Category: Bible and Theology

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Saturday, November 21, 2009

I have been thinking a lot about the way we sell church-related goods and services.

jesus-money-changers-temple

I have been thinking about that and about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and sacrificial animal sellers in the temple.

The marketing inside the church has probably never been more feverish than it is today. Hollywood hires savvy Christian marketers to try to gin up interest in certain films among our demographic. We trademark little phrases for sale to Christians. I recently heard an acquaintance excitedly describe a system for integrating Prayer and Your Priorities. I shall not share the catchy name for this system so as to avoid smearing the person working on it. This results in a marketing platform for an inspirational book, a devotional, a daily planner for the system, calendars, sticky notes, etc. I imagine it will prove attractive for some Christian publishing house.

My question, though, is whether this is a wholesome thing for the church. As the author of a book, though not a super consumer-oriented one, I think about it all the time. For example, if called upon to preach at a local church, should I take along a box of books to sell at the end of the service? Should I even mention the book? Should I ask whoever introduces me to mention the book? Should we sell ANYTHING in the church?

The question is not as easy as it may appear. For example, the market instincts of new publishers spread Martin Luther’s work to a large audience. Without the printing press, Luther probably would have died as just another dissenter. Marketing and the honest profit motive are surely reasons why the Bible is as incredibly widely available as it is.

But the question remains. How far do we go in making a profit from the gospel of Jesus Christ? I don’t have a good answer.

The other day I was tracking down a quotation I heard repeated at a local gathering and came across an interesting book published in 1834. On the title page of the “Googled” Oaths; Their Origin, Nature and History someone had scribbled “full of information… a superior work.” The introductory paragraph reads:

It is well observed by an ancient writer [Hilarius of Arles] that would men allow Christianity to carry its own designs into full effect; were all the world Christians, and were every Christian habitually under the influence of his Religion in principle and in conduct, no place on earth would be found for Oaths; every person would on all occasions, speak the very truth, and would be believed merely for his word’s sake; every promise would be made in good faith and no additional obligation would be required to ensure its performance.”

A few years ago I was asked to help organize a “business ethics conference” for a Catholic diocese. At the end of the day it was in fact a fundraising event, but the cause was good — supporting urban Catholic schools — and everybody knew what we were doing. Former Gonzaga University President Fr. Robert Spitzer was one of the speakers and I’ll never forget his “utility based ethics versus principle based ethics” talk. Enron was the whipping boy of those times and the example made by Fr. Spitzer was rather easy to understand. Enron’s accountants had spent too much time wondering how much they could hide rather than questioning whether hiding was the right thing to do. Lately, we’ve had Barney Frank and his famous “roll the dice” strategy with low income housing loans take Enron’s place, but the Massachusetts Congressman doesn’t seem to be reaching for a scourge. Not for that sin at least.

Speaking of Massachusetts, Harvard University’s Safra Foundation Center for Ethics had an interesting speaker on November 12th. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer [no relation -- you can be sure] spoke on the topic ”What Should Be the Rationale for Government Participation in the Market?” Since his resignation brought about by a prostitution scandal in March 2008, Mr. Spitzer has been teaching classes in Political Science to the kids at City College in New York and working at his daddy’s real estate firm. Kristin Davis, the former madam who supplied Spitzer’s needs and a reported Harvard alumnus wrote the Center’s Professor Lessig protesting the Spitzer apperance in which she described her former client as “a man without ethics.” The Spitzer appearance at Safra was characterized by some as the start of a “comeback.” We’ll see.

To sort this invitation out it’s probably worthwhile to read Safra Foundation Center’s mission statement:

Widespread ethical lapses of leaders in government, business and other professions prompt demands for more and better moral education. More fundamentally, the increasing complexity of public life – the scale and range of problems and the variety of knowledge required to deal with them – make ethical issues more difficult, even for men and women of good moral character.

But wait there’s more. Under the banner of one of the Center’s niches — Practical Ethics — we find the following:

“The diversity of the various methods and disciplines on which we draw and the range of the social and intellectual purposes we serve are too great to permit an orthodoxy to develop.”

For me, that leads to a version of I’m okay, you’re okay, it’s okay.

On the heels of Spitzer’s Harvard appearance The Wall Street Journal ran a story titled “Networking for Social Responsibility” in which they report on other business ethic efforts at some of the nation’s colleges. Creating an ecumenical balance to Harvard’s Safra Center is Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship organized because ”a growing number of companies are turning to business schools these days for help in redefining what it means to be socially responsible.” In North Carolina at yet another college, Gil McWilliam, an executive director at Duke Corporate Education says, “One reason for the heightened interest in social responsibility is that companies seeking to expand globally need to first understand what social issues matter most in their target countries.”

