Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Islam: more than a religion

It's hard to find discussions of Islam free from the extremes of either naivetĂ© or paranoia. That's why I appreciated this special issue of Modern Reformation devoted to tackling the topic from a distinctly Reformed viewpoint. Especially good is the article by Michael Horton: "Loving Muslim Neighbors".

Horton recounts his family's positive experience living next door to a Muslim family in their middle-class California neighborhood. This is an experience that will become more and more common in the United States, and should be looked upon as an opportunity not a threat. How should Christians view our Muslim neighbors? Horton's answer is just that -- as neighbors -- as defined by Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which means looking for ways to serve them and share the gospel of Christ Jesus in word and deed.

However, loving and serving our Muslim neighbors shouldn't mean we naively accept Islam as "just another religion" seeking a place at the table of religious and political pluralism. In truth at the heart of Islam is a totalizing agenda which aims to bring religion and state, cult and cultus, together. It's an agenda of conquest. Some times this agenda is pursued by peaceful means, other times not. While admitting that there are plenty of Muslims who embrace "democratic values" Horton argues this is inconsistent with the coercive intent of their religion.

[. . .] Islam does not proclaim to the world good news that is freely embraced by faith apart from political coercion. Islam makes no distinction between mosque and state. In fact, the nation that matters ultimately is Islam—the ummah or community of Muslims around the world. This is not only an international kingdom of those who are joined spiritually to each other in a common faith, but also a political state. Islam is a totally encompassing geopolitical, social, legal, and cultural system. Whatever divergences may be allowed by specific rulers, Islam itself does not recognize, much less tolerate, any idea of a state that permits the free exercise of religion. Believing that all people are by nature Muslim, Islam divides the world sharply not into believers and unbelievers, Muslims and non-Muslims, but rather into believers and apostates ("infidels"). The latter are called Dhimmis—literally, "one whose responsibility has been taken." If they are allowed to live within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), it is only as apostates who may not practice their faith (at least openly), much less seek to convert others to it. The non-Muslim world is Dar al-Harb ("House of War").

This may sound a lot like periods of history in which the sword of the state was wrongheadedly wielded in service of the gospel. Horton admits that "our hands are stained with the blood of Christendom." Indeed, some will point to events such as the Crusades as evidence that Christianity is no different from Islam in this regard, but when Christians have tried to coerce people into the Kingdom of God they've done so in gross misunderstanding of our Lord's example and teaching, as well as the teaching of the Apostles. When Muslims try to "impose sharia, declare holy war, and extend the universal caliphate of Allah to the ends of the earth as a political empire" they are merely following what their sacred texts require them to do. That distinction bears keeping in mind as we endeavor to love our Muslim neighbors as ourselves.

Trending on social media. . .

Guns under the Christmas tree.

Have we lost our minds?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Five Limericks Against Christmas

The topics here has been heavy lately, so how about some levity. I give you Five Limericks Against Christmas by Anonymous. I hope you enjoy these as much as I do.

There was an old fellow of Dallas
Who was filled with atheist malice
And on Christmas Eve 
He cried, "I don't believe"
To small children, which was terribly callous.

There was an old dame of Westchester
A nasty Christmas molester
Who took refuse and piled it 
By the Christ child
And police were called to arrest her.

There was an old man of Seattle
Engaged in atheist battle
At a living nativity
He got so livid he
Wrestled the sheep and the cattle.

There were three girls of Vermont
Atheists just like their aunt
The family was famous
For no Adoramus
And avoiding the baptismal font.

There was an old man of Blue Hill
Who when church was quiet and still
At Christmas Eve mass
Liked to pass gas
Toward a candle, just for the thrill.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A failure of civil society

"If you had asked, in 1968, will we have the right to do with guns in 2012 what we can do now, no one, on either side, would have believed you."
- David Keene

I've been reading an informative survey of American gun laws from our beginning until now by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jill Lepore. It was written in April shortly after the Trayvon Martin and Chardon High School shootings, so not a knee-jerk reaction to the horror that transpired on Friday -- there's been way too much of that. I know this article probably won't change any minds, but here's the link -- Battleground America. Lepore argues that the gun lobby's successful setting of the terms of debate on the right to bear arms is the result of a flawed and anachronistic reading of the Second Amendment, which has more to do with the judicial led "rights revolution" of the 1960's than historically-informed constitutional interpretation (a revolution that also led to the "right" to abortion). Lepore also chronicles the evolution of the NRA from an organization of sportsmen into a single-issue advocacy group. Of course, I'm not a hunter, gun owner or enthusiast, so feel free to tell me I just don't get it.

Today in my state much is being made of the fact that we've hit the 1,000,000 mark for concealed weapons permits. That's approximately 1 in 14 Floridians packing heat. Even if we grant the argument that this makes for safer streets (I'm not convinced it does) it's a sign of a sick society. Lepore says it well.

One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left. [bold emphasis mine]

What's sad (and scary) is that so many people seem to be pretty ok with that.

See also: Guns, Belligerence, and the Loss of Neighborliness

Wednesday Wendell: Knowing and Imagining

Wendell Berry, quoted from It All Turns on Affection:

The discrepancy between what modern humans presume to know and what they can imagine—given the background of pride and self-congratulation—is amusing and even funny. It becomes more serious as it raises issues of responsibility. It becomes fearfully serious when we start dealing with statistical measures of industrial destruction.
To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we "know" that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that "Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail"—and that appears to have the force of truth.
It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Napoleon and the sovereignty of God

Charles Spurgeon -- from his sermon "God's Providence". . .

Napoleon once heard it said, that man proposes and God disposes. "Ah," said Napoleon, "but I propose and dispose too." How do you think he proposed and disposed. He proposed to go and take Russia; he proposed to make all Europe his. He proposed to destroy that power, and how did he come back again? How had he disposed of it? He came back solitary and alone, his mighty army perished and wasted, having well-nigh eaten and devoured one another through hunger. Man proposes and God disposes.

Quoted by Jerry Bridges in Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts, Chapter 5 "God's Rule over the Nations" (NavPress, 2008)

See also 2 Chronicles 20:6, Daniel 4:17, Isaiah 40:23-24, Acts 4:27-28, Romans 13:1, etc.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Thoughts on Hyles and First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN

As a native of northern Indiana I can remember hearing people in the Christian circles I grew up in refer admiringly to Jack Hyles, the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond located just outside Chicago. I hadn't thought about this for years until today when the Gospel Coalition linked to an article in Chicago Magazine -- Let Us Prey: Big Trouble at First Baptist Church.

I'm not going to quote from it. If you're interested you can read the whole sordid story yourself, and I do mean sordid. I'm not easily shocked, but some of the stuff detailed here is almost beyond belief. Clearly, this is another in a long line of tragic examples of the dangers of cult of personality and unaccountable ecclesiastical power. In a church that claims the name of Jesus: the embodiment of grace, truth and servant leadership -- this takes on an infernal aspect.

So there's a lesson here in church government, something most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about. One reason I'm a convinced Presbyterian is I actually believe its form of elder-led government is the best at taking into account the depravity of the human heart that makes clerical power and authority potentially corrupting. We have a system of checks and balances. Not that abuses like these cannot happen at Presbyterian/Reformed churches (I'm sure they have), but at least there are structures that when working properly prevent the kind of things that have been going on for decades at this church and its spin-offs.

