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Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 5:14 PM
The LA Times blog referred to my friend Ben Mitchell and his fellow panelists at the hearing on the HHS mandate as “hyperbolic.” Mitchell, in particular, employed Roger Williams’ famous comparison of violations of religious liberty with “the rape of the soul.”
It is interesting to note that religious people, of a variety of persuasions, tend to naturally understand how serious a problem the HHS mandate presents. What the department did, deliberately and with full knowledge of the consequences, was to create a very real and urgent crisis for institutions with a religious identity (especially the Catholic ones). We could call this kind of crisis a “God and Caesar crisis” in which an individual or a community must choose between obeying God or obeying the coercive force of government. ”Rape” is not an absurd metaphor to employ when we are talking about the use of raw power to force an action against conviction.
Now, it is obvious that religious belief cannot command a blank check, but the old standard was essentially that religious belief (and action) would remain undisturbed as long as it did not pose a threat to the peace and safety of the community. It should be obvious that declining to fund contraceptives in an insurance policy is far from an affirmative threat to either peace or safety. After all, there are many low cost ways to obtain contraceptives and no one is forced to work for a religious employer. The coercion being employed is what is hyperbolic. No one should be forced into a God and Caesar crisis with so little regard for the alternatives and so little regard for conscience.
Wednesday, February 15, 2012, 11:34 AM
The primary point of my first book, The End of Secularism, was to demonstrate that secularism doesn’t do what it claims to do, which is to solve the problem of religious difference. As I look at the administration’s attempt to mandate that religious employers pay for contraceptive products, I see that they have confirmed one of my charges in the book.
I wrote that secularists claim that they are occupying a neutral position in the public square, but in reality they are simply another group of contenders working to implement a vision of community life with which they are comfortable. And guess what? They are not comfortable with many of the fundamental beliefs of Christians. Regrettably, many secularists are also statists. Thus, their discomfort with Christian beliefs results in direct challenges to them in the form of mandatory public policy.
Collectivism is often very appealing to Christians who want to do good for their neighbors. Unfortunately, collectivism is frequently a fellow-traveler of aggressive secularism with little respect for religious liberty. The veil has slipped. I hope we do not too quickly forget what was revealed in that moment. Collectivism gives. But it also takes. And what it takes is very often precious and irreplaceable.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011, 1:25 PM
I just read Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo. A few of my family members recommended it very strongly. The main attraction is that Mr. Burpo’s son nearly died of acute, misdiagnosed appendicitis and survived to report that he had been to Heaven. Young Colton Burpo did not simply recover and start telling everyone about his trip to Heaven. Rather, he said some things in conversation that piqued the interest of his parents. They eventually began asking him questions and were astonished by what their 4 year old had to say.
The part of the book that was really gripping for me was the account Todd Burpo gives of the year leading up to Colton’s near death experience and his terror at nearly losing a child. My daughter was very ill during her first two years and I felt some of those fears, but not at the level of crisis which faced the Burpos. What Colton has to say about Heaven is interesting, but does not give me the sense of powerful revelation. He saw relatives in their young and healthy forms. He saw Jesus. People were wearing bright white robes with sashes. Jesus had a dazzling rainbow colored horse. There is a war between heavenly and satanic forces. The strongest evidence of Colton’s visit is that he was able to identify his great grandfather as a young man in a photo without ever having met him or really having knowledge of him. He knew who the man was and what he was called. Overall, though, the description of heaven did not strike me as ultra-surprising for a son of a pastor, even a very young one. Still, it is interesting. I read the book quickly and was eager to find out more as I went.
The problem, I think, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with human attempts to describe heaven and/or the things of God. I’m not saying it can’t be done at all, but it seems to me that other than through full-on revelation (as in the book of that name), the sublimeness of heavenly things can only be approached from the side or seen from the corner of the eye. A direct confrontation seems doomed to fall short. I felt that way to some extent about Heaven is for Real (a non-fiction account) and more so about the picture presented of the divine appearing by Jerry Jenkins at the conclusion of the Left Behind novels. When Jesus arrives in the story, he appears to everyone in exactly the same way with exactly the same message. It feels like the description of a heavenly voicemail attached to a hologram.
Second Corinthians 12:4 mentions the man who was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things he is not even allowed to mention. The most powerful sense of eternity I have ever experienced in reading outside of the Bible was in Walker Percy’s Lancelot (a dark book). A man has had a confrontation with evil which has left him a little insane and obsessed with harsh justice. He completes his book-long conversation with a priest-psychologist friend from his youth. During the course of the story, we observe (only in flashes) that the priest-psychologist is returning to his faith and his vocation. He will take a small parish in Alabama. His one-word replies (always the same word) to Lancelot in the final chapter made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He doesn’t describe anything. But the reader can feel the gigantic, looming reality which will explode forth just as the story ends. Out of the corner of the eye. Possibly inexpressible. The mystery remains a mystery until, all of a sudden, the image clears and we will see and understand and will know as we have been known. But not yet.
Monday, August 22, 2011, 10:32 PM
Lately with all the talk of “Dominionism” and the scary religious right and Frank Schaeffer chiming in, I feel the need to draw attention to a biography of Francis Schaeffer that I think really portrayed him fairly and without the usual political histrionics. I wrote the following review (which appeared in Themelios) of Colin Duriez’s Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life back in 2009.
As a PhD student, I provided research assistance to the Baylor historian Barry Hankins as he wrote his biography of Francis Schaeffer (Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008]). At the time, I remember asking Professor Hankins if the family had been cooperative. They had not. Having read Colin Duriez’s treatment of Schaeffer, I think I know why. The family was cooperating with him, so much so that this book could be considered an authorized biography. Duriez’s portrayal is very powerfully personal, more so than anything I have read save Schaeffer’s own books, which are self-revelatory to some degree.
