- How do you define Christianity? After all Christians are a veritable hodge-podge of beliefs and practices. Imagine the disorientation of someone attending a Catholic Mass one day and a Pentecostal service the next. He could be forgiven for thinking he had experienced two different religions. Nevertheless, Keller writes that it's possible to identify a core of beliefs and practices that make up what C.S. Lewis called "mere Christianity."

. . . all Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians assent together to the great creeds of the first thousand years of church history, such as the Apostle's, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. In these creeds the fundamental Christian view of reality is laid out. There is the classical expression of the Christian understanding of God as three-in-one. Belief in the Trinity creates a profoundly different view of the world from that of polytheists, non-Trinitarian monotheists, and atheists, as I will show in Chapter 13. There is also a strong statement of the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ in these creeds. Christians, therefore, do not look upon Jesus as one more teacher or prophet, but as Savior of the world. These teachings make Christians far more like than unlike one another.

What is Christianity? For our purposes, I'll define Christianity as the body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds. . .

That's good. Also included in the Christian view of reality expressed in the creeds are humanity's fall into sin, salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the establishment of the church to continue Christ's mission until he returns to judge sin, remove evil, and usher in the new heavens and earth.

Of course, once you start asking the "how" questions (How does Jesus's death accomplish our salvation?, etc.) you will get significantly different answers from different traditions and denominations. Also, since Christianity is spread across every region of the world it will look different depending on the context. So even though there are no truly "generic" Christians there is a definable body of beliefs that define Christianity. Even believers who've never heard of the creeds listed above are defined by the beliefs which they articulate, and the episodes of church history from which they emerged. The Roman Catholic and the "no creed but the Bible" fundamentalist have more in common than they might think!

Quote from this edition of The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, pp. 120-1

Calvinism, Arminianism and foreknowledge

Michael Horton writes: "Among the caricatures of Calvinism is the widespread claim that it renders God the author of evil, suffering, sin, and even the fall of humanity itself." However, both Calvinist and Arminian theologies teach that God knew beforehand that Adam and Eve would fall into sin, yet he created them anyway. This logically leads to questions such as. . .

If God knew that Adam and Eve were going to transgress his law, why didn’t he change the circumstances so that they would have made a different choice?

Why would God create people he knew would be condemned for their original and actual sin?

Horton argues that those questions pose a "vexing challenge" for Arminians just as much as for Calvinists, and it has nothing to do with predestination, it has to do with foreknowledge. Since Arminianism affirms the comprehensive foreknowledge of God then it is vulnerable to the same charge Arminians often fling at Calvinists -- that our theology turns God into some sort of moral monster.


Taking on this question in a blog post is a little dangerous. For a statement of the Reformed position and its scriptural basis, I’d refer readers to For Calvinism.

However, there is one point that is worth pondering briefly: Non-Calvinist theologies are just as vulnerable on this question. Classic Arminian theology shares with Calvinism—indeed with all historic branches of Christianity—that God’s foreknowledge comprehends all future events. There is nothing that happens, nothing that you and I do, that lies outside of God’s eternal foreknowledge.

Now go back and read those questions above. Notice that they don’t refer to predestination, but to mere foreknowledge. They pose a vexing challenge not merely to Calvinists but to anyone who believes that God knows exhaustively and eternally everything that will happen. In other words, everyone who affirms God’s exhaustive foreknowledge has exactly the same problem as any Calvinist. If God knows that Adam will sin—or that you and I will sin—and could keep it from happening, but does not, and God’s knowledge is infallible, then it is just as certain as if he had predestined it. In fact, it is the same as being predestined. Then the only difference is whether it is determined without purpose or with purpose.

Horton goes on to discuss that difference. He also talks about how strains of hyper-Calvinism and hyper-Arminianism both share the same impatience with mystery, and cautions against pitting Scripture against Scripture in order to achieve rational satisfaction. Like everything Mike Horton writes this is balanced and charitable. Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

GOP disconnect

Henry Olsen writing in The Weekly Standard gives some of the reasons why I'm not the reliable Republican vote I used to be.

The GOP base voter believes the deficit is as large a problem as the economy; the white working-class independent does not. The GOP base voter believes cutting entitlements is necessary to cut the deficit and that taxes on the rich should not be raised; the white working-class independent disagrees. The GOP base voter wants to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan; the white working-class independent wants to come home. The GOP base voter scorns Occupy Wall Street; the white working-class independent thinks the Occupiers have something of a point.