But there's a doctrinal lesson here too that the article only hints at. Hyles and his followers intentionally cut themselves off from the centuries-long stream of orthodox creedal Christianity. Even as they railed against aspects of modern culture (rock music, short skirts, non-KJV translations of the Bible) they demonstrated a very modern impulse to create an island in which individualistic readings of scripture became authoritative. What seems on the surface a very traditional brand of religion is actually unmoored from tradition. In effect they said we don't need the communion of the saints. The scandal of First Baptist Hammond isn't only a scandal against the women and children who were tragically exploited and abused, it's a scandal against the faith once delivered to the saints and passed down to us by faithful men and woman, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who creates and sustains the church in its many expressions.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The road to dystopia

Sometimes a chart is worth a thousand words. The above examples come from a long piece by Jonathan Rauch of the National Journal - The No Good, Very Bad Outlook for the Working-Class American Man. By "working class" think lesser-educated, lesser-skilled, mostly nonprofessional men for whom the American economy used to provide jobs that earned a wage adequate to supporting a family, and provided a realistic opportunity of climbing the social ladder. That economy and those jobs no longer exist. This article is a gripping and grim read. Rauch writes:

Begin with Chart 1. It shows one of the most basic of all economic relationships, that between productivity and hourly compensation. Productivity measures the value of the output (brake pads, stock transactions) a worker produces in, say, a day; compensation is a measure of earnings that includes the value of benefits such as health insurance. The chart also shows compensation for all U.S. workers and specifically for workers in production and nonsupervisory jobs—blue-collar and clerical jobs, for example.
For decades, productivity and compensation rose in tandem. Their bond was the basis of the social compact between the economy and the public: If you work harder and better, you and your family will be better off. But in the past few decades, and especially during the past 10 years or so, the lines have diverged. This is slippage No. 1: Productivity is rising handsomely, but compensation of workers isn’t keeping up.
True, compensation is still rising, on average. But the improvements are spotty. Production and nonsupervisory workers—factory, retail, and clerical workers, for example—saw productivity gains disappear from their paychecks much earlier and got hit harder than did supervisors and professionals. Over the past 30 years or so, their compensation has hardly risen at all.
“This is something that has been happening and building for years and is now really rooted in the economy, and it’s vicious,” said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. “There’s a remarkable disconnect. The problem isn’t a lack of the economy producing sufficient income to make everybody’s living standards improve—it’s that the economy is structured so that the majority don’t benefit.” Or, to state the point more cautiously, the majority doesn’t benefit from productivity gains very much—certainly, less than our parents and grandparents did.

The outcome of all of this is a generation or two of men in which alarmingly large numbers are disconnected from steady work, marriage and family. This leads to vicious cycles of community and family breakdown, the signs of which are all around us (unless you're one of the fortunate "up and out" who can insulate yourself from the real world). Another excerpt:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

To women, men who either can’t or don’t earn a decent living are less necessary and desirable as mates; they’re just another mouth to feed. This helps to explain why rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth have risen to hitherto unimaginable heights among the less educated. Causality also flows in the opposite direction. The very fact of being married brings men a premium in their earnings, research shows, and makes them steadier workers, presumably because they have more stability at home. “Marriage is an institution that makes men more responsible in their pursuit of work and in their work-related duties,” said Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project.

You can see where this leads. Nonwork makes men less marriageable; non-marriage makes men less employable; the cycle repeats. This is slippage No. 4: Low-earning men are decreasingly able to form stable families. That, in turn, harms their children and communities. “Social capital disintegrates as you have a combination of drop in participation in the labor force and the disintegration of marriage,” said Charles Murray, a scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Given the diverging economic destinies of men at the top and bottom of the education curves, you might expect such a self-reinforcing cycle to lead to something like a self-perpetuating class divide. You would be right. “If you look back 50 years ago, there were not major class divides in marriage or family structure,” Wilcox said. Today, as Chart 6 shows, marriage and earnings correlate strongly. In 1970, more than three-fourths of men, no matter how much they earned, had wives; men at the bottom of the earnings scale were only slightly more likely to be single than were men at the top. Today, nearly half of the low-earning men are single, versus only a seventh of highly paid men.

Family structure, in short, has become both a leading cause and a primary casualty of an emerging class divide. At the top are families with two married earners, two college degrees, and kids who never question that their future includes a college degree and a good job; at the bottom, families with one (female) earner, no college, no marriage, and kids who grow up isolated from the world of work and higher education. And the two worlds are drifting apart.

In response to this some would say that the trends described here are not real (or overstated). If that's your opinion I'd love to talk to you. Another response might be: "yes he's right, but who cares?" I can imagine those of a more liberal mindset saying: "Who cares if marriage is on the decline. Who cares if lower and middle-class two-parent families are in danger of extinction. Who needs marriage? Who needs men?!" Meanwhile, they cluster together in tony zip codes where their children reap the benefits of excellent schools and a stable home life.

Those conservatives who genuflect before the altars of capitalism and the global economy might say, "Too bad, but this is the market at work." After all, we dare not interfere in the workings of the "free market." If we have a generation of men roaming the streets untethered to jobs and families we'll build more prisons to house them. This has pretty much been the approach for several decades. And the vicious cycle continues.

If economic security was my highest aspiration for my two boys (it isn't, following Jesus is) I'd be tempted to despair. As it is I'm reasonably optimistic that things will get better in the long term. America has been remarkably resilient. Spielberg's movie on Lincoln reminds us that we've triumphed over bigger challenges. A silver lining in all this for the church in America is that we're going to have many more opportunities to model the countercultural upside down values of the Kingdom of God, and demonstrate that our ultimate hope is in Christ alone.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: a Sabbath poem (and some links)

X (1979)

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.

And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we're asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

"X" by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 - 1997 (Counterpoint, 1998)

Berry was a recent guest on The Diane Rehm Show - LISTEN HERE. If you cry easy don't listen while you're driving. Finally, an article on WB in today's Urban Tulsa Weekly. Grace and peace.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fullness beyond measure

The Apostle John writes of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Word: "For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace." (John 1:16)

John Preston (1587 - 1628) exegetes this text with the passion, thoroughness and depth characteristic of his generation of English Puritans in The Fullness of Christ, recently published in an updated e-version by New Puritan Press. This is a short book, so makes a great entry point to the writings of the Puritans. Maybe these quotes will whet your appetite.

Both a little bowl and the ocean can be said to be full. Yet each is filled according to the limits of its present capacity. Christ was full according to all dimensions. He is the length, depth, breadth, and height of fullness.

. . . there was in Stephen and the saints the fullness of a container, but in Christ, there is the fullness of a spring. Their fullness was given to them by someone else and so is derivative. In Christ, there is the fullness of a fountain, which proceeds from himself and depends on no one else. The medieval scholastic theologians expressed this well when they said that Christ's and the saints' fullness differ as fire and things set on fire. The fullness of the ocean is too small to express this. The removal of even a drop or two diminishes it to some degree, but you can light a thousand torches from the fullness of fire and it is not diminished at all.

All excellence in creatures when compared to Christ is but a drop in the ocean, as a spark is to a roaring fire. If therefore we proportion our affections to the object, which ought to be the rule that governs them, we must not bestow upon the creature any more than a drop of love and delight. However, the full stream of our affections should run after Christ, in whom is all the fullness of perfection.

All quotes from The Fullness of Christ, edited and translated by James T. O'Brien (New Puritan Press, 2012)

Friday, November 30, 2012

A voice from Warrendale (updated)

In 2010 I wrote a review of Warrendale, the 1967 documentary by Allan King about the home for troubled children of the same name. In it I wondered out loud what became of the children of Warrendale.