An Authentic Life features a number of unforgettable scenes from Schaeffer’s life. The reader who has a jaundiced view of Schaeffer as some kind of plastic-mold religious right stereotype will encounter a complex man who had a powerful instinct for justice. As a teenager, young Fran had a job with RCA Victor where he worked in the factory. The women posted along the production line were mistreated and overworked. One day, a woman stopped her work and began calling for a strike. She was soon joined by Schaeffer, who jumped up on a counter, yelling in his piercing voice, “Strike, Strike” (p. 24). This was, after all, the same man who would one day criticize comfortable American Christians for their addiction to personal peace and affluence and their non-compassionate use of wealth.
The pioneer of Christian worldview had a hard road to ministry. His father asked to speak to him at 5:30 a.m. on the morning he was to leave for college and pre-ministerial studies. When they met, his father bluntly told Schaeffer that he did not want a minister for a son and did not want him to go. The young man asked to go pray about it. Tearfully, he tossed a coin three times with each outcome landing in favor of going on to college at Hampden-Sydney. He informed his father, “I’ve got to go.” Just before slamming the door on his way out, his father promised to pay for the “first half year” (pp. 25–26). Time would bring the father to share his son’s beliefs.
Duriez’s book is full of similar interesting vignettes from Schaeffer’s life. One theme stands out very clearly. Francis Schaeffer was a man filled with love for the so-called “little people” who were not valued by the world. While he was still a young minister, we discover that he tutored a young boy with Down Syndrome twice each week and took great delight in every increment of progress. He felt the boy’s forward steps were just as important, in his wife Edith’s words, “as talking to any university student about his intellectual problems” (pp. 50–51). This event perfectly foreshadows his later powerful insistence upon the importance of the sanctity of life, an area in which he was far ahead of the main body of evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Connecting the young Schaeffer to the more famous, older man is a great strength of Colin Duriez’s book. It has become well-accepted to break Schaeffer’s life up into segments and to characterize him as three different people. There is the young, fire breathing fundamentalist eager to “be ye separate” from the impure compromisers; the artsy, compassionate, bohemian founder of L’abri in Switzerland; and then the old man, brushing off his best instincts and returning to his fundamentalist roots to fight for the doctrine of inerrancy and “Christian America.” While it is possible to reach such a conclusion by looking at his early career and then considering the chronological development of his publications, this book rejects that approach by portraying Schaeffer as a consistent personality throughout.
The man who cared enough to tutor a little boy with Down Syndrome is also the man who told his church in St. Louis that he would resign if a black person ever came to his church and felt unwelcome. The budding intellectual who answered the existential questions of college students in Europe is also the agitator who took up the cause of the unborn and became arguably the finest shaper of and advocate for a potent evangelical critique of modern culture. Two sentences in the book make this point about Schaeffer brilliantly: “It was not a new Schaeffer that was emerging. His theology, honed over many decades since the passionate articles of the later forties and early fifties, was that of the lordship of Christ over every area of life—the womb as well as the university seminar room” (p. 182).
If one could ask for anything more from this book, it would be on the subject of Frank (AKA Franky Schaeffer). As Francis Schaeffer’s son has aged, he has increasingly distanced himself from his father’s legacy. First, Frank converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church. More significantly, he wrote thinly disguised novels about his family life that were unflattering to his father and then made a massive turn left politically, ultimately supporting Barack Obama despite his laissez faire policies on abortion. One suspects this topic was left alone for two reasons. The first is that, as I wrote above, this book feels like an authorized biography with the family’s full cooperation. They probably did not want this story to include the later years of Frank Schaeffer. The second is that the book very likely neared completion during the time of Frank’s increasing heterodoxy. Regardless, readers hungry for more on this front should look to Os Guinness’s powerful rejoinder to Frank in the journal Books and Culture (March 1, 2008; available at http:// www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2008/marapr/1.32.html).
Duriez’s book is an important contribution to Schaeffer scholarship and will challenge those who have portrayed an interesting Schaeffer with a unique voice who morphs into a conventional Christian rightist over time. Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life deserves a wide readership and may well be the standard in the field for some time to come.
Hunter Baker is the author of The End of Secularism
Friday, August 19, 2011, 3:12 PM
Elsewhere, I rejected the contention by Michelle Goldberg and others that evangelical leaders such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry are significantly influenced by the aims of the tiny Christian Reconstructionism movement. I tried to make the point that CR has a negligible political influence on evangelicals and that it is not honest to view evangelical office holders and candidates in the light of CR’s aims. The entire thing, I think, is a tar baby sort of trap in which evangelicals are supposed to come out of their corner talking very seriously about Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism and giving legitimacy to those who have tried to raise it as an issue.
There is a simpler way to get at this thing. I’ll go ahead and concede to Michelle Goldberg and Ryan Lizza that they are correct in their assumption that it is nervous-making to have someone with different ideas and values than one’s own running for political office. This raises the spectre of having that person gain power and perhaps make policies with which one would disagree. But the simple truth is that we are all in this position all the time.
The University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock once noted that he had some concerns about the Christian Coalition gaining political power. He quickly added that he would be equally concerned about any group with an ideological agenda (such as certain types of feminists or environmentalists) gaining power. The simple fact is that power is a feature of politics and it is unpleasant to lose and have someone else use power to impose upon you. This is very much the situation many have been through in the past two years. A great many people feel that a nationalized health care system would have disastrous effects upon our society. Nevertheless, they have had to suffer through it because the side that wanted to enact such legislation won the election convincingly.
And here’s the thing . . . It doesn’t matter what Barack Obama’s motive was in pushing for national health care. It doesn’t matter if he had a religious conviction, a secular principle, a sentimental attachment to the idea, or a desire to be the first Democrat to ever achieve such a thing. He gained power through politics and enacted his agenda.
There is no difference in anything Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, or any other American officeholder might do. Indeed, the likelihood is great that any laws they might enact would be far less intrusive than one mandating that every American purchase health insurance.
