Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Islam: more than a religion

It's hard to find discussions of Islam free from the extremes of either naiveté 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)