Did the children of Warrendale grow up to be well-adjusted adults with kids of their own? They would be retirement age now. Possibly spending winters in Florida like thousands of other Canadian snowbirds. Hard to believe, but possible.

Well, turns out, some of them did. Sincere thanks to Sharon Turple Gataiance -- a resident of Warrendale when the film was made -- who came across my piece and posted this reminiscence. Her memories shed light on some of the questions the film raises.

As a resident of House One at Warrendale,at the time that this film was made, I too have wondered how some of the other children have fared.
You question why these children were there. At the time that this film was made, the powers that were had decided that all childhood mental and emotional problems stemmed from their home environment.
In my case,at 14, I was bored at school, started skipping it and got caught shoplifting. Instead of sending me to reform school, the court sent me to Warrendale. I'm sure that they thought that they had my best interested at heart. But, personally, when I was put in the same environment as children with autism, schizophrenia and those that had grown up in foster care, and was told that we're all alike, well, yes, there was some anger and acting out. Even at 14 I knew that there was a big difference.
As far as I could see, holding and bottle feeding were not right. I guess that some of the children needed the attention but was this the way?
And the poor parents, being brought in for regular meetings and told that the reason that their children were autistic or schizophrenic was because they hadn't raised them properly. "These children didn't need drugs, no, they just needed someone to hold them and love them."
This was the alternative to electric shock treatments at that time so I guess that I was lucky to miss that.
At the time, I didn't know why the practices at Warrendale weren't good, just that they weren't. In my own simple way I quietly put as many sticks in the spokes as I could.
At the age of 16, I was discharged from 'John Brown's' care. Not because I had been 'cured', but that I was "untreatable and was disrupting the other children's treatment".
Imagine, thrown out as "untreatable". I repeat that with a sense of pride. This might sound silly to those that didn't go through it, but, it was a hell of an accomplishment to have survived relatively unscathed.
I have worried about the one's that I left behind. I hope that they're alright. I haven't forgotten them, they were one of the most important parts of my life.
I'm a grandmother now, worked at McMaster University for 30 years and yes I do vacation in Florida every year.
Thank you for giving me a forum on which to voice this. It's the first time that I've been able to write about it.
Sharon Turple Gataiance

On 11/30/12 Barbara, another child of Warrendale, posted this in response to Sharon's story:

I, too, was a child of Warrendale - not of your Warrendale, but of the first Warrendale that John Brown directed. It was located in Newmarket ON and was for girls only.
Ours was different from yours ~ we were called "Emotionally Disturbed" back then. A collection of girls from parents that didn't care about them, or abused them or just couldn't afford to raise them.
I lived in Warrendale from 1954 - 1960 and I'm pleased to say they were very happy years, full of fond memories for me ~ memories of the girls I grew up with and the loving staff that looked after us. I think of them now and then, wonder where they might be, and hope they all went on to live a happy and productive life.
I enjoyed reading your story and pleased to know that another child from John Brown's 'Warrendale' is alive and well and happy!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The church's duty to take the long view (Forsyth)

I'm taken aback by this quote from Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth (1848 - 1921). It's from his 1910 book The Work of Christ.

The ideas at the centre of the Christian faith are too large, too deep and subtle, to show their effects in one age; and the challenge of them does not show its effect in one generation or even in two. . . . Therefore it is part of the duty of the Church, in certain sections and on certain occasions, to be less concerned about the effect of the Gospel upon the individual immediately, or on the present age, and to look ahead to what may be the result of certain changes in the future. God sets watchmen in Zion who have to keep their eye on the horizon; and it is only a drunken army that could scout their warning. We are not only bound to attend to the needs and interests of the present generation; we are trustees for a long future, as well as a long past. Therefore it is quite necessary that the Church should give very particular attention to these central and fundamental points whose influence, perhaps, is not so promptly prized, and whose destruction would not be so mightily felt at once, but would certainly become apparent in the days and decades ahead. [pp. 142-3, bold emphasis mine]

Forsyth's warning reminds me how hard it is to take the long view -- in ministry and in life. There's an emphasis today (and rightly so!) on contextualizing the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that communicates to the world around us, but there's a fine line between "contextualization" and trimming the message to fit with an ever-changing spirit of the age. Consult the dustbin of church history for numerous examples of what happens when the latter course is taken.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Unconditional Grace?

Here's a thought provoking quote from Tim Keller (Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, pp. 226-7).

Grace is not unconditional acceptance, but it is undeserved. That is a very difficult balance to strike! God's grace comes to us without prerequisites, finding us as we are. God's grace does not come to the "deserving" (there is no such person), and it does not discriminate. Rather, initially it comes to us freely. But once it enters into our lives, God's grace demands changes; it holds us accountable. Why? Grace demands our holiness and growth for our sake as well as for God's glory. Grace intercepts destructive behavior, protects us from the ravages of sin, sanctifies us so we can be "holy and happy," two inseparable qualities.
In summary, grace is undeserved caring that intercepts destructive behavior. It is not unconditional acceptance, nor is it a legalism that says, "Shape us or I will stop loving you." Rather, it says, "Your sin cannot separate you from me," and then, in addition, says, "I won't let your sin destroy you." Grace comes to the unlovely person, but refuses to let him remain ugly. Grace begins as "justification," a free act of God alone, but it becomes "sanctification," a process by which the person cooperates with God in spiritual growth.

I find that a helpful distinction because it challenges my tendency to make grace cheap. Bonhoeffer's classic definition of "cheap grace" is worth repeating -- "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

In other words, it's the grace we gladly extend to ourselves, with no strings attached. But the grace of God is different. We see it modeled in the earthly ministry of Jesus: the perfect balance of grace and truth. He healed and forgave the undeserving, but he didn't leave it at that. His free grace was accompanied by a message of repentance. "Go and sin no more." Divine grace shakes things up.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.  (Titus 2:11-14)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Three cheers for Thanksgiving

And I could see you comin home after work late
You're in the kitchen tryin to fix us a hot plate
Ya just workin with the scraps you was given
And mama made miracles every Thanksgivin
- Tupac Shakur

It's testimony to the universal appeal of Thanksgiving that a personality about as far away from a Norman Rockwellesque white-bread conception of American culture as one could get, the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur, could rhyme affectingly about gratitude to his mama ("a poor single mother on welfare/tell me how ya did it/there's no way I can pay you back") and include a great line about Thanksgiving.

We've just come through an incredibly polarizing presidential election season, yet tomorrow blue state Obama voters and red state Romney voters will be united around a common table loaded with all-American fare. Soccer moms and welfare mamas, NASCAR dads and metrosexuals, fans of Tupac and fans of Michael Bublé, liberals and conservatives, secular and religious, rich and poor and everyone in between -- all will plunge wholeheartedly into rituals remarkable for their sameness.

I've heard it said, and I agree, that Thanksgiving is the most simple, genuine and least commercialized of the major American holidays (of course it's followed by Black Friday where our baser instincts come out). When it comes to Turkey Day Americans of every stripe are "all in." Why? Are there lessons to be learned? Can the spirit of the Thanksgiving table begin to heal our national divisions?

It seems that, for one day at least, gratitude brings us together. I'll eat and drink to that. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tupac's "Dear Mama" via By Way of Beauty

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"You go first. You have children waiting at home."

Having offered words of appreciation for the movie version of A Night to Remember let me recommend the 1955 book it's based on. Author Walter Lord had the benefit of being able to interview many Titanic survivors. Memory being what it is he encountered differing versions of events, but by stitching them all together, and allowing as many voices as possible to be heard, he delivered what is the closest we'll ever get to experiencing what it was like to be there on the night of April 15, 1912.