Sunday, May 22, 2011, 8:45 PM
I’ve just seen the entire run of LOST over the course of about two months. It is time for a few reflections. To those who intend to watch the show, stop reading now. There will be SPOILERS.
The show begins with a jet crashing on an island in the Pacific. The first question is, “Who survives a jet crash, especially one in which a plane cracks in half?” I thought of that often. As I watched the program, I wondered along with probably everyone else whether anyone on the show actually survived. The other possibility is that they are dead and we are watching them move about in the afterlife. To refine the thought a little, are the characters in purgatory working through their sins?
Things happen in the course of the series to make the viewer think that the characters have not died in the crash. I know at one point I abandoned the theory entirely. But by the time I got to the final season, I began to think the matter through again. By the end, I felt confirmed in my belief. These people are dead. They are working out their own salvation.
One thing that sucked me in to the show was the names of some of the characters. There is a John Locke, a David Hume, a Faraday (scientist), a C.S. Lewis, a Jeremy Bentham, and maybe some others I missed. For the most part, I think this naming was a display of someone’s dilettante-ish learning in the core curriculum at college. The names didn’t correlate to the characters. C.S. Lewis, for example, is a gorgeous redhead. She is a Brit, but otherwise doesn’t resemble her namesake. There was, however, one name that seemed to be important. The most heroic character is Jack Shephard, son of Christian Shephard. And, indeed, Jack is a man willing to give himself for others.
At one point, some of the characters manage to get off the island (in your face, Gilligan!), but they end up having to return. They realize (some involuntarily) that they must return. There is something wrong with them being off the island. The island isn’t done with them, yet. This part played into the notion of purgatory. Their leaving is wrong because they have abandoned the work of the soul. They must return and continue the process, miserable and trying though it is.
In the final season, the characters are living dual lives. They are living one life on the island and a parallel life back in the civilized world. What is interesting is that in their parallel lives, things seem to be going well. Wrongs are being righted. Problems are being resolved. Wounds are being healed. It is as though their suffering and struggles on the island have somehow been redemptive. Their lives on the island (a place where wounds heal rapidly and cancer goes into remission) is exerting a restorative effect on their lives in some parallel place.
There is also some exposition about the bizarre nature of the island. We see something like an origin story about two brothers. It is somewhat reminiscent of Cain and Abel, but hybridized with the tale of Romulus and Remus. The brother who lives is the more righteous one. His twin (not identical) is not unambiguously evil. He is more like a Lucifer who wants to overthrow God (or God’s will for his life) because he doesn’t understand him (or it). The dead brother continues on in a supernatural life as something of a monster. He is the black smoke which has been terrorizing our heroes throughout much of the show. Certainly,there is a sense of something Edenic which has gone wrong. The good brother, Jacob, is the protector of the island who is working toward the achievement of some good.
The conclusion of the series centers on the murdered brother living anew in the possessed body of John Locke. He is determined to leave the island. It is what he has always wanted. But we are given to understand that he must not leave. Somehow, he is evil and must be kept on the island like wine kept in a bottle by a cork. Ultimately, he must clash with Jack Shephard.
This is the point where I started to see some strong religious themes. The island has a heart which emits amazingly powerful and destructive light. Desmond David Hume is the man who can withstand it. Jack and the monster accompany Hume. He goes down into the light and removes a stone stopper which is containing it. This seems to put out the light and trigger the slow destruction of the island. The monster feels he can now leave the island, which is sinking, but Jack determines the monster has now become vulnerable to physical harm. They struggle and Jack is able to kill the monster, but not before he is mortally wounded by a dagger in his side. At this point, one cannot help but see Jesus stabbed the spear in his side.
Jack is dying. The disruption in the island and his suffering seem to have made victory over the monster possible. Jack returns to the source of the light to restore the stone stopper. When he does, the island is saved and the light returns at full strength. Jack has successfully given himself for all. His suffering has made victory over evil possible.
Before he died, he made Hurley the new protector of the island. Though I am not Catholic, what I saw here was Jesus giving Peter the kings to the kingdom and establishing him as the new head of the church. To me, it looked like the beginning of the papacy! Benjamin Linus, a man who has been a persecutor of the characters and has been wrongly related to the island’s protector, Jacob, steps up to be Hurley’s co-laborer in the protection of the island. Looking at Benjamin in this new role, I could not help but think of Paul. Linus is very much a Saul-Paul type of figure. (It helps a little that his name, Benjamin Linus, could be linked to the famous scientist Linus PAULing.)
Ultimately, the characters living in their parallel lives encounter each other and come to an astonishing collective memory of their time on the island. These scenes are quite beautiful. They all come together in a church (except Linus who stays just outside). Christian Shephard and Jack Shephard talk. Jack realizes he is dead and so, too, are the others. To my mind, it appears that what has occurred is a triumphant tour through purgatory for them all. They have been sifted like grain and what is of value is what remains. Though the stained glass contains a variety of holy symbols from the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian faiths, the dominant imagery is Christian as is much of the narrative. The characters gather in the pews as pure light spills over them. They are moving on, presumably, to Heaven where true reality is (e.g. The Great Divorce).
I appreciated the final season very much because I felt it was the kind of story which could prepare people’s hearts for Christ. It was a tilling of the soil.
(One final thing. What about the DHARMA Initiative? They are a communal project with researchers and scientists of various types working on the island attempting to pierce its mysteries and perhaps harness its special powers. In the end, their efforts add up to little of consequence. Indeed, much of what they do leads to tragedy. I suspect the story of DHARMA was designed to highlight the instrumental limitedness of science.)
Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 2:01 PM
Lars Walker is a wonderful writer of fiction related to Vikings (and Christianity). He recently took up his pen, so to speak, to review the new Thor movie. These lines caught my attention:
To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He’s kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods’ greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat.
The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien’s inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. He delighted in war for two reasons—one in order to feed the wolves and ravens that were his familiars, secondly in order to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand with him at Ragnarok, the last great battle. To this end he raised heroes up and then brutally betrayed them. He was also, according to the eddas, a sexual predator and a known deviate.