Speaking about expanding globally, several years ago some guys I knew in the real estate business got introduced to some rich Chinese from the mainland. They were looking for investors and opportunities but ran into this cultural roadblock everyone called Guanxi. That doesn’t sound like our word for it, but Guanxi translates as a payoff or bribe. “Everybody does it.” they told me.

Most of these ethics centers have “green” and “eco-friendly” in their brochures and promotional materials. Synonyns in the Thesaurus of social responsibility. But those words sound empty when one hears them from Maureen Kelly, founder of Tart Cosmetics who, during a video interview for The Wall Street Journal tossed them out unsparingly while touting her start up cosmetic company — she uses recycled products because her customers care about global warming — but was unashamed to tell us that her big break came when she lied to a potential customer about an order she had from one of their competitors in order to seal a deal. Maybe she can sign up with the folks at Harvard, or BC or Duke for some remedial work. Or not.

Because that brings us back to where we started — with oaths? How about “the truth and nothing but.”

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A colleague recently mentioned that a wag had observed the church had failed to solve poverty, so why not let the federal government have a try?

I think it is interesting that anyone, such as the wag in question, could think that the federal government can effectively solve the problem of poverty. I don’t think it can because it resolutely refuses to confront the sources.

Really, truly, don’t we know the cause of a great deal of the poverty in our midst? Here’s a hint: Adam Smith thought the poor who gravitated to the fiery preachers were wise. Why? Because the hell and brimstoners alone preached the doctrines that might prevent the poor from the catastrophic consequences of things like losing their jobs and money on liquor and gambling.

I can recall having lunch with Micah Watson, a colleague who teaches at Union, and he was talking about the trouble Jackson, TN has with some of its public schools. He said something that stuck. He said, “Many families in our school district lack the cultural capital to succeed.”

And he is right. Anyone who looks at the research in a dispassionate way will discover that people who do just a few things will almost never live in poverty. Those few things are that they will graduate from high school, get married, and delay childbearing until after marriage. If you do that, you will probably not spend your life below the poverty line.

Going a little further you will also find that children who come from intact, two parent families are significantly more likely to do better in school, to have fewer behavioral problems, to commit fewer crimes, to stay out of jail, to avoid sexual and physical abuse, and to stay off of public assistance than are their peers from broken homes or from single parent homes. These things are true even if you control for race.

For some reason, and I would argue that it is partially because of our silly secular mindset that favors avoiding moralism, we are unwilling to embody some of this knowledge in our public policy. When President Bush suggested that maybe we just might consider trying to encourage marriage among the poor, protest erupted. It was the same old thing, theocracy, blah, blah, blah . . . For some reason the morality that extends welfare to poor people is perfectly fine while the morality that would gently urge them toward the things that help human beings flourish is threatening and terrible and ultra-religious.

Does the church do enough? It does not, but I would argue that in part we fail to combat the problem of poverty adequately in the church because we think the duty has been subcontracted out to the state. The larger the state becomes, the less air is left in the community space for everyone else, especially the church because we buy into the idea of a secular state. (This is a point I talk about, by the way, in The End of Secularism.) The state eats up both resources and social influence. The system does not realize it has a soul, or if it does it is busy trying to kill it.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, November 9, 2009

From the opening page of Lester DeKoster’s Communism and Christian Faith (1962):

For the mysterious dynamic of history resides in man’s choice of gods. In the service of his god — or gods (they may be legion) — a man expends his energies, commits his sacrifices, devotes his life. And history is made. Understand Communism, then, as a religion; or miss the secret of its power! Grasp the nature of this new faith, and discern in contrast to it the God who alone can oppose its onward march; or misapprehend the character of the contest in which mankind is engaged, and misconceive our own historic task.

Light for the CityIn connection with the worldwide celebrations of the quincentenary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009, the Acton Institute BookShoppe recently made available a limited stock of the hard-to-find Light for the City: Calvin’s Preaching, Source of Life and Liberty (Eerdmans, 2004). In this brief and accessible work, Lester DeKoster examines the interaction between the Word proclaimed and the development of Western civilization.

“Preached from off the pulpits for which the Church is divinely made and sustained, God’s biblical Word takes incarnation in human selves and behavior, creating the community long known in the West as the City. Calvinist pulpits implanted the Word even now flourishing in the great democratic achievements of the Western world,” argues DeKoster.

And in the wake of Reformation Day this past weekend, check out some reflections at Mere Comments, which include even more recommended sources for study of the Reformation.