A Night to Remember is full of vignettes that stick in the reader's mind, all delivered in a matter-of-fact documentary style. One of the reasons the film adaptation is so effective is that it too eschews florid melodrama.

Much has been written about the stoic resolve of the first-class male passengers to see their wives and children loaded into lifeboats and lowered into the freezing North Atlantic not knowing if they would ever see them again. Among this group were some of the scions of New York and Philadelphia society. With a few rare exceptions the crew's policy of only allowing women and children into the limited number of lifeboats was accepted without complaint, though toward the end enforcing it got to be a bit dicey and the unselfish code of conduct wasn't limited to the men. This from chapter five. . .

Only one boat left. Collapsible D had now been fitted into the davits used by No. 2 and was ready for loading. There was no time to spare. The lights were beginning to glow red. Chinaware was breaking somewhere below. Jack Thayer saw a man lurch by with a full bottle of Gordon's gin. He put it to his mouth and drained it. "If I ever get out of this," Thayer said to himself, "there is one man I'll never see again," (Actually, he was one of the first survivors Thayer met.)
[Second Officer Charles] Lightoller took no chances. Most of the passengers had moved aft, but still—one boat . . . 47 seats . . . 1,600 people. He had the crew lock arms in a wide ring around Boat D. Only the women could come through.
Two baby boys were brought by their father to the edge of the ring, handed through, and placed in the boat. The father stepped back into the crowd. He called himself "Mr. Hoffman" and told people he was taking the boys to visit relatives in America. His name really was Navatril and he was kidnapping the children from his estranged wife.
Henry B. Harris, the theatrical producer, escorted Mrs. Harris to the ring, was told he couldn't go any further. He sighed, "Yes, I know. I will stay."
Colonel Gracie rushed up with Mrs. John Murray Brown and Miss Edith Evans, two of the five "unprotected ladies" to whom he had offered his services on the trip. He was stopped by the line but saw the women through. They reached Boat D just as it was starting down the falls. Miss Evans turned to Mrs. Brown: "You go first. You have children waiting at home."
Quickly she helped Mrs. Brown over the rail. Then someone yelled to lower away, and at 2:05 Collapsible D—the last boat of all—started down toward the sea—without Edith Evans.

Whether she realized it or not Edith Evans had given up her chance of survival. She turned out to be one of only four female first class passengers to perish in one of the singular events of history.

Quote from this edition

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jindal 2016?


Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal on Monday called on Republicans to “stop being the stupid party” and make a concerted effort to reach a broader swath of voters with an inclusive economic message that pre-empts efforts to caricature the GOP as the party of the rich. . . . “We’ve got to make sure that we are not the party of big business, big banks, big Wall Street bailouts, big corporate loopholes, big anything,” Jindal told POLITICO in a 45-minute telephone interview. “We cannot be, we must not be, the party that simply protects the rich so they get to keep their toys.”

He was just as blunt on how the GOP should speak to voters, criticizing his party for offending and speaking down to much of the electorate.

“It is no secret we had a number of Republicans damage our brand this year with offensive, bizarre comments — enough of that,” Jindal said. “It’s not going to be the last time anyone says something stupid within our party, but it can’t be tolerated within our party. We’ve also had enough of this dumbed-down conservatism. We need to stop being simplistic, we need to trust the intelligence of the American people and we need to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters.”

Calling on the GOP to be “the party of ideas, details and intelligent solutions,” the Louisianan urged the party to “stop reducing everything to mindless slogans, tag lines, 30-second ads that all begin to sound the same."

Read the rest here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Makers vs. takers? Some post-election thoughts.

Prominent among the post-election breast beating on the Right is a counterproductive (and quite ugly) meme. It goes something like this. We've become a nation where half the population expects the government to take care of them, a nation where takers outnumber makers, where there are more people in the wagon than pushing the wagon. This metanarrative is counterproductive because it insults the very voters you need to win over to have any chance of ever having another Republican president, and ugly because it raises stereotypes about certain groups being lazy shiftless folks looking for a handout.

I'm not saying this meme is completely without credibility. Many sweeping generalizations have an element of truth in them. I'm sure there were people who voted for Obama simply because they think he'll protect some or another benefit they get from the government.

On the other hand, it's an oversimplification to say that Romney was the candidate of rich white people, but truth be told there are a lot of glum faces on Palm Beach island this week!

The counterevidence to the "takers for Obama vs. makers for Romney" meme is abundant for anyone with eyes to see. How about my former neighbor, a retired African-American postal carrier, with an Obama sign in his front yard. Is he a taker? Maybe his life's work is worth less since it was done for the federal government and not the private sector? How about the millions of Hispanics and Asian-Americans who exit polling indicates rejected Republican candidates? Are they all on the government dole?

Hopefully the answer is obvious. If anything these communities typify values of hard work and family more than some white communities.

Perhaps the answer to the GOP defeat is more complicated than one is led to believe by the likes of Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh? If you find those voices authoritative then you probably won't care what David Brooks has to say. He's a moderate and he writes for the liberal New York Times. Nevertheless in my opinion he's one of the sharpest commentators out there and if Republicans are going to learn from this defeat -- and if those of us social conservatives who care passionately about defending the unborn and traditional marriage are going to have a voice in Washington (my hunch is that a meaningful slice of the people who voted for Obama did so in spite of his social liberalism) -- we should listen to such as Brooks (and his colleague Ross Douthat) that the GOP's traditional "public is bad private is good, what's good for Wall Street is good for Main Street" economic message is hopelessly out of touch with the challenges faced by growing numbers of hard-working Americans.

Here's a relevant quote from Brooks' November 8 column The Party of Work:

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.
Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.
Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.
For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.
Let’s just look at one segment, Asian-Americans. Many of these people are leading the lives Republicans celebrate. They are, disproportionately, entrepreneurial, industrious and family-oriented. Yet, on Tuesday, Asian-Americans rejected the Republican Party by 3 to 1. They don’t relate to the Republican equation that more government = less work.
Over all, Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the six post-cold-war elections because large parts of the country have moved on. The basic Republican framing no longer resonates.

I'm not Asian or Hispanic, but I have the same reaction listening to cliche-ridden rhetoric about the evils of big government, etc. "He doesn't get me or people like me."

Sure, I understand the threat posed by deficits and runaway spending. But when I'm struggling to scrape together enough money each month to pay our bills, when I'm getting screwed by my insurance company, when I worry about how we're going to afford to send our boys to good schools -- with those things on my mind the priority of cutting the capital gains tax or reducing the size of government to below twenty percent of GDP leaves me cold.

I guess that's why for the first time in my adult life I didn't vote in a presidential election. Give me a candidate that represents my social values and economic values and I'll make the effort to vote.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Charles Wesley's conversion

On May 17, 1738 thirty-year-old Charles Wesley lay gravely ill, but well enough to write the following in his journal.

I experienced the power of Christ rescuing me in temptation. To-day I first saw Luther on the Galatians, which Mr. Holland had accidentally lit upon. We began, and found him nobly full of faith. My friend, in hearing him, was so affected, as to breathe out sighs and groans unutterable. I marvelled that we were so soon and so entirely removed from him that called us into the grace of Christ, unto another Gospel. Who would believe our Church had been founded on this important article of justification by faith alone I am astonished I should ever think this a new doctrine; especially while our Articles and Homilies stand unrepealed, and the key of knowledge is not yet taken away. 
From this time I endeavoured to ground as many of our friends as came in this fundamental truth, salvation by faith alone, not an idle, dead faith, but a faith which works by love, and is necessarily productive of all good works and all holiness.
I spent some hours this evening in private with Martin Luther, who was greatly blessed to me, especially his conclusion of the 2d chapter. I laboured, waited, and prayed to feel "who loved me, and gave himself for me." When nature, near exhausted, forced me to bed, I opened the book upon, "For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness, because a short work will the Lord make upon earth." After this comfortable assurance that He would come, and would not tarry, I slept in peace.

via Carmen Fowler LaBerge

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: confronting abstraction, or, "What are you willing to destroy?"