The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn’t even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can’t conceive of a religion founded on darkness and brute force and the domination of the weak by the strong.
What Lars is saying here is something we miss when we think about our culture. So many of our most basic assumptions are formed by Christianity that we confidently declare how good secularism is or will be. We don’t realize that our type of secularism has a source. And Lars knows what it is.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 9:14 PM
UPDATE: You can read Guelzo’s piece here.
Many are now taking note of Allen Guelzo’s essay in Touchstone on the situation of evangelical colleges in America. He points out a number of troubling issues, such as that few of these schools are selective, alumni are not giving, and many of the schools are in bad financial condition, despite the continued rise in tuition rates.
When I took over responsibility for strategic planning at Houston Baptist University back in 2007, I studied many of these same challenges. My goal was to get a sense of our position in the market so that we could speak intelligently to donors about what we needed. I discovered the relative lack of high endowments among Christian institutions (and the high reliance on tuition that goes with the lack of such endowments).
In addition, I noted the near complete lack of doctoral programs in areas outside of professional training such as education or counseling. Christian universities are not able to afford graduate fellowships or stipends. If the programs don’t generate revenue, we don’t offer them. Guelzo doesn’t mention that.
Neither does he mention the competitive disadvantage for scholars at our institutions who wish to pursue publication. At many top secular institutions, professors teach only two courses each semester. Sometimes less. Our professors almost always teach four courses per semester, which is a consuming task if you do it well.
I could go on. We have fewer scholarly centers and think tanks, hold less conferences, publish fewer journals . . . You get the idea. We are fighting hard to accomplish our missions, but scarcity is much more real to us than it is to many of our counterparts in state schools whothink they have budget constraints.
All of this is why it was such a galactically big deal when Robert Sloan was in charge at Baylor University and working to make that school into a Carnegie research institution which was simultaneously emphasizing its fealty to the Christian intellectual tradition. When he was forced to resign, many who follow these things closely were despondent. The worst fears were not realized, though, and Baylor has continued to move forward as a comprehensive (and Christian) institution (which really does carry its weight in the Big 12) and has about a billion dollars in endowment. Baylor is now a haven for some of the finest Christian scholars on earth. This is a huge accomplishment. Kenneth Starr gives every indication of being the right person to shepherd Baylor’s continued flight along this nearly uncharted path. I am somewhat surprised Guelzo would leave the Bears out of his excellent essay.
In addition, Guelzo has missed the ascendancy of some other Christian universities on a smaller scale. For example, just as one Christian school, Lambuth University, announced its closing here in Jackson, Tennessee, Lambuth’s longtime sister school, Union University, has enjoyed record enrollments and is receiving some excellent gifts. Union’s budget has nearly quintupled over the last 15 years and the school outperforms just about all of its peers in terms of financial health. A study of the percentage of students admitted at Union wouldn’t tell the story Guelzo suggests it does. Union likely admits a majority of the students who apply, but that is part of its model. Union sets out to attract applications from students who are a good fit spiritually and academically. Union’s selectivity would be better measured by a look at the mean ACT scores of its recent freshman classes, which have been very high.
Just as Guelzo wrote about institutions with which he is familiar, I have referenced some of the ones I know best. I imagine some could come forward with success stories and others with tales of fingernail-hanging survival. I suspect the reality is that Christian universities, as a sector, are undergoing some serious sifting. A wise man once told me several will close in the next decade. I agree with Guelzo that there are very possibly too many and that we would benefit from consolidation. Imagine if we could have Baylor as the research flagship and then 5-10 very strong liberal arts universities. They would all be cultural gamechangers if they remained faithful.
We don’t control these things (the life and death of universities), though, from some central Christian planning office for what we perceive to be the maximum advantage. Some institutions will fail. Others will surprise us and announce amazing new gifts and innovative programs.
What we can control, however, are matters to which Guelzo alluded. We can hire faculty who care about the mission and not just about their guilds. We can hire presidents with vision for distinctively Christian higher education and NOT for education as a commodity to be sold like gasoline or grain. We can install core curricula which actually help students become well-rounded and well-educated human beings who understand their cultural context, their history, and the interrelationship of the disciplines.
Finally, we can make the case to donors to meet our greatest needs. We need scholarships and scholarship endowments so we can compete with the state universities on price. We need investments in endowed chairs, funded centers, and journals which can provide lighter teaching loads for our productive scholars. Donors, if you are reading this, then understand that the Christian university can provide a tremendous bang for the buck culturally. We educate the student. We provide the student with a spiritual community. We teach them to put their minds and spirits to work in tandem. Our scholars can teach, write, and speak into the world conversation. We can convene scholars into networks of influence.
Read Guelzo. Heed this essay. And help us do what only the Christian university can do.
Friday, April 29, 2011, 3:53 PM
This piece was originally written for the Breakpoint blog. Crossposted with their permission.
Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. Rand’s holy symbol was the dollar sign. Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the National Review essay on Rand’s famous novel Atlas Shrugged that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement. The review characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers thought Rand’s philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.
In truth, the great Chambers (his Witness is one of the five finest books I’ve ever read) probably treated Rand’s work unfairly. Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force. She did not believe in compulsion. Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity. Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.
The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings only for their achievements. A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”
Atlas Shrugged, the film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel. Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across. The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach. Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot. As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.
The story proceeds from a fascinating premise: what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)? These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.
Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” — as one conversation in the film expresses — do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor. The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance. They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed. The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.
The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity. Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.
Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons. But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome. You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it. You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise. However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard. Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 10:34 AM
I pay a lot of attention to the ways people speak because words have always fascinated me. I continue to remember the day, nearly 20 years ago, when my father watched undergrads walking from downtown Athens onto the UGA campus and remarked, “There go the students entering into the portals of the university.” The turn of phrase has a certain sublimity. Not bad for a chemical engineer.
