Monday, July 30, 2012

An entire industry devoted to ripping people off

I'm reading The Big Short: a simultaneously entertaining and infuriating account of the subprime mortgage meltdown that sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover, and permanently compromised the financial futures of millions of middle-class American families, my own included. Michael Lewis tells this story of epic hubris and greed thru the eyes of several inside-Wall Street players including Steve Eisman, one of the few who prophesied the coming apocalypse, and I would add, profited handsomely by betting against the conventional wisdom. Based on what I've read so far I find Eisman a fascinating though not very likeable character, and not the knight in shining armor he seems to see himself as. Nevertheless, I can relate to this. . .

In his youth, Eisman had been a strident Republican. He joined right-wing organizations, voted for Reagan twice, and even loved Robert Bork. It wasn't until he got to Wall Street, oddly, that his politics drifted left. He attributed his first baby steps back to the middle of the political spectrum to the end of the cold war. "I wasn't as right-wing because there wasn't as much to be right-wing about." By the time Household's CEO, Bill Aldinger, collected his $100 million, Eisman was on his way to becoming the financial market's first socialist. "When you're a conservative Republican, you never think people are making money by ripping other people off," he said. His mind was now fully open to the possibility. "I now realized there was an entire industry, called consumer finance, that basically existed to rip people off."

Quote from The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Norton, 2010)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hoping to live, preparing to be happy (Pascal)

Blaise Pascal, Pensées [172]

Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A beautiful montage

Bravo to the maker(s) of this video! I recognized many of my favorite movies. Maybe you will too.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Idolatries exposed

The events in State College, PA early Sunday morning were like something seen back in the days when Iron Curtain domino's were falling one after another. Often the final act in the drama was a toppling of the venerable leader's statue. The unceremonious hauling away of the 900-pound bronze statue of legendary football coach Joe Paterno bore a striking resemblance to those scenes from 1989.

This morning the NCAA delivered a near fatal blow to the Penn State football program and Paterno's legacy. I have mixed feelings about all this. I haven't read The Freeh Report so will reserve judgment on the actions of Penn State and the NCAA except to say that the sordid saga has illuminated the idolatrous hold that sports has on segments of our society. As a lover of sports, especially college football, I have to ask myself: "If this had happened at the University of Florida would my reactions be different? Would my identification with the Gators skew my moral perspective?"

The other story in the headlines is the evil mass murder in Aurora, Colorado. Predictably, the aftermath has been dominated by dueling slogans on the issue of gun control. Those who favor further restrictions on gun ownership are quick to lead with this issue. On the other side those who favor the laxest possible restrictions on gun ownership want to change the subject and talk about the evil and/or insanity of the murderer. Both sides have their good points. Someone with murderous intent will find a way to carry it out even if guns aren't available, but when one can legally collect weapons, ammo and armor sufficient to hold off a regiment of soldiers equipped with Revolutionary War-era muskets the potential for mayhem is exponentially higher. I wonder if Aurora isn't also exposing an area of idolatry prevalent among us related to guns and gun ownership?

Tim Keller has defined the sin of idolatry this way: "Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry."

Keller also notes that idolatry has a corporate dimension. We see this in the history of Old Testament Israel and we can see it (if only dimly) in our own contemporary cultural contexts. "Indeed, each field of vocation and study has its reigning idols, as do political parties and ideologies. While secular societies have made an idol of human reason and human autonomy, other more traditional societies make idols of the family or racial purity."

What are the idols I am prone to find meaning in more than God? What are the idols we are prone to put in God's place? As we reflect on the weekend's heartbreaking headlines may we turn to God and his word for answers.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A shameless plug for Dispatches from the Front

My wife and I have been watching a DVD series called Dispatches from the Front and I've been showing it to the adult Sunday School class at our church. Tim Keesee, the producer and narrator of these extremely gripping documentaries, calls Dispatches windows into the Kingdom of God around the world. That they are! From a purely artistic and technical point of view these films are the equal of many Academy Award-nominated documentaries I've seen. But they are so much more, since they deal with the grandest subject of all: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Keesee and his collaborators Peter Hansen and Brannon McAllister (pictured above) take viewers to some of the hardest and most spiritually dark corners of the world to show how the light of the gospel is breaking forth. You'll meet brothers and sisters in Christ you didn't know you had, as well as heroic frontline soldiers in the advance of God's Kingdom. Except these soldiers don't fight with guns, they wield deeds of love and mercy. I could go on and on, but I'll simply echo Carl Trueman's endorsement:

"I have just watched the episode on Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. The low-key presentation enhances the drama and the beauty of the stories told. But be aware: this is sobering stuff. I came away ashamed of my own lack of zeal for the Lord's work and my ingratitude to him for all of the material comforts I enjoy. This is not a celebration of the pyrotechnic entertainment of the American church; it is an account of genuine works of God. It will convict you of your own sin, drive you to Christ and encourage you to pray for Christians working on the front lines of the Kingdom and to reassess your own priorities wherever you are."

Buy Dispatches from the Front. It will be money well spent.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the decline of thrift

Like the essay on Peruvian farmers I quoted from in the last installment of Wednesday Wendell, Three Ways of Farming in the Southwest chronicles a trip Wendell Berry took to observe traditional agricultures in a context far removed from his Kentucky home -- here the desert Southwest of Arizona. Along the way Berry encounters an old man of the Hopi tribe who laments the disintegration of values and skills that kept that community self-sufficient and intact for generations.

Berry admits that this sounds like the proverbial complaint of the old about the young. "They are lazy." "They don't care about the old ways." etc. But, Berry argues, this man isn't ranting he's matter-of-factly stating what he's observed, and he's articulating a theme that figures prominently in Berry's life and writings.

I agree with the old man. I am worried about the decline of farming communities of all kinds, because I think that among the practical consequences of that decline will sooner or later be hunger.

In some respects, the traditional subsistence agricultures are the best agricultures, the best assurances of a continuous food supply, simply because they are not—or were not—dependent on outside sources that must be purchased. To exchange these locally self-sufficient subsistence agricultures for the "good life" of a consumer economy is like climbing out of a lifeboat onto a sinking ship. That image, I think, only seems extravagant. The values of our present economy do indeed suggest that it is better to perish with some ostentation of fashion and expense than to survive by modest competence, thrift, and industry.

In saying such things, one must anticipate the accusation that one is simply indulging in nostalgia—sentimentalizing the past, yearning naively for the survival of quaint anachronisms and relics. That might be true if one were dealing only with rare and isolated instances. The fact is, however, that these instances are not rare or isolated. The decline of the Indian agricultures of the Southwest follows exactly the pattern of the decline of local agricultures everywhere else in the country. The economy of extravagance has overthrown the economies of thrift. Local cultures and agricultures such as those of the Hopi and the Papago do not deserve to survive for their picturesque trappings or their interest as artifacts; they deserve to survive—and to be emulated—because they embody the principles of thrift and care that are indispensable to the survival of human beings.

It's fair to say that Berry's prophecy of hunger hasn't come true yet, at least not in America. Despite occasional media stories to the contrary I don't see that widespread hunger is a major problem in our society, even among the very poor. If anything we have the opposite problem -- a kind of hollow surplus described by the prophet Haggai in the Old Testament: "You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill."

The triumph of "Agribusiness" and the industrialization of food production has done a remarkably efficient job of keeping an ample supply of relatively cheap food close at hand. There's a supermarket, mini-mart or fast food restaurant on virtually every corner. If need be one can survive on a diet of Big Macs, potato chips and high fructose corn syrup chasers (and some do). But what of the unforeseen consequences of the paradigmatic shift from a society in which a significant percentage of the population grew at least some of the food they ate, to one in which almost nobody does? If nothing else, the astronomical rise in healthcare costs associated with obesity and related diseases should raise some red flags.

Nevertheless, three decades after Berry noted the demise of "principles of thrift and care" there are growing opportunities to support local agriculture, to practice thrift and care in the way we live our lives, and to vote with our pocketbooks to support those corners of the economy where such values are still honored. In ways large and small it's possible to secede from the "economy of extravagance."

Quote from pp. 74-5 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

Monday, July 16, 2012

What climate change looks like?