This piece of polemic poetry from Berry is harder-edged than the poem I posted in the last installment of Wednesday Wendell. Someone posted it at the Wendell Berry Society Facebook page yesterday.

Questionnaire (a poem by Wendell Berry)

1. How much poison are you willing
to eat for the success of the free
market and global trade? Please
name your preferred poisons. 

2. For the sake of goodness, how much
evil are you willing to do?
Fill in the following blanks
with the names of your favorite
evils and acts of hatred. 

3. What sacrifices are you prepared
to make for culture and civilization?
Please list the monuments, shrines,
and works of art you would
most willingly destroy.

4. In the name of patriotism and
the flag, how much of our beloved
land are you willing to desecrate?
List in the following spaces
the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
you could most readily do without. 

5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
the energy sources, the kinds of security,
for which you would kill a child. 
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.

From Leavings (Counterpoint, 2009)

Here's Berry making essentially the same point in a less provocative way, from his magnificent essay The Gift of Good Land.

[. . .] We should remind ourselves that materialism in the sense of the love of material things is not in itself an evil. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, God too loves material things; He invented them. The Devil’s work is abstraction—not the love of material things, but the love of their quantities—which, of course, is why “David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people” (II Samuel 24:10). It is not the lover of material things but the abstractionist who defends long-term damage for short-term gain, or who calculates the “acceptability” of industrial damage to ecological or human health, or who counts dead bodies on the battlefield. The true lover of material things does not think in this way, but is answerable instead to the paradox of the lost sheep: that each is more precious than all.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Going down with the ship

Last night I sat down to watch A Night to Remember, the 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord's influential book reconstructing the Titanic disaster. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I think I was expecting a somewhat cheesy movie owing to the technical limitations of 1950's film making, and by what we've come to expect in a post-Titanic (the James Cameron one) era. I couldn't have been more wrong.

On every level -- technical, dramatic, visual -- this movie is far superior to the 1997 film (as undeniably impressive as Cameron's achievement was) and rightly holds it's place as the best movie about the events of April 14, 1912. Because it's a British production with a British cast it has an emotional truthfulness in keeping with what we know about the passengers and crew. The scene where Thomas Andrews breaks the news to Captain Smith that the "unsinkable" ship is going down, and further, that there are lifeboats for only 1200 of the roughly 2200 passengers is devastatingly effective because it's so understatedly played (you can watch that scene here).

A Night to Remember conveys the fateful tragedies of that night without ever resorting to cheap melodrama. It also matter-of-factly portrays the nobility, and let it be said, the moral blindness of the chivalric code of the aristocrats that made up the ship's first class passengers. Their "women and children first" ethic was laudable, but not so laudable when we realize that didn't include the less fortunate women and children below decks in steerage class.

As the ship goes down the movie recreates the legend of "Nearer My God to Thee" being played by the ship's band. Whether this actually happened we'll never know. Some survivors later recalled that the last song was a tune called "Autumn".

Film critic Michael Sragow writes of this scene:

The moment is so emotionally complete that it’s hard to quibble. The hymn crowns a mortal adventure replete with strokes of valor from women as well as men, such as Mrs. Isidor Straus’s spurning a lifeboat so she can spend the short remainder of her life with her husband. This film, like Lord’s history, captures the final gasp of high honor in high society.

A Night to Remember is brilliant docudrama and a fitting tribute to the lives lost, and those forever changed, by an event that after a century still resonates in our collective consciousness.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Not a part of any political party's "base"

I couldn't vote for President Barack Obama. Having said that let me quickly add that I can't stand the barely disguised nativism and hysteria of some of his ardent foes -- I've ceased being amazed at some of the things that show up in my e-mail and Facebook -- and I think he's done a good job in some areas. I believe he's a decent ethical man, good father and husband, and someone who loves America. But I couldn't vote for him.

The reasons why revolve around "women's issues". Obama has concluded that the path to victory means getting a solid majority of college-educated white women, and the way he's going about this is to be the Cheerleader-in-Chief for Planned Parenthood, unrestricted access to abortion, and free birth control. Apparently those are the issues professional women care most about. In doing this he's forced to wink at the hook-up culture represented by writer/filmmaker Lena Dunham, whose clever pro-Obama ad has created a stir. In going after the "Lena Dunham vote" the President tacitly endorses behavior that's been disastrous for the poor African-American communities that will turn out and vote for him in overwhelming numbers.

Let it be said that the GOP's offensive and clumsy statements in this area ("legitimate rape" etc.) have made it easy for the Dems to caricature them as misogynistic Neanderthals.

So this means I'm an automatic vote for Romney. Right? Well, no.

Baylor historian Thomas Kidd has identified an emerging group of evangelical Christian voters that he calls "paleo evangelicals". I'm not crazy about the label, but I fit pretty well into what he describes.

He writes:

The paleo evangelicals are not liberal in any sense. They come from diverse backgrounds and perspectives: some are deeply conversant with the ancient history of the church, and with the Reformation; some are sympathetic to Roman Catholic social doctrines and traditions (if not all Catholic theology and ecclesiology); some are deeply conscious of the church’s mission outside of America; some gravitate toward outlets such as The American Conservative or the Front Porch Republic, publications and blogs focused on the conservative themes of local culture, limited government, and ordered liberty.
Check, check, check. He could have added -- many of them are inspired by the writings of Wendell Berry.

In other words these are folks who are theologically and culturally conservative, but deeply uncomfortable with the Republican party and what now flies under the banner of conservatism. Kidd gives three reasons for this discomfort. A suspicion of American civil religion. ("Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams.") A pessimism that any political party can do much good in the world. And problems with certain GOP positions (e.g. the Iraq War). All of this makes "paleo evangelicals" reluctant Republican voters.

Kidd doesn't mention another area: economics. My family's economic security has been shot to hell by the greed and reckless behavior of Wall Street -- the "one percent" if you will -- and so I have big problems with much of the rhetoric and substance of the Romney campaign on everything from taxes to healthcare. Not to mention my loathing of big Romney backers like billionaire playboys the Koch brothers.

