Category: Bible and Theology

In a bit of an addendum to my review of the HBO series Deadwood in the current issue of Religion & Liberty, “A Law Beyond Law: Life Together in Deadwood,” I couldn’t help thinking of this bit from Clement of Alexandria when describing George Hearst, the über-robber baron of the Old West.

In that piece I write, “Hearst fancies that he is doing his fellow man a service in his devotion to mining gold, to acquiring ‘the color.'” There’s a patina of “other-directedness” in Hearst’s self-understanding. Indeed, Hearst’s influence isn’t entirely without its merits, but at bottom his explanation of his task seems more like self-rationalization to cover for a deep-seated greed than the righteous employment of a man divinely called.

Aunt Lou, who is Hearst’s cook describes him thusly: “George Hearst, he do love his nose in a hole more and ass in the air and back legs kickin’ out little lumps of gold like a badger.”

Clement of Alexandria describes that same human condition with a bit more theological insight: “But he who carries his riches in his soul, and instead of God’s Spirit bears in his heart gold or land, and is always acquiring possessions without end, and is perpetually on the outlook for more, bending downwards and fettered in the toils of the world, being earth and destined to depart to earth,—whence can he be able to desire and to mind the kingdom of heaven,—a man who carries not a heart, but land or metal, who must perforce be found in the midst of the objects he has chosen? For where the mind of man is, there is also his treasure.”

George Hearst: ‘The-boy-the-earth-talks-to’

A recent survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that “religion is less likely to be central to the lives of individuals in richer nations than poorer ones” (HT).

Given the Bible’s many warnings about the danger presented by wealth, specifically the temptation to no longer rely on God and his providential care, that probably isn’t surprising. But what might be more surprising is that “the United States, the wealthiest nation, was ‘most notably’ an exception, scoring higher in religiosity than those in Europe. The level of religiosity in the United States was found to be similar to less economically developed countries such as Mexico. Americans tend to be more religious than the publics of other affluent nations, the survey stated.”

But what upsets the seeming iron law connecting wealth to irreligion?

If wealth is less of an idol in the United States than elsewhere, it’s due in large part to the penetration of the Gospel message into people’s hearts and minds. An example of this message is clearly evident in a recent CT column by John Piper, “Gutsy Guilt.”

Piper takes apart the myth of prosperous comfort that Satan propagates. Piper writes with regard to sexual sin, perhaps the most difficult class of sins to conquer, “The great tragedy is not masturbation or fornication or pornography. The tragedy is that Satan uses guilt from these failures to strip you of every radical dream you ever had or might have. In their place, he gives you a happy, safe, secure, American life of superficial pleasures, until you die in your lakeside rocking chair.”

Material prosperity can be an occasion not only to stop relying on God for the provision of earthly goods, but can also be an opiate that dulls our awareness of even greater grace, the gift of justification. “Therefore, God, out of his immeasurable love for us, provided his own Son to do both. Christ bears our punishment and performs our righteousness. When we receive Christ as the Savior and Lord and Treasure of our lives, all of his punishment and righteousness is counted as ours (Rom. 4:4-6; 5:1; 5:19; 8:1; 10:4; Phil. 3:8-9; 2 Cor. 5:21). Justification conquers fornication,” writes Piper.