Monday, November 14, 2011

How soccer explains Berlusconi

Yesterday Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister of Italy. He'd managed to survive years of sensational tabloid headlines and more serious charges of corruption, but he wasn't able to survive the debt crisis engulfing Italy. Already speculation is rampant that Berlusconi will return to his first love -- the presidency of the AC Milan football club -- a position he was forced to give up after being elected to a third stint as PM in 2008. "Berlusconi, give up on Italy and come and help Milan rise to the top before they take you away in handcuffs," one fan pleads on an internet messageboard. Under Berlusconi's reign AC Milan had an astonishing run of success in the 80s and 90s which fueled his rise in politics.

But first a bit of background. For decades the most successful club in Italian football was Juventus of Turin. They were the New York Yankees of Italian sports. Juventus was owned by the Agnelli family, owners of Fiat. The Agnelli's were old-style oligarchs, preferring to keep a low profile as they pulled the strings of Italian politics. People used to joke that the job of the Prime Minister was to polish the Agnelli's doorknob. Then along came Berlusconi. He didn't fit the mold of the older generation Italian elite. He came from modest means and forged an amazing upward path through hard work and a winning personality. For example Berlusconi paid his own way through law school with money he earned singing on cruise ships. Stories like this made him a populist hero. Instead of shunning the limelight he sought it out, and cultivated the image of a self-made businessman who had what it took to bring Italy out of it's ethical and economic malaise. By the 1980s he was owner of a media empire, and ready for bigger things.

Franklin Foer picks up the story in How Soccer Explains the World:

While Berlusconi had been a major media mogul before becoming a sports mogul, it was the purchase of the soccer club in 1986 that launched him to national prominence. When he entered politics in 1994, running for prime minister, the game undergirded his electoral strategy. In a matter of months, Berlusconi's advertising firm Publitalia (one of his breathtaking array of holdings) went about the business of building him a political party. For the party's base, it started with the several million fans of AC Milan. It converted supporters' clubs into local headquarters for his party. Publitalia dubbed the Forza Italia rank and file the "Azuri," the same nickname given to the players on the national team for their blue uniforms.

Berlusconi invoked soccer so relentlessly because his club was in the middle of a spectacular run that included consecutive Champions League titles. He wanted to plant the idea in voters' minds that he was a winner, at a time when the economy sputtered and all politicians in Italy seemed like corrupt losers. "We will make Italy like Milan," he tirelessly repeated. There was also a populist brilliance to his use of soccer as a metaphor for society. It gave him a vocabulary that resonated with the lower middle class, the group that he wanted to cultivate as a political base.

At AC Milan Berlusconi brought in coaches and players to implement a flashy attacking style of football in contrast to the staid defensive-minded approach epitomized by Juventus. The team became a reflection of its boss. Sadly, the promise to bring that same dynamism and success to the Italian masses seems to have failed. Berlusconi leaves Italy in terrible shape and may well end up being taken away in handcuffs before all is said and done. Yet all will be forgiven if he can bring another moment of soccer glory.

The pervasive role of soccer in Italy is fascinating (there's much more about it in Foer's book), and serves as a case study of the idolatrous hold sports can have on a society. Another case study is the sad and sordid scandal unfolding at Penn State University. As a passionate fan of college football (and soccer) I have to wonder: what is it that makes us prone to placing too much importance on a game? And so prone to ascribing god-like qualities to those who win? The answer lies in the fact that we are wired to worship something bigger than ourselves. Games -- especially one as beautiful as soccer -- have the potential for delivering transcendent moments. Therein lies the appeal, and the danger. When soccer or football (or fill-in-the-blank) becomes a god, desires and priorities inevitably become disordered.

Quote from Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, pp. 185-6

Sunday, November 13, 2011


"O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be!" we sang in church this morning. But what is this grace? Here's a good scriptural answer from J.I. Packer.

In the New Testament, grace means God's love in action toward people who merited the opposite of love. Grace means God moving heaven and earth to save sinners who could not save themselves. Grace means God sending his only Son to the cross to descend into hell so that we guilty ones might be reconciled to God and received into heaven. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).

Quote from Knowing God, p. 249

Friday, November 11, 2011

Saul Bellow on language

One’s language is a spiritual location, it houses your soul. If you were born in America all essential communications, your deepest communications with yourself, will be in English—in American English. You will neither lie nor tell the truth in any other language. Without it no basic reckonings can be made. You will not reflect on your own death in Hebrew or in French. Your English is the principal instrument of your humanity. And when the door of the gas chamber was shut many of the German Jews who called upon God for the last time inevitably used the language of their murderers, for they had no other.