So what to do? Suck it up and vote for the lesser of the two evils? If that's an open question for you let me point you to a terrific piece by Thabiti Anyabwile -- Are Christian Voters Soldiers Entangled in Civilian Affairs? -- challenging the assumption that we have a duty to vote, even if we do so reluctantly.
. . . most of us will rationalize our settling [for the lesser of two evils] by saying a few things to ourselves. These are the only two choices we have. Or, Voting for the lesser of two evils is an effort to stem the tide. Or, There’s one candidate that’s clearly better on the social issue(s) I care about. You’ll know that this is a rationalization for you if you say these things with the nagging suspicion that there’s gotta be more mixed with a pang of uncertainty in your conscience. My hope for us all is that even if one or more of those reasons tip us into the voting booth, we might have a deeper resolution to fight for something positively better next election, not just something a little less bad. 
Some others will vote in a couple weeks because they’ve heard and perhaps believe that not voting is not an option. It’s fine if people feel that way, too. If you feel a moral ought when it comes to voting, do what you believe to be right. Even write and speak to convince others that voting is right, morally good, even morally necessary. 
But I don’t hold that view. Nor do I believe that speaking against the system while not voting is less effective than speaking against the system then voting. I think that position, while I respect it, fails on two counts. First, it seems to me to assume that the fundamental freedom and action that most necessarily needs to be exercised is the vote itself. It seems to suggest that speaking alone is empty or at least incomplete. But the right of free speech comes prior to and is fundamental to voting, which is simply another form of speaking. The most necessary thing is that we speak, not that we vote. The more effective thing in a democratic society that prizes the free exchange of ideas isn’t the private, quiet, sometimes symbolic act of voting. The more effective thing is shouting from the rooftops, banging the drums or pots, repeatedly delivering the message, enacting a little civil disobedience that challenges the powers of complacency and complicity. The most effective weapon in the campaign of ideals are words, not ballots. Ballots have their place but only if they reflect what people are speaking.
Moreover, it seems to me that if we really believe the system is broken but we vote anyway, we simply nullify our contention that the system is broken. Now, we may not believe it’s “that broken,” and so we vote. Praise God. I support you if you feel that way. But if you think the farce of national democratic elections has reached an almost irretrievable state of disrepair, corrupted by big money on both sides and fundamentally manipulative and insincere in its presentation of candidates, then to vote could only end in one outcome no matter who is elected–the further entrenchment of the brokenness we decry. The vote becomes a veto. In that case, the ballot is empty and the voice is empty. You can’t decry a thing sincerely and then comply with the thing secretly. We can’t hope to bring change or reform by continuing practices and patterns that are themselves part of the problem. Broken systems call for genuine fixes.

Food for thought as we enter the home stretch. I don't know about you, but I'll wake up on Wednesday morning in a good mood no matter who wins.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: "a strange perfection"

The Sycamore by Wendell Berry

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

From The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1999)

Monday, October 22, 2012

What not to look for in tonight's Presidential debate

Mark Mitchell writing at Front Porch Republic:

We have a situation today where presidential candidates must of necessity pretend that they are omniscient and omni-competent. Imagine a candidate having the honesty to say, “Hmm. Good question. I’m not sure I have an adequate answer.” We also have created a situation in which we seem to expect the presidential candidate to have a policy proposal for virtually any problem. Imagine a candidate saying, “That’s not a problem for the President to solve. That’s a problem that is best addressed by local communities. After all, the federal government, much less the presidency, is not tasked with solving every problem. And if it tried to do so, it would likely create more problems that it solved.” Both replies are losing strategies in an age where the president is looked to as the provider of all. This optimism always proves ill-founded, yet every election cycle the hope is rekindled. The rhetoric is dusted off, and the promises are made–promises that simply cannot be kept.

Maybe we'll be surprised and one of the candidates will acknowledge that he isn't the all-knowing answer to every one of America's problems. In which case, I just might spontaneously decide to vote for that guy. As Mitchell explains -- quoting the late great Christopher Lasch -- the reason why we shouldn't expect humility is due to the mediating role of television and big media in presidential debates. Under this influence facts are things to be manipulated and the worst sin is to be at a loss for words.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Rare pictures of Foxconn

I've been fascinated by the Chinese company Foxconn since reading about the spate of worker suicides at the giant complex where the iPhone is assembled (see my post Work that makes people jump off buildings). Then there was the now infamous This American Life episode Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory that turned out to be a fraud, though it included some true facts about the situations of Chinese workers.

Toward the end of Tuesday night's presidential debate Foxconn was alluded to when the subject of iPhones being manufactured in China came up. All that's simply to introduce this short photo essay by James Fallows of The Atlantic providing unprecedented glimpses of life at the place where many of our favorite gadgets originate.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Desiring a kingdom

Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith has been beckoning from my bookshelf for several months. "Jamie" Smith is one of my favorite contemporary Christian writers (I blogged about his Letters to a Young Calvinist) and I expected this would be a cracking good read. I'm only fifty pages in, but I can see this is one of those books that has the potential to change the way one looks at just about everything!

In the introduction Smith delivers a four-page tour de force in which he imagines a Martian anthropologist coming to 21st-century America to study the religious habits of its inhabitants. His tour lands him at one of the most ubiquitous sacred sites of our culture -- the suburban shopping mall. Far from being tongue-in-cheek, or simply clever, Smith here invites us to look at our environment with new eyes so we can begin to recognize the religious liturgical aspect of our everyday existence. Here's one paragraph from our alien visitor's journal.

The design of the interior is inviting to an almost excessive degree, sucking us into the enclosed interior spaces, with windows on the ceiling open to the sky but none on the walls open to the surrounding automotive moat. This conveys a sense of vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world. This architectural mode of enclosure and enfolding offers a feeling of sanctuary, retreat, and escape. From the narthex entry one is invited to lose oneself in this space, which channels the pilgrim into a labyrinth of octagons and circles, inviting a wandering that seems to escape from the driven, goal-oriented ways we inhabit the "outside" world. The pilgrim is also invited to escape from mundane ticking and counting of clock time and to inhabit a space governed by a different time, one almost timeless. With few windows and a curious baroque manipulation of light, it almost seems as if the sun stands still in here, or we lose consciousness of time's passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which we've come. However, while daily clock time is suspended, the worship space is very much governed by a kind of liturgical, festal calendar, variously draped in the colors, symbols, and images of an unending litany of holidays and festivals—to which new ones are regularly added, since the establishment of each new festival translates into greater numbers of pilgrims joining the processions to the sanctuary and engaging in worship. (pp. 20-1)

It's difficult to give a brief summary of what this book is about. There's a lot going on, a lot of ideas and themes at play. But one overarching theme is that most fundamental to being human is to love. Smith takes on both the rationalistic Kantian view of anthropology that sees us as primarily thinking beings ("I think, therefore I am") and the more truthful view of humans as primarily believing animals, or homo religiosus. He sees both views as too reductionistic and not giving enough consideration to the non-cognitive pre-rational part of our being -- that part that the writers of the Hebrew scriptures associated with the stomach, or guts, and that the New Testament calls the kardia, the heart. Think of colloquial expressions like "go with your gut instinct" or "follow your heart" and you'll begin to see what is meant here.

Smith argues that the widespread acceptance among contemporary Christianity of anthropologies that describe us as primarily disembodied cognitive beings has distorted and thinned out Christian education and worship. Smith -- a massive admirer of St. Augustine -- wants to recover an Augustinian focus on human beings as heart-directed desire-driven lovers. He also wants to recover a focus on the body and embodied practices in worship and education. Of course, an Augustinian anthropology has to reckon with the pervasive effects of sin, which Smith does. The Fall didn't turn off our heart's "love pump" (a term Smith borrows from John Piper who after all wrote a book called Desiring God). Instead, sin misdirects and twists our desires. We begin to use people and love things, rather than loving people and using things. Augustine talked about how we begin to inordinately enjoy the things we should be merely using.

Perhaps most significantly we become what we love. Our desires form and shape us. And all of us have ultimate loves and desires. All of us are desiring a kingdom. More on that in my next post.

Quote from Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

Friday, October 5, 2012

What happens in Holy Communion?

This Sunday is World Communion Sunday and like thousands of other churches around the world my church will be participating. As Presbyterians our understanding of what happens at the Lord's table is derived primarily from John Calvin, and ultimately we hope from the Bible. In other words we believe Calvin's understanding to be closest to what scripture teaches. This is a subject that Calvin thought long and hard about and ultimately there was a fork in the road between Calvinists and Lutherans that continues to this day.