And just as some phrases are wonderful, some are less felicitous. I have noted the recent proliferation of people talking about “hand-carrying” things. For example, a gentleman on a radio commercial talked about how he had helped someone when he “hand-carried” the forms they filled out to the proper office.
I am waiting to see whether this way of speaking will catch on. Will we begin to hear about the time someone “mouth-drank” a bottle of water, “foot-walked” through the neighborhood, or “ear-listened” to a piece of music?
Impossible, you say? I thought the same thing a couple of decades back when I saw a couple of young guys wearing their pants about eight inches south of their waistlines.
Saturday, April 9, 2011, 3:18 PM
Well, we’ve had our discussions about budgets as moral documents and now have reached a budget deal that went right up to the brink of a government shutdown.
To those friends of mine who are also Christians, but identify more with the left than the right, I have a question for you: Just exactly what hill was it the Democrats decided they wanted to die on in this battle? Where did they draw the line and say, “This far and no further!”
It turns out their one adamantine point of no compromise was . . . funding Planned Parenthood. Wow, that’s a real Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment. Gets you right in the old ticker.
I suspect Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo are feeling a little uncomfortable as they review the bidding.
Not that this should come as a surprise. How many Democrat figures have been down this path and learned that they have to make a choice? Ted Kennedy was pro-life and was forced by his party’s realities to change. Jesse Jackson was pro-life. Same result. Ditto for one Albert Gore.
There is one orthodoxy in the party of the left that will not brook disagreement. Bob Casey the elder knew it. And Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a book about it.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 12:46 PM
I recently attended a film festival at Union University featuring the work of students. One of the first films shown was a thirty minute story about a young couple.
The plot was simple and touching. A young man expresses his romantic interest in a waitress at a diner. They fall in love and marry to the disapproval of her parents, who don’t think much of the young fellow. After a brief period of happiness, the two lose their jobs and fall upon hard times. Indeed, they become homeless and are forced to live in a tent and steal baths in the swimming pool of a local apartment complex.
I won’t give away the ending, which was nicely done and brought about a big, appreciative response from the audience. Instead, I want to focus on the main idea presented in the story. The primary thought expressed throughout is that even if a young person has nothing else, it is enough to have the sincere love of a husband or wife. You can be homeless and desperate. You can be almost without food or access to taken for granted resources like bathrooms and showers. But if you have committed, romantic love, then you have everything you need.
I am certain that this thought, put over in a very charming and inspiring way is what caused the students to cheer as they did. The film deserved their applause. It demonstrated talent and imagination. It did what films are supposed to do which is to inspire us and make us think.
But despite my admiration, I disagree with the message as nicely as I possibly can. Thinking in the way the film suggests is right and ideal strikes me as a recipe for unhappiness. Marriage is beautiful. Romance is one of the most delightful experiences in life. Commitment is a rock in life which makes many great things possible. But marriage, portrayed in the film as the ultimate in romantic love which abides no matter the challenges, is not enough. The line from Jerry Maguire (“You complete me.”) is not true.
My wife complements me almost as much as it is possible for another person to do so. She is scheduled and organized. I am not. She is scientific and quantitative. I am in love with the arts and humanities. When we married I was a fairly new Christian. She had been a committed believer for many years. She plans activities for the children. I am more fun and spontaneous. I could add more examples. The most notable, of course, is that she is female while I am male. She is the other with whom I am designed to make a pairing. But she does not complete me. She cannot be the sufficient reason for my happiness or my soul satisfaction. To put that responsibility upon her would be intolerable and unfair. She cannot do it, no matter how wonderful I think she is (and I do).
The kind of fulfillment and completion suggested by the student film is not truly possible with another person. The only way to find it, I believe, is through a relationship with God. Only God holds the possibility of true fulfillment and completion. He has given me a purpose in life and an eternal destiny. He is my only hope for knowing the deep truth beneath all things. I love Ruth. I only love her more now than I ever did before. But I recognize that I only have her because of Him. And the things she can never give me, He can.
The feeling almost all of us know so well, the feeling of complete romantic and psycho-sexual immersion in a person of the opposite sex is a type of spell or chemical haze. Our hormones take legitimate feelings of love, attraction, and appreciation and turn them into an all-consuming obsession for the other person. College students are probably more apt to feel that than almost any other age group. But the chemical haze eventually disappears and the view ahead becomes clear once more. And if we are looking in the right direction, there He is, looking back at us . . . offering our soul’s true and rightful desire, greater (amazingly perhaps) than even the love of our natural other.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011, 11:03 AM
In a recent piece for Religion & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institute, I took on an analysis inspired by Bill Buckley’s old contention that the struggles between atheism and Christianity and socialism versus capitalism were ultimately the same conflict. While I don’t go quite that far (though I think the idea has some merit), I group socialism and secularism together as different species of the larger genus we might call social leveling.
Here’s a clip:
I have argued that social leveling achieves a wrong result in the sense that it ignores things like merit and virtue in the form of socialism, and truth in the form of secularism. That alone is good reason to oppose it, but there is a bigger problem than that. The social leveling that is achieved by socialism and secularism can only be engineered by one entity in a society. That entity is the state. Thus, the state will become the effective owner of all property and the state will determine what manifestations of religion (if any) are acceptable to itself.
Read it all here.
Friday, March 4, 2011, 4:08 PM
Jim Wallis and a number of other Christians involved in politics are trying to gain attention for the question, “What would Jesus cut?” The answer to this question is supposed to be as obvious as it is in other moral contexts. For example, would Jesus lie about the useful life of a refrigerator he was selling for Best Buy? No way. Would he bully a kid into giving away his lunch money? Not a chance. Would you find him taking in the show at a strip club on interstate 40 in Arkansas? Unlikely to the extreme.
Would he agree to a 2% cut in the marginal tax rate for income made above $250,000? Would he EVER accept a cut in welfare spending? Those take a little more thought. Jim Wallis and others think it’s a no-brainer. Let us reason together.