Finally, while it’s often the case that the blogosphere breaks news before the official announcements are made, I can report that the Meeter Center’s Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL) is now publicly available. The PRDL is a select bibliography of primary source documents focusing on early modern theology and philosophy, spanning publicly-accessible collections from major research libraries, independent scholarly initiatives, and corporate documentation projects.

The PRDL editorial board includes representatives from institutions from North America and Europe: Dr. Richard A. Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary); Jordan J. Ballor (University of Zurich/Calvin Theological Seminary); Albert Gootjes (Calvin Theological Seminary/Institut d’histoire de la Réformation, Geneva); Todd Rester (Calvin Theological Seminary); Lugene Schemper (ex officio/Calvin College & Seminary); and moderator David Sytsma (Princeton Theological Seminary).

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Friday, October 30, 2009

Recently I got a phone call from an engineering manager I’ve known for over ten years. He informed me that he’d been laid off last spring, but before I could offer condolences he added that he’d been hired by another company in the same industry for a consulting assignment.

That temporary work had lasted over six months but was winding down. He hadn’t been a contract “consultant” before and after some additional small talk told me, “… and I’ve discovered something I never knew.” Anticipating a revelation about a new found inner strength, I listened carefully.

“You know,” he began, “when you work as a consultant, you have to pay twice the withholding for Social Security and Medicare that you do when you work for a company.” I told him that wasn’t exactly true and we discussed briefly the labor burden — those costs the employer pays in the U.S. when they hire someone.

The big story these days is employer provided health benefits, but unfortunately that subject overshadows the longer term liability an employer or company faces when they hire employees; and is certainly one of the reasons why many firms increasingly like “contract” agreements. My friend’s take on having to pay a greater amount to Social Security and Medicare was not “exactly true” because the money “contributed” by the employer was always part of his gross wages, but was obscured by the mechanism of the deceit explicit in the government’s term “employer’s contribution.” I have some experience here. I’ve been a business owner and self employed most of my adult life.

You see, the employer by law must add to and pay the government an amount equal to what he withholds for Social Security and Medicare on a full-time employee’s behalf. If you regularly earn $400 a week, you are responsible for sending $30.60 of that amount to the federal government. (And that’s separate from what you may owe for income tax.)

The employee’s Social Security portion is 6.2% of gross wages up to $106,800 a year; and Medicare another 1.45% of gross wages but without a cut off point. For most of us, the combined 7.65% is our “contribution” to the federal retirement and healthcare systems already in place. But it’s not the total “contribution.”

As stated above, an employer or company that hires you is responsible for an equal “contribution” in your name of an additional 7.65% of your gross wage. Many who work for company’s lose sight of the fact that employers must add that cost of having them on the payroll to their cost of hiring us. Put bluntly, our employee has to account for a profit of at least $430.60 a week in order to justify being on a payroll. And because of the federal government’s demand that his and the employer’s “contributions” must be paid weekly, or monthly according to the government’s demands; the system has a tendency to put its own demands on a company’s cash flow. A company has to have enough profitable receipts to be able to “contribute” their one-half of what is demanded for their employee’s government retirement and healthcare system. And believe me, the government wants “their” money first and doesn’t care what other bills an employer has to pay.

My engineer friend was facing the reality of having to be his own employer so to speak and ante up the total 15.3% all on his own. Like most consultants he’d arranged a fee that paid him an amount from which no deductions were taken. At times like these, we’re all small business owners. It’s sobering. Imagine if there was no withholding and all taxpayers had to write a check at the end of the year. How might they choose to act? These government systems managed by Caesar are soon to be bankrupt. I heard someone report recently that Medicare is in arrears by $38 Trillion.

––––

Fall is typically the season during which the sermons delivered by pastors from church pulpits concern stewardship. In making the case for Christian Stewardship many pastors will visit Genesis and the story of Abel and Cain. Compare and contrast are my favorite means of offering clarity on many subjects so I like the Genesis story of obedience versus selfishness. Many use the Bible to promote the concept of the tithe and if you Google Tithe you’ll come up with a plethora of explanations, indictments and opinions. Generally the percentage of income or produce that we are persuaded God asks of us is ten — 10%.

I can tell you that the tithe is a request that staggers most Christians. Those with work earning $400 a week are not likely to volunteer $40 when the plate is passed on Sunday — yet seemingly ignore the fact that $61.20 was sent to the IRS on their behalf that week.

It’s instructive to remember that the concept of the religious tithe contains a lesson which is not of taxation. It’s argued that all is God’s and all we have comes to us through His Grace. I believe that’s true.