Here's a great quote from Keith Mathison's book on Calvin's doctrine of the Lord's Supper (click on the link below for more).

Calvin is convinced that the main problem with most explanations of the Eucharist is that they assume that a local, corporeal presence is necessary in order for believers to truly partake of the flesh and blood of Christ. He believes that this assumption is false, and that it gave rise to theories such as transubstantiation and the ubiquity of Christ’s body. He is convinced that many of these controversies could be avoided if this unnecessary assumption were rejected. Calvin is convinced that believers may truly partake of the body of Christ and that such partaking does not require the local, corporeal presence of Christ’s body because the Holy Spirit is able to unite the believer with Christ regardless of the physical space between them.

I think Calvin gets it right, but whatever your understanding, and whether your church calls it the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, I hope it's a regular part of your Christian life.

via The Reformed Reader

Thursday, September 27, 2012

More awesomeness from Ross

After describing the amazing transformation of Washington, D.C. and surrounding regions from blight to astonishing affluence (and employing a Hunger Games analogy that I'm clueless about) Ross Douthat ends his column on Washington Versus America with this analysis.

For Mitt Romney and the Republican Party, what’s happened in Washington these last 10 years should be a natural part of the case against Obamanomics. Our gilded District is a case study in how federal spending often finds its way to the well connected rather than the people it’s supposed to help, how every new program spawns an array of influence peddlers, and how easily corporations and government become corrupt allies rather than opponents.

The state of life inside the Beltway also points to the broader story of our spending problem, which has less to do with how much we spend on the poor than how much we lavish on subsidies for highly inefficient economic sectors, from health care to higher education, and on entitlements for people who aren’t supposed to need a safety net — affluent retirees, well-heeled homeowners, agribusiness owners, and so on.

There’s a case that this president’s policies have made these problems worse, sluicing more borrowed dollars into programs that need structural reform, and privileging favored industries and constituencies over the common good.

But this story is one that Romney and his party seem incapable of telling. Instead, many conservatives prefer to refight the welfare battles of the 1990s, and insist that our spending problem is all about an excess of “dependency” among the non-income-tax-paying 47 percent.

In reality, our government isn’t running trillion-dollar deficits because we’re letting the working class get away with not paying its fair share. We’re running those deficits because too many powerful interest groups have a stake in making sure the party doesn’t stop.

When you look around the richest precincts of today’s Washington, you don’t see a city running on paternalism or dependency. You see a city running on exploitation.

My brother lives in Baltimore which is rapidly becoming part of the Beltway axis of power and money. Whenever I visit I'm both fascinated and appalled by the trends Douthat describes. Nowhere is the growing gap between the Two America's more pronounced (except maybe Palm Beach County where I live). This also points out the ideas deficit of the Romney campaign and Republican party who can't seem to do any better than recycle talking points from the 1980's that have nothing to do with the challenges of the shrinking middle class.

Does anyone really think that if Republicans take back the White House (and hold onto Congress) the growth of this Washington will stop? No. The benefits will go to another set of well connected insiders.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: exulting in life

The dearth of original material here recently is due partly to lack of time and partly to lack of inspiration. But whenever I'm lacking the latter all I have to do is pick up anything by Wendell Berry and my juices begin to flow again. Honestly, other than Holy Scripture, nothing inspires me more than WB. So, if this blog becomes nothing more than Wendell Berry's greatest hits -- well, there are worse things. I'm pleasurably working my way through the collection pictured, and a few nights ago I came to "A Few Words for Motherhood" (1980).

The motherhood Berry is primarily concerned with here is the kind involving four-legged creatures on the farm. For the reader unfamiliar with these rites of passage Berry describes the all-encompassing preoccupation that grips a farmer in "the season of motherhood." At bed time, in the middle of the night, and before the sun comes up, the farmer drags himself to the barn to "see what nature and breeding and care and the passage of time have led to."

Then there are the times when the mother needs help. Berry recounts a time when he and his wife and son helped a heifer give birth to a calf. After hours of labor the poor cow had only managed to deliver a foot. After interventions requiring string, sticks, and much huffing and puffing on the part of human and heifer the calf was born. Weaved throughout the account are Berry's musings on the primal intelligence of creatures we often call "dumb brutes."

Berry ends his story with a joyful peroration.

The heifer has stood up now, and the calf is trying to stand, wobbling up onto its hind feet and knees, only to be knocked over by an exuberant caress of its mother's tongue. We have involved ourselves too much in this story by now to leave before the end, but we have our chores to finish too, and so to hasten things I lend a hand.
I help the calf onto his feet and maneuver him over to the heifer's flank. I am not supposed to be there, but her calf is, and so she accepts, or at least permits, my help. In these situations it sometimes seems to me that animals know that help is needed, and that they accept it with some kind of understanding. The thought moves me, but I am never sure, any more than I am sure what the cow means by the low moans she makes as the calf at last begins to nurse. To me, they sound like praise and encouragement—but how would I know?
Always when I hear that little smacking as the calf takes hold of the tit and swallows its first milk, I feel a pressure of laughter under my ribs. I am not sure what that means either. It certainly affirms more than the saved money value of the calf and the continued availability of beef. We all three feel it. We look at each other and grin with relief and satisfaction. Life is on its legs again, and we exult.

Quotes from pp. 196-9 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

David Brooks on Romney's 47% "country-club fantasy"

David Brooks parses Mitt Romney's candid unscripted comments at a Boca Raton meeting with wealthy donors.

In 1980, about 30 percent of Americans received some form of government benefits. Today, as Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has pointed out, about 49 percent do.

In 1960, government transfers to individuals totaled $24 billion. By 2010, that total was 100 times as large. Even after adjusting for inflation, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown by more than 700 percent over the last 50 years. This spending surge, Eberstadt notes, has increased faster under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.

There are sensible conclusions to be drawn from these facts. You could say that the entitlement state is growing at an unsustainable rate and will bankrupt the country. You could also say that America is spending way too much on health care for the elderly and way too little on young families and investments in the future.

But these are not the sensible arguments that Mitt Romney made at a fund-raiser earlier this year. Romney, who criticizes President Obama for dividing the nation, divided the nation into two groups: the makers and the moochers. Forty-seven percent of the country, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

Read the whole thing here.

Hentoff on Dizzy

"Nat Hentoff is a legend" states the blurb on the back cover of The Nat Hentoff Reader (a book I picked up on a whim at our church's annual book sale). I won't argue with that assessment. I've long been a fan of iconoclastic voices like his that challenge and provoke, that don't fit comfortably into the usual paradigms, and resist easy labeling. Hentoff is probably best known for his dogged defense of the First Amendment. I admire his consistency in flaying censors of every stripe (one of his earlier books has as its title Free Speech for Me--But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other). Both campus leftists burning conservative student newspapers and religious conservatives trying to get books banned from the local library are targets of Hentoff's rhetorical blows, and he's that rare man of the left that believes unborn children have civil liberties worth fighting for.

But where Nat Hentoff shines most brightly is when he's writing about a subject he loves as much as the U.S. Constitution -- jazz. He's penned countless reviews and liner notes, hung out with the greats, and even recorded some of them. In a piece included here called "Jazz: Music Beyond Time and Nations" the author recalls his jazz epiphany as an eleven-year-old walking down a Boston street. Upon hearing a strange sound coming out of a record store (Artie Shaw as it turned out) this middle-class Jewish youngster let out a shout of exhilaration. A life-long love affair was born. Hentoff writes that if forced to choose between losing his sight or hearing, he'd choose blindness because of a deep hunger that only music fills.