As I look over what Wallis wrote, I see several things worth noting. For example, he complains that some Republicans want to cut domestic spending and international aid, while they support an increase in military spending. The implication is that this is obviously a sub-Christian position. But is it? Probably the most essential purpose of government is to protect the life and freedom of citizens. The government achieves this goal through military means. Unless one takes the position that Christianity implies corporate pacificism, then it is unclear the Republicans have blundered according to Christian ethics. Now, match the question of military spending versus international aid and/or domestic spending. Are the latter obviously superior to the former? No. It depends on not only what the stated objective is for the different types of spending, but whether they actually achieve their purposes. To simply state that the Republicans want to bolster military spending while cutting international aid and domestic spending is to achieve nothing at all by way of an indictment.
Here’s another example. Wallis complains bitterly that tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans add billions to the deficit. He is referring to the extension of George W. Bush’s cuts in the marginal tax rates that existed under Bill Clinton. The first question I have is how does Jim Wallis know that the level of taxation was just to begin with? And why take Bill Clinton’s tax levels as the Platonic form of taxation? Maybe they were too high or too low. The highest marginal tax rates have fluctuated drastically in the United States during the last century. John F. Kennedy made a big cut, with impressive economic effects, as did Ronald Reagan. Is Wallis sure that by cutting taxes those men robbed the poor and gave to the rich? Maybe a lot of poor people got jobs because of them. And we aren’t even getting into the question of whether rich people actually have an enhanced duty to pay taxes. If there is a community need, is it righteous to grab a rich person and employ the power of legal coercion to extract the needed funds?
Still another problem with this redistributionist attitude about taxes and spending is that it assumes a zero sum state of affairs. For example, one could assume that the most people would be better off under a system like the old Soviet Union that spread resources out to citizens in a way that prized equality of rations. The United States system didn’t do that nearly as much, not nearly at all. But which of the two systems provided a better life for people? The answer is easy. The United States and its emphasis on liberty did. Why? A more free economic system produces far more wealth than an unfree one. If your equality system produces a little, bitty pie, it may give you a lot of philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn’t do as much actual good for people as the system that prizes free productivity and success over equality.
What Jim Wallis is saying comes from a good heart. He is worried about things like fairness and, of course, about helping people. But the reasoning he employs in doing so assumes that federal programs actually achieve what they set out to do, which is far from obvious, and that they don’t create incentives for behavior that results in greater problems, which often happens. He also assumes a zero sum society. It is entirely possible that economic thinking that concerns itself more with productivity than with equality will actually leave the great majority of people better off.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 11:46 AM
The Acton Institute remembered that I wrote about Alabama and Susan Pace Hamill’s tax crusade in The End of Secularism. In the book, I didn’t express agreement or disagreement with her argument. Instead, I used the politics of the episode to show something about the flexible barriers between church and state. Now, thanks to a prompt from the Acton Commentary series, I have written an article on contentions made about income inequality in a PBS program in which Hamill and others appeared. Here it is (reprinted with attribution to Acton):
Friday, February 18, 2011, 3:24 PM
I have been reading Rob Moll’s excellent Intervarsity Press book The Art of Dying. One of Moll’s key points is that we know we will die and in order to do so well, we need to have thought about it ahead of time. He doesn’t mean that we should obsess about death, sleep in caskets, or wear black all the time like a disturbed woman I saw on a television program. Instead, he encourages us to think about what it means to have a good death. While we are removed from the immediate danger, take advantage of the calm to consider how we should die and how we should make decisions about dying.
As I thought more about it, I realized that Moll’s insight about death has a lot to do with both moral and political thinking generally. One of the great reasons to draw up a constitution, for example, is to try to set up rules ahead of time. We need to have considered the possible situations for which law will be needed and to propose them now before they happen and we are caught up with either interestedness or our passions.
Bringing the example closer to home, I think about something I wrote several years go in response to a mass shooting incident at Virginia Tech:
I remember going for an evening walk with my young wife some years ago. As we strolled past a heavily wooded yard with a house barely visible, I suddenly heard the menacing growl of a very obviously big and mean dog. My immediate reaction was to run. The big muscles in my legs flexed and fired. The only thing that stopped me was my wife’s anguished cry, “Hunter, don’t leave me!” I forced down the fear impulse, backed up and put myself between her and the threatening sound. We walked on and nothing happened.
When Professor Librescu, an old man, a septuagenarian whose body had been through the terrors of the Holocaust, spotted a terrible threat he pushed his weight against a door and tried to keep a killer from murdering his students. All but two of the students and Librescu got away. In an email exchange yesterday, a friend wondered why able-bodied young men would have chosen to run instead of coming to the assistance of their heroic professor.
Thinking of my own experience and looking at what happened in that besieged classroom in Virginia, I think I know the answer. Liviu Librescu had seen death up close much earlier in life. He very probably saw his friends and neighbors killed and had many opportunities to measure his own reactions in light of right and wrong, valor and heroism. It is no surprise to me that such a man would resist rather than run. I suggest to you that he knew exactly who he was and who he was determined to be. The young men in that classroom were probably a lot like me in the situation with the dog. They were untested and had probably never been in serious physical danger. More important, they had probably never stopped to consider what they would expect of themselves in a life and death situation.
There are a couple of lessons that come to mind. The one that many conservatives will point to is that we have a culture that does not successfully impute manliness. We already knew the ethic of dedication to wife and children had slipped badly. We knew less well that we weren’t raising boys with expectations of self-sacrifice and protectiveness toward others. But this is the smaller of the two lessons.
The greater lesson is that we should all take pains to reflect on who we want to be and what we really believe. It was once common to speak of the examined life. That phrase fell under the massive heap of self-help materials and endless reflection on why we don’t have a better sex life, more money, and a better job. But the examined life goes deeper than that. It comes down to knowing who you are. Without it, you will almost inevitably run in the face of danger, quail before the bully, and excel in self-justification after the fact rather than action in the relevant frame.