Yet as I sat in the pew recently listening to one of those sermons about “giving” I took a break to recall and pray for my engineer friend’s employment perdicament, I also compared my own hesitation at pledging myself toward a 10% tithe in light of the reality that I was already on the hook to give Caesar 15.3% off the top. Glancing around the sanctuary, the question arose as to whether the bureaucrats at a government office could match our congregation in our common devotion to each other, our Lord; and the missions we support in service to Him.

And it got me realizing that when you compare the two: Caesar and God — 10% is one heck of a deal.

Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.

drdog-2In August, the Wall Street Journal Europe published an article exploring the difference in health care received by domesticated animals and humans. (see “Man Vs. Mutt: Who Gets the Better Treatment?” in WSJ Europe, August 8, 2009) The editorialist, Theodore Dalrymple (pen name for outspoken British physician and NHS critic, Dr. Anthony Daniels) argued that dogs and other human pets in his country receive much better routine and critical healthcare than humans: their treatment is “much more pleasant than British humans have to endure.”

Dalrymple outlines just why this is so: pets in the U.K. actually have it better than their owners since: a) they receive immediate treatment with no waitlists or postponed operations “(and) not because hamsters come first”; b) there is no fear that somehow they are being denied the proper treatment for economic reasons: there is “no tension, no feeling that one more patient will bring the whole system to collapse…; (no one is) terrified that someone is getting more out of the system than they.”; and c) pets in veterinary facilities have more options and flexibility for choosing a healthcare practitioner: “if you don’t like him, you can pick up your leash and go elsewhere.”

British humans, on the other hand, have to deal with navigating the rapids and swells of NHS bureaucracy, which requires the skills of a “white-water canoeist”. They must also endure interminable wait-times for prostheses and life-improving operations. Often they receive sub-standard administrative services, nursing assistance and meal provisions.

As President Obama continues to promote a Europeanization of the American healthcare model, the WSJ Europe editorialist beckons us to listen to such howling in the twilight of the Old Continent’s rapidly aging nationalized healthcare systems. Part of this howling is caused in the less dignified forms of public health services and treatment of human patients. Yet, there is plenty of loud barking over the mismanagement and abuse within nationalized healthcare across Western Europe, particularly in terms of mishandling budgets and sources of revenue. (more…)

Last week Rick Warren’s church hosted the fourth Saddleback Civil Forum. This time the forum focused on reconciliation, particularly on the roles of the church and the government in promoting and fostering reconciliation after crime and conflict.

The forum included special guests Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, and Miroslav Volf, a prominent theologian and native of Croatia.

One of the things that typically happens in the course of tyranny and genocide is that the church’s social witness is either sidelined and marginalized or simply subsumed under governmental control. President Kagame said that during the Rwandan genocide, the government and the church “were almost one and the same.” This severely hampered the church’s ability to act as a critical and mediating institution between the government and its individual citizens.

We featured the book, As We Forgive, on a past series of posts here on the PowerBlog when we asked, “What social conditions promote reconciliation?” This book is a powerful exploration of concrete cases of restorative justice at work in Rwanda after the genocide.

In a guest post on the PowerBlog, author Catherine Claire Larson described the essential role that economic institutions play in reconciliation. In describing ministries that work to promote micro-finance, Larson writes that “by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration.”

The inspiration for Larson’s book, a documentary film of the same name, premiered on PBS earlier this year.

I also explored different Christian views of the government’s role in promoting restorative justice in a law review essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF).

That the government has some positive role to play in promoting restorative justice rings true in a number of concrete cases. Of course the state must respect the vital role that other institutions, like the church, must play. But sometimes punishment can be a means toward restoration.

Chef Jeff, a prominent personality on the Food Network, was in Grand Rapids earlier this year to discuss how his time in prison gave him the opportunity to reflect on his life and make positive changes to promote social well-being.

“In prison, it was the first time in my life I ever read a book. The first time in my life that someone told me that I was smart. The first time someone told me I had potential,” he said.

As Chef Jeff puts it, “Prison saved my life.”

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rev. Robert Sirico delivered a sermon titled “Whistling Past the Graveyard” at Mars Hill mega-church in Grand Rapids, Mich on September 20. You can listen to his sermon in its entirety by clicking on the sermon title above. Mars Hill was founded by Rob Bell in 1999.

Rev. Sirico addressed Christology, mortality, atonement theology, and the problem of evil. In his remarks Rev. Sirico declared:

And the vision of that hill, there on Golgotha’s bloody mount, is the answer to the riddle of human existence. There in the crucified Christ, we see one who not only suffers for us…but he suffers with us. He enters our grief, our solitude, our pain. And because the one who is suffering so is innocent, he has the capacity to subsume into himself, into his divine person, all of humanity’s suffering, all the history of limitation and death.