Elizabeth Kolbert writing in The New Yorker:

Up until fairly recently, it was possible—which, of course, is not the same as advisable—to see climate change as a phenomenon that was happening somewhere else. In the Arctic, Americans were told (again and again and again), the effects were particularly dramatic. The sea ice was melting. This was bad for native Alaskans, and even worse for polar bears, who rely on the ice for survival. But in the Lower Forty-eight there always seemed to be more pressing concerns, like Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Similarly, the Antarctic Peninsula was reported to be warming fast, with unfortunate consequences for penguins and sea levels. But penguins live far away and sea-level rise is prospective, so again the issue seemed to lack “the fierce urgency of now.”

The summer of 2012 offers Americans the best chance yet to get their minds around the problem. In late June, just as a sizzling heat wave was settling across much of the country—in Evansville, Indiana, temperatures rose into the triple digits for ten days, reaching as high as a hundred and seven degrees—wildfires raged in Colorado. Hot and extremely dry conditions promoted the flames’ spread. “It’s no exaggeration to say Colorado is burning,” KDVR, the Fox station in Denver, reported. By the time the most destructive blaze was fully contained, almost three weeks later, it had scorched nearly twenty-nine square miles. Meanwhile, a “super derecho”—a long line of thunderstorms—swept from Illinois to the Atlantic Coast, killing at least thirteen people and leaving millions without power.

Referring to the fires, the drought, and the storms, Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press, “This is certainly what I and many other climate scientists have been warning about.” He also noted, “This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.”

Or, at least, what it looks like right now. One of the most salient—but also, unfortunately, most counterintuitive—aspects of global warming is that it operates on what amounts to a time delay. Behind this summer’s heat are greenhouse gases emitted decades ago. Before many effects of today’s emissions are felt, it will be time for the Summer Olympics of 2048. (Scientists refer to this as the “commitment to warming.”) What’s at stake is where things go from there. . .

Click here to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Random thought on the I-95 off ramp

That panhandler standing by the side of the road, smelling of cigarettes and alcohol, is potentially closer to the Kingdom of God than the church elder.

Written by a church elder.

Natural born liars (Pascal)

Quote from Pascal's Pensées [100], Kindle edition

So each degree of good fortune which raises us in the world removes us farther from truth, because we are most afraid of wounding those whose affection is most useful and whose dislike is most dangerous. A prince may be the byword of all Europe, and he alone will know nothing of it. I am not astonished. To tell the truth is useful to those to whom it is spoken, but disadvantageous to those who tell it, because it makes them disliked. Now those who live with princes love their own interests more than that of the prince whom they serve; and so they take care not to confer on him a benefit so as to injure themselves.

This evil is no doubt greater and more common among the higher classes; but the lower are not exempt from it, since there is always some advantage in making men love us. Human life is thus only a perpetual illusion; men deceive and flatter each other. No one speaks of us in our presence as he does of us in our absence. Human society is founded on mutual deceit; few friendships would endure if each knew what his friend said of him in his absence, although he then spoke in sincerity and without passion.

Man is then only disguise, falsehood, and hypocrisy, both in himself and in regard to others. He does not wish any one to tell him the truth; he avoids telling it to others, and all these dispositions, so removed from justice and reason, have a natural root in his heart.

This bleak diagnosis of the human condition would be almost too much to take, or one would be tempted to shrug it off as the work of an incurable cynic, if not for the fact that it brilliantly describes the way things are. Pascal isn't merely trying to make us feel awful. He's peeling away layers of mankind's self-deceit in order to reveal our universal need for a Redeemer -- the one of whom it was written "there was no deceit in his mouth." Only he can lead us out of the thicket of deceit, into the way of truth.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Peterson on worship

My 3-year-old son Samuel likes to listen to a CD of Christian praise songs called Born to Worship. The CD is right. We come into this world hardwired to worship. The word worship is a derivative of an old English word "worthship". Essentially, worshiping something or someone is to ascribe worth to that thing or person. We all have objects of worship. For some of us it might be our wife or kids or favorite football club (preaching to myself here).