Unprepared and without prior thought, none of us know how we will react in these situations. But we can prepare ourselves for the event and drastically increase the chance that we WILL do what we merely hope we would.
Take Rob Moll’s advice with regard to death and many other important moments in life. Prepare yourselves, friends.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011, 10:05 PM
When my mother called me on the phone to tell me about a book she’d recently read, I listened with some interest, but begged her not to send it along. She is the type of person who will immediately run to the post office or to UPS to ship a book or anything else that is not nailed down which she thinks someone might enjoy.
Hold off, I said. I’ll see you, soon, I said. I only live three hours away, I said.
Didn’t matter. She sent it.
And I have to say, I am glad she did. The book was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I recognized her as the author of Seabiscuit. I hadn’t read that book, but had seen the movie and wasn’t all that excited about reading some new story about a plucky and determined hero.
I could not have been more wrong, more stupidly snobbish, or closer to missing out on a good thing.
Unbroken is the life story of Louis Zamperini, a man whose life experiences included driving his community crazy as a juvenile delinquent, blossoming into an Olympic distance runner, flying bomber runs in WWII, surviving (after a crash) what was at the time the longest recorded sea float in history, and being beaten and humiliated as a prisoner of war by the Japanese. I have scarcely been so riveted by a work of non-fiction in several years.
As I read the book, I thought with excitement that it has the potential to be a spiritual milestone for many people. The father God is an important part of Unbroken. So, too, is Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. These things won’t jump up as strongly as they do in the genre of Christian books and testimonials, but they are there and unmistakably so. I have little doubt that large numbers of people will look at what God did in the life of Louis Zamperini and will tentatively venture out in faith, looking for God to rescue them and preserve them.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011, 7:30 AM
When we gather together as Christians, we let our guard down. We expect that people will be honest about who they are and their motives. We tend not to stop to consider that someone may be engaging in the discussion in bad faith. What if, for example, someone was offering comments without the notion of edifying anyone or advancing the conversation, but instead was participating with no other intent than to wound or to present such an unsympathetic view of the faith as to cause others to experience doubt and dismay because of the presence of the participant as a purported Christian?
I would suggest to you that there very likely are such persons engaging in discussion at various Christian blogs and that their intent is for ill rather than good. In fact, there are some who may consider it their duty to undercut, confuse, and damage the effort at Christian websites like this one because they don’t want to see believers having a good, positive discussion and enjoying intellectual and spiritual fellowship with each other. Rather, these types of people prefer to throw rocks through stained glass windows and then laugh at the furor it stirs up. I would suggest to you that one should be watchful for the presence of malevolence even at places like this one, perhaps especially at places like this one, because First Things has been a great blessing to many.
So, carefully consider the comments made. Individuals will expose themselves, often with a radical lack of grace.
Monday, February 14, 2011, 10:35 AM
My fellow Evangel blogger John Mark Reynolds has a piece up at the Washington Post On Faith blog about Mormonism and the challenges its practitioners face in the political arena. In the post, he notes that the LDS church upholds many virtues that are beneficial to the republic, while its “theological vices” are not threatening to the community. I don’t take issue, really, with any of this. Certainly, it is true that the LDS church cherishes America and wishes it well. It is also true that the LDS church has nurtured a number of outstanding citizens. Tangentially (very tangentially), one of the best lines in the piece is where Reynolds notes that the media is highly aware of Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith and amnesic with regard to Harry Reid’s.
However, I think much of the concern with the public perception of the Mormon church is misplaced with regard to politics. Being Mormon is probably not as heavily disabling a factor as many think it is. I know many will point to Mitt Romney’s run for president in 2008 as proof of anti-LDS bias, but too much may have been made of it. Mitt Romney had several pretty serious problems facing him in the presidential primary.
First, he ran for president as the one term governor of Massachusetts. It does not inspire confidence when a governor holds office for one term, declares victory, and abdicates for a presidential run. This is especially true when one suspects he would not have been able to win a second term. That, of course, is not Mitt Romney’s fault. It is Massachusetts’ fault, but it still reflects badly on him as a political champion.
Second, Romney conducted his campaigns for office (senator and governor, unsuccessful and successful) in Massachusetts and thus had to run away from the kind of conservative image that attracts voters in many other parts of the country. Opponents could point to archival evidence of Romney distancing himself from Reagan’s legacy, for example, and making statements in sympathy with the pro-choice position.
Third, Romney’s crowning achievement as governor of Massachusetts was presiding over a comprehensive health care reform effort which required individuals to purchase health insurance. Setting arguments about federalism and the appropriateness of states doing such a thing versus the federal government doing it aside, that kind of gubernatorial activity did not create the strongest foundation for a Romney primary run in ’08.
All of this is to say that being a member of the LDS church was probably not Mitt Romney’s biggest problem as a politician running in conservative primaries.
Sunday, February 13, 2011, 9:01 PM
I have to give credit to my pastor, Ben Mandrell of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee, for this title and idea. He plans to preach the sermon next week, but he couldn’t help but give a preview in the form of a few examples. Here are some approximations of what he said:
Lord, that family down the street seems really lonely. Send someone to give them company and fellowship.
Father, that boy seems not to have a father. Put someone in his life to fill that need.
Lord, that single mother in my Sunday school class appears to be in real financial distress. A few hundred dollars would make a real difference for her. Father, please provide for her need.
Probably most of you reading these examples are already smiling. You see the problem, don’t you? The very fact that we have observed a real need in another person or group of persons likely means that WE ARE THE ONES GOD INTENDS TO MEET THE NEED.
Can you be the one who invites the lonely family over to your house? Can you offer to spend time with the boy who has no father? Can you be the one who has the resources on hand to immediately and dramatically help the single mother in financial need? Gut check time. Can you do it even if you won’t realize a tax deduction in the process?