Quote from "A Jewish Writer in America" (The New York Review of Books)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tree of Life and Thomas à Kempis

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is a many-splendored thing. I've watched it twice and various parts of it have affected me in different ways. It's like holding up a diamond in shifting rays of light. There's much that is opaque and open to various interpretations, which isn't surprising since ambiguity and refusal to talk about the meaning of his films are part of the writer/director's stock-in-trade. But what is obvious is that the dichotomy between grace and nature is the most important theme of the film. The primary protagonist, Jack, sees his mother (Jessica Chastain) as the epitome of the "way of grace" and his father (Brad Pitt) as representing the "way of nature." In many ways they represent the same opposition as the Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn characters in The Thin Red Line.

The nature versus grace theme is spelled out in as clear a way as you'll ever find in a Malick film in this voiceover by the mother.

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace.

You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself.

Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.

Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself.

Get others to please it too.

Likes to lord it over them.

To have its own way.

It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.

And love is smiling through all things.

When I first heard that I thought immediately of 1 Corinthians 13. Substitute love for grace and you'll see what I mean. Then recently I came across another likely source of inspiration for the grace/nature trope: The Imitation of Christ. Here are some lines from Book 3, Chapter 54 "On the Opposition between Nature and Grace". . .

Nature indeed is wily and betrays many through its deceits and crafty ways, and has always self as its end.

Nature always looks to its own advantage, considering what gain it can derive from another. But grace is not concerned with its own profit, but with what may benefit others.

Nature is greedy and gladly takes rather than gives, and clings possessively to private possessions. But grace is kind and unselfish, avoids self-interest, is content with little, and rightly judges that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

Grace seeks comfort only in God, finding delight in the Sovereign Good beyond all things visible.

Evidently those nuns that taught the mother were reading Thomas. Later in the movie the nature/grace conflict is internalized within the boy Jack -- who I think is a proxy for the filmmaker -- when he delivers a direct quote from Romans 7: "What I want to do, I can't do, I do what I hate."

The Tree of Life stops short of presenting a clear solution to that dilemma. It's not a "Christian film", it's not a systematic presentation of biblical theology, or the plan of salvation. But then the The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia stories are none of those things either. I'm not saying Terrence Malick is in the same league as Tolkien and Lewis, but through his cinema I catch glimpses of "the Sovereign Good beyond all things visible." And the final beatific ten minutes of The Tree of Life invites me to dare believe in a far country where our divided selves will be united, past present and future reconciled, and everything sad will come untrue.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Once more on adoption

Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" John 20:17

This is a pivotal statement. The risen Jesus announces to Mary Magdalene the astonishing new relationship that's been created by his atoning death and resurrection. The disciples -- that bedraggled band of fearful misfits who abandoned their master at the hour of his greatest need -- Jesus now calls, "my brothers." His Father has now become their Father. This isn't a natural-born family relationship. It's adoption. An act of unmerited kindness toward those who by nature are enemies of God.

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13

Bible translators at work

Did you ever wonder how Bible translation happens? Here's a 4-minute video that shows just that. Other than the notebook computers and clothing styles not a lot has changed since that august group of 17th century Englishmen gave us the King James Version. In this example the English Standard Version (ESV) translation committee is debating how to translate the Hebrew word ebed and the Greek word doulos -- words often translated slave even though the original words can have various renderings depending on the context. This video demonstrates that translations of the Bible don't fall from the sky with a divine imprimatur, but are the result of diligent and prayerful scholarship. Whatever our preferred translation we should be thankful for the men and women who do the hard work of making it possible to read God's Word as accurately as possible in our own language.

via Justin Taylor

Friday, November 4, 2011

"Moral traffic light" monologue from The Fisher King

I think of this scene often.

The Fisher King (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Marijuana - not so harmless

It's amazing to me how widespread marijuana is in our society. Maybe I've been naive? I know attorneys for whom smoking pot is a regular part of their leisure activities. Don't ask me how I know, but I know. At the other end of the economic spectrum is our neighborhood, where it's not unusual to see young black men strolling down the street in broad daylight smoking a joint. And I know some blue-collar working people that like to get high too. Has reefer gone mainstream?

Often you'll hear a distinction made between marijuana (the peaceful innocuous drug that doesn't hurt anybody) and "harder" drugs associated with crime, violence and addiction. The truth is more complicated as this news story from The Palm Beach Post demonstrates.

BOCA RATON — Three teenagers had a plan to buy marijuana Sunday night with counterfeit money, police said. But the ill-fated scheme backfired, leaving two of them clinging to life.