One of the fundamental themes of the Bible is that the triune God revealed in its pages is the only true and ultimate object of worship. Anything else (even good things like family) will disappoint in the end. Indeed rightly ordered worship is the goal of God's law. The Ten Commandments begin by setting the boundaries of proper worship. Worship is the one thing we'll get to do for all eternity! You can't dig too far anywhere in scripture without bumping up against the subject of worship.

Another prominent theme in scripture is that worship with the community of faith is basic to the people of God. We can worship alone in the woods or a prison cell, but gathering together in an assigned place at an assigned time to worship God is a prescriptive pattern found in both the Old and New Testaments. Something happens in corporate worship that can't be replicated on our own.

Eugene Peterson in his great book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction unpacks Psalm 122 as a template for worship. It begins: "I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the LORD!" Notice the spontaneity of this expression of joy. This kind of emotion can't be coerced, and it shows that worship is by its nature a voluntary act. Later on however the Psalmist recalls that this activity of going up to Jerusalem to worship was commanded by God: "as was decreed for Israel to give thanks to the name of the LORD." (verse 4)

So worship is voluntary and compulsory. But what if I don't feel like worshiping? What if I can't approach worship with the gladness of Psalm 122? I like how Peterson resolves this conundrum.

I have put great emphasis on the fact that Christians worship because they want to, not because they are forced to. But I have never said that we worship because we feel like it. Feelings are great liars. If Christians only worshiped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on. Feelings are important in many areas, but completely unreliable in matters of faith. . . We think that if we don't feel something there can be no authenticity in doing it. But the wisdom of God says something different, namely, that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quicker than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an act which develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God which is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.

I think it's easy to get this backwards -- trying to "gin up" feelings that we don't actually have, and feeling like a hypocrite for doing so. The practice of worship is just that. The more we practice worship the better at it we get, and its rhythms shape our feelings toward God and neighbor. It's not magic, but it is grace.

Quote from pp. 49-50 of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (InterVarsity, 1980)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: Andean word-pictures

In 1979 Wendell Berry spent a week in Peru investigating traditional farming practices in the mountains and valleys of Peru. In some cases these practices predate the Spanish, meaning they're rare examples of ancient American agriculture. Out of those travels came the essay "An Agricultural Journey in Peru". I didn't fully appreciate the skill of Berry's writing until I read it. Here's an excerpt (which I've shortened slightly) that showcases Berry's eye for detail and gift for painting vivid word-pictures.

We climbed a long stretch of road that was just a shelf along the almost sheer mountain wall, hairpinning into deep coves, taking maybe three miles to go one. High up, we stopped on the roadside for lunch. As we were getting our stuff out of the car, two men came down the road on bicycles, one of them whistling "Blowing in the Wind"—which, according to Raimondo, happens also to be the tune of a Protestant hymn sung in this country. And then a large gray-backed hawk sailed along the bluff below us, not fifty feet away. . . . We ate, talked, looked at the country, watched the hawks. Aside from our own voices, the only sound was that of a distant stream.

The slope across from us, backed by another much higher one, was intensively farmed, but from where we watched it at first seemed deserted. Then, using binoculars, we saw a little party of workers digging potatoes in one of the fields, and gradually we discovered more and more people at work here and there over the whole face of the slope. While we watched, several of the groups gathered into the shelter of terraces or rocks. While we ate our lunch, they ate theirs.

Writing these notes three weeks later in Kentucky, I am aware how much the memory of that day has already faded. In my mind's eye I still keep a clear enough picture of the scene. But that is not what I am talking about. What seemed so alluring and charming then, and seems so hard to recover now, is a live sense of contrasting scales. The scale of that landscape is immense, so large as to constantly upset a stranger's judgment of distance and proportion; but within that immensity the Andean peasants practice an agriculture as small in scale, probably, as any in the world. Perched on the narrow ledge of that road, we were watching people working at least a mile away in fields the size of kitchen gardens, known with the intimacy of the lifetimes not just of individuals but of families—a knowledge centuries old.

It is in lingering over this contrast between the panoramic and the intimate that one begins to understand how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has had to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch—picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down. . . . You can look at a whole mountainside covered with these little farms and not see anything egregiously wasteful or stupid.

Quoted from pp. 24-7 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)