This is a spiritual challenge that we are generally not eager to accept. If we decide to live our lives in such a way that we are very sensitive to God’s promptings, we may end up giving more than we really want to give. We may end up with lots of little incursions on our time or our money. Maybe some big ones.
But do we seriously believe God can be pleased with us if we do not commit to exactly this way of life?
Monday, January 31, 2011, 12:39 PM
Saturday night I sat down with two physicists from Union University and watched Charlton Heston in The Omega Man. The film is part of an unofficial apocalyptic trilogy which includes Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green.
First thought: Heston was still rocking his own hair in this film. I like that. One of the great improvements in today’s Hollywood is that a guy like Bruce Willis is allowed to run around without a hairpiece. Heston didn’t need one with that great face of his.
Second thought: I have apparently never seen this film outside of running into it on cable. Seeing it uncut on DVD is a whole new experience. There are several scenes I don’t recognize from previous viewings.
Third thought: Though it obviously can’t compete with the Will Smith remake (the third version of Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend) in terms of effects or heart-racing action, The Omega Man is a much more substantial film in terms of ideas. Heston is holed up in his residence surrounded by artifacts of western civilization. He is a scientist and a renaissance man. Thanks to a last minute success, he is immune to the plague that has decimated the human population and left the overwhelming majority psychologically unstable, murderous, and mutated. They live their waking hours at night under a cultic leader who rails against technology and progress. Instead, he emphasizes a tribal sort of brotherhood in thrall to his own charismatic leadership. The imagery is hard to miss. Heston is the older, white man holding on at the apex of social achievement and trying not to fall off the mountain like the rest of the world has. His antagonists, the Family, are a proxy for sixties radicals who want to chuck the entire civilizational project and embrace primitivism. NEXT PARAGRAPH SPOILER . . .
The writers of The Omega Man do something interesting with the end of the movie. Heston’s character has been working successfully on a serum made from his own blood. Thanks to a reversal of the plague in one victim, it is clear that it works. Heston is killed with a spear through the chest as he tries to save a young woman who is succumbing to the disease and to the siren call of the leader of the Family. He slowly expires hanging cruciform on a fountain that turns red with his blood. Daybreak comes and the last surviving humans come to him hoping to all leave together for the wilderness where they can start anew. Heston’s last act is to give them the serum. They drive off, apparently saved by Heston’s sacrifice. So, Heston’s character is clearly a Christ figure. What is so intriguing is that his Christ figure is a man of science. Faith and knowledge merge in the film’s climax.
You don’t get any of that in the Will Smith version which basically treats the mutated human beings as equivalent to zombies. Again, Smith’s performance is terrific, as is the entertainment and excitement value of the film, but the big ideas aren’t there.
Also interesting is the fact that neither of the two big versions have run with the actual premise of Richard Matheson’s book. In Matheson’s story, there is a last man remaining from civilization as we know it who spends all day every day locating the mutated humans and killing them. He is grim in his determination to kill these creatures who now lurk in the night. The great twist in that story . . .
. . . is that the man we have identified with as a hero throughout the book is finally captured. He listens to how they talk about him and suddenly realizes that, in their view, HE is the monster. His death will be like a kind of deliverance for them. Quite a nice twist. I wonder why Hollywood hasn’t gone that way with the story?
Monday, January 24, 2011, 4:34 PM
Books on the church and economics are not all that common, so I was eager to talk to the Acton Institute’s Jordan Ballor, who edits the Journal of Markets and Morality, about his new volume Ecumenical Babel.
Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation. What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?
A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.
Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith. You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead. Is that a fair representation? And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?
It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.
This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now. In a nutshell, can you make their case for “religion and liberty?” And can you tie that mission to your book’s message?
The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.
Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian’s Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton. Why did Acton buy the press? And what are Acton’s plans for the press going forward?
The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011, 3:43 PM
Wednesday, January 19, 2011, 12:15 AM
I recently came into possession of a book titled Anatomy of a Great Executive by John Wareham. Wareham was a successful executive headhunter who published several big-selling books on assessing talent and achieving success.
Success books have interested me since I got married and my father-in-law showed me his massive collection of what he referred to as America’s wisdom literature. He didn’t offer the label uncritically as he is a Wheaton grad from way back and a serious student of the genre.
Working my way through the volume in question over lunch, I found a profile of an executive designed to show you how to get to know whether a person is really oriented toward success. There were a number of valuable attributes listed in the profile, but the one that caught my eye was one that noted the executive in question did not have a high standard of living and thus his need for money was low. This fact about the person was a NEGATIVE. You see, the person does not NEED to succeed financially because he doesn’t have an enormous mortgage and a Bentley.
Now, through Christian eyes we would look at a person living below his means and think that the individual is probably a good steward, prioritizes the right things, isn’t materialistic, and maintains financial margin so as to be able to follow God wherever He leads.
Not so in the anatomy of a great executive. The man who buys a gorgeous estate and two Mercedes-Benzes is sending a message that is reassuring to the world system. ”I MUST succeed in order to satisfy my appetites. And I have the confidence to incur significant debts because I KNOW I WILL do it.”
One of the most valuable things Intervarsity Christian Fellowship ever taught me as a college student was NOT to think this way. And it has served me well throughout my adult life. When I speak to young people, I invariably warn them against acquiring golden handcuffs (as a man “wearing” them once described them to me).
But I warn you, friends. The world may not view your independence as a positive indicator. ”Success”-oriented individuals may think you are a bad bet because of the modesty of your hunger.
Saturday, January 15, 2011, 9:53 PM
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I took my family to visit my 94 year old grandmother in Columbia, Tennessee last night and today. After we ate (she’s still a great cook) and the kids went to bed, we stayed up looking through all her old photo albums.
In the process, I realized how little I knew about the family in which she grew up and about my grandfather’s family. I was able to ask questions about relatives and friends of the family.
She enjoyed the opportunity to talk about her life. I felt blessed to still have a grandmother to talk to about her life now that I’m finally old enough to care deeply about the answers she has to give.