They used a scanner at Northwood University in West Palm Beach to make $1,250 in counterfeit money, then bought a quarter-pound of marijuana from a Boca Raton drug dealer, police said.

But the 19-year-old dealer, Thomas Fenech, recognized the fake money, grabbed his AK-47 assault rifle and ran out of his house, blasting 21 rounds into a black Mustang and wounding two of its occupants, police said.

It happened about 8:30 p.m. in the parking lot of Fenech's apartment in the 300 block of Northwest 19th Street.


The well-heeled professionals smoking pot in the privacy of their home may justify what they're doing as harmless, but those drugs had to come from somewhere. I bet the other residents of that apartment complex (including children no doubt) are glad the local gun-wielding pot dealer is behind bars.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


O how shall I the goodness tell,
Father, which Thou to me hast showed?
That I, a child of wrath and hell,
I should be called a child of God.

Charles Wesley wrote those ecstatic words in the grip of wonder at being adopted in Christ as a child of God. J.I. Packer argues that the truth of adoption is the key to unlocking the deepest insights into the gospel and the New Testament's teaching on the Christian life. This is true, he says, even though the word "adoption" appears only five times in the NT. I think Packer is absolutely right. Adoption is the crowning blessing of Christ's saving work, and when Scripture invites us to address God as Father, or think of ourselves as his children, adoption is in the background. It's because of adoption that we can pray, "Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name."

One of the few texts that explicitly mentions adoption is Galatians 4:4-7. Previous to this the Apostle Paul has been making the case that faith in Christ, not law-keeping, is what makes Jew and Gentile right with God and true children of Abraham, the exemplar of faith. Flowing out of justification is the blessing of adoption. Through faith we are made "heirs according to promise" and are no longer slaves under the guardianship of the law. The implications are enormous. Here's the key text.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

To get the full import of Paul's use of the language of adoption and sonship we need to know a bit about the 1st-century Greco-Roman context. In this society females had no inheritance rights so wealthy men without a son would often adopt a boy from the lower castes to be groomed as an heir. When this boy came of age he would have all the rights that a biological son would have had in that household. Paul announces that in Christ male and female have become one (see Gal. 3:28) and received the full rights of sonship. Further, that we receive the Spirit of adoption who gives us assurance that God our Judge has become God our "Abba" -- the same Aramaic word for father used by Jesus to address his, and now our, Heavenly Father. Justification gives us peace with God, adoption gives us a Father.

In another respect our adoption in Christ is far different from the adoption practiced in Paul's day, or for that matter in our day. It's this aspect that reveals to us the greatness of God's love, and that left Wesley grasping for words. Packer explains in his essential chapter on adoption in Knowing God.

In the ancient world, adoption was a practice ordinarily confined to the childless well-to-do. Its subjects, as we said earlier, were not normally infants, as today, but young adults who had shown themselves fit and able to carry on a family name in a worthy way. In this case, however, God adopts us out of free love, not because our character and record show us worthy to bear his name, but despite the fact that they show the very opposite. We are not fit for a place in God's family; the idea of his loving and exalting us sinners as he loves and has exalted the Lord Jesus sounds ludicrous and wild—yet that, and nothing less than that, is what our adoption means.

Adoption, by its very nature, is an act of free kindness to the person adopted. If you become a father by adopting a son or daughter, you do so because you choose to, not because you are bound to. Similarly, God adopts because he chooses to. He had no duty to do so. He need not have done anything about our sins except punish us as we deserved. But he loves us; so he redeemed us, forgave us, took us as his sons and daughters and gave himself to us as our Father.

Of course God's love doesn't stop there, just as an earthly adoptive parent's love doesn't stop when the legal process is complete. It remains to establish a genuine filial relationship with your son or daughter. You do this by loving the child with the goal of winning the child's love in return. This is exactly what God does. Packer states that the prospect facing the adopted child of God is an eternity of love. Christian, do you see your relationship with God through the lens of adoption? What a difference it makes!

Another implication of adoption is that as children of God we'll want to please our Father by showing forth the family likeness. The Sermon on the Mount gives the fullest picture of what that looks like. Yet even when we mess up God won't cast us out of the family. Only bad fathers do that. He may discipline us as an all-wise father who sees our lives from an eternal perspective, but that's further confirmation of our adoption (see Heb. 12:7, etc).

Discipline, yes. Disinheritance, no. Remember. You are no longer slaves. You are sons. You are heirs.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.

Quote from Knowing God, p. 215