One of the jazz legends that Hentoff had the privilege of knowing intimately was one John Birks Gillespie. The Nat Hentoff Reader contains a two-part 1995 profile of the remarkable human being known simply as Dizzy. He writes:

I knew Dizzy for some forty years, and he did evolve into a spiritual person. That's a phrase I almost never use because many of the people who call themselves spiritual would kill for their faith. But Dizzy reached an inner strength and discipline that total pacifists call "soul force."

He always had a vivid presence. Like they used to say of Fats Waller, whenever Dizzy came into a room, he filled it. He made people feel good, and he was the sound of surprise, even when his horn was in its case.

But in later years there was also a peaceableness in Dizzy. There was nothing passive about it. It was his soul force that resolved tensions.

For example, in the 1980s, there was to be a concert at Lincoln Center honoring Dizzy. He and a big band were, of course, to be at the center of the celebration. A few days before, I went to a rehearsal. Everyone was there but Dizzy.

No music was being played. The only sounds were a bitter argument between Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan. Each had some compositions on the program, and at the start the argument was about who was to have more of his pieces played. Then it became very personal and poisonous.

As tensions rose in the room Hentoff describes the embarrassment of the other musicians, until Dizzy appeared from the back of the auditorium where he'd been quietly listening. Without a word he stepped to the podium and cued the band to play "I'll Always Be in Love With You." As the bad vibes blew out the door Max and Gerry forgot what they were arguing about.

Hentoff adds that Dizzy "filled the room with reasonableness without getting involved in the battle. Most of the leaders I've known through the years would have scolded the antagonists for wasting valuable rehearsal time and acting like children. But Dizzy, by his very presence, had broken the tension."

If you're a fan of jazz, free speech, or just plain good writing, I think you'll enjoy this collection.

Quotes from The Nat Hentoff Reader (Da Capo, 2001), pp. 118-9

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the first step toward a better economy

In this edition of Wednesday Wendell I'm linking to a piece by Slow Church blogger John Pattison -- "False Economies and False Gods". I hope you'll click through to read the whole thing, but here's part of it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about economics, partly because it is election season, but also because there is still too much dissonance in my own life between what I say I believe about God’s abundant economy and the way I actually operate. Too often I’m ungrateful, inattentive, and consumeristic (Berry describes consumerism as that venerable American doctrine that says “if enough is good, too much is better”). I’m quick to submit to an economy that is sometimes in outright opposition to the “deep magic” that orders the universe. (My daughter and I are going through The Chronicles of Narnia, so I’ve been thinking a lot about “deep magic” too.)

The economic machine has as its goal limitless growth, which requires an infinity of fuel, separates the end from the means, and prizes abstraction, quantity, efficiency, and speed over mindfulness, quality, discipline, and relationships. (Over the last four years, we’ve caught a glimpse of what happens when the machine seizes up.) Many Christians who oppose the teaching of evolution in school accept unquestioningly an economic Darwinism that exalts competition, scoffs at cooperation, and leaves for dead the slow and straggling wounded.

“A better alternative is a better economy,” writes Berry. “But we will not conceive the possibility of a better economy, and therefore will not begin to change, until we quit deifying the present one.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Happiness (Pascal)

The Stoics say, "Retire within yourselves; it is there you will find your rest." And that is not true.

Others say, "Go out of yourselves; seek happiness in amusement." And this is not true. Illness comes.

Happiness is neither without us nor within us. It is in God, both without us and within us.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées (465)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Salvation from A to Z

Having finished A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson I was looking for another devotional type book to supplement my daily Bible reading. Providentially a friend posted on Facebook that the Kindle edition of In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson was on sale for 99 cents. I quickly grabbed it (sorry it's back up to $7.69).

This is solid material from a gifted and godly pastor and expositor of scripture. The chapters are bite-sized chunks that lend themselves to daily devotional reading. In Christ Alone is animated by a quote from John Calvin that "salvation whole, its every single part is found in Christ." The book begins at the beginning with a section called "The Word Became Flesh". Here's a quote from that section on Jesus the author of our salvation (see Hebrews 2:10 and 12:2).

This title has a rich connotation. The Greek word translated as "author" is archegos. It expresses the idea of a leader, one who goes at the head of a group to open the way for others. . . . Adam was the first archegos. He was called to lead the human race in obedience, through testing, to the destination of glory. He sinned and failed, falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). This world became a jungle where man and God, man and Satan, man and woman, man and beast, man and his environment, and man and his brother have all become entangled in hostility (Gen. 3:8-19; 4:1-12).

Jesus came as the second archegos, the second representative man (1 Cor. 15:45-47). He entered the jungle. He broke through and subdued all its opposition to God. He dealt with God's solemn curse (Gen. 3:14, 17) and opened a way into God's presence for all who believe in and follow Him (Heb. 10:19-20).

The Son of God took our human nature and entered into our fallen, sin-ravaged environment. He lived a life of perfect obedience for the glory of God. Bearing God's judgment against our sin on the cross, He experienced the divine curse. Now divine blessing and restoration flow to us along the path of grace He has opened (Gal. 3:13).

Ferguson has the gift of communicating deep biblical truths in a simple direct manner. Here in a few short paragraphs he presents the grand scope of salvation history from first Adam to Jesus Christ the second Adam. I recommend this book. It will make you want to sing "Hallelujah! What a Savior!"

Quote from Chapter 5 of In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life (Reformation Trust, 2007)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the myth of cheap energy

Throughout his collection of essays The Gift of Good Land Wendell Berry directs the reader's attention to the myth of cheap energy, in particular cheap petroleum-based energy. This myth has made possible much of America's post-World War Two progress for both good and ill. In the area of agriculture this has led to consolidation which has seen the almost total demise of small farms in areas that we'd now consider marginal. Increasingly we've put all our agricultural eggs in one basket so to speak, both in terms of land and crops grown. Recently, there was an interesting piece in The New York Times on how this summer's drought in the Midwest is exposing the folly of this strategy. William Mosely writes:

We have become dangerously focused on corn in the Midwest (and soybeans, with which it is cultivated in rotation). This limited diversity of crops restricts our diets, degrades our soils and increases our vulnerability to droughts. Farmers in the central plains used to grow a greater diversity of food and forage crops, including oats, hay, alfalfa and sorghum. But they gradually opted to grow more and more corn thanks to federal agricultural subsidies and expanding markets for corn in animal feed, corn syrup and ethanol.

Of course this is the sort of thing Berry has been saying for decades. Just another confirmation that he's one of the few contemporary figures for which the word prophet is not hyperbole, and like most (all?) prophets throughout history he's largely ignored.

In his 1979 essay "Energy in Agriculture" Berry reflects on a memoir by Donald Hall of life on his grandparents' New Hampshire farm circa 1930s - 1950s. This farm was based on patterns of agriculture that have been extinguished by the methods of industrial agriculture (though thankfully these older methods are making a comeback here and there). Farms like the Hall's gave way to assumptions of "progress" that privileged the city over the country, the large-scale over the small, uniformity over diversity -- and Berry argues it was made possible by the myth of cheap energy.

But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them able finally to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was "cheap." But we were able to consider it "cheap" only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a "right" to as much of it as we could use. This was a "right" made solely by might. Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not "belong" to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the "miracle" of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children.

That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence. The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth—you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much. The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity.

Quote found on p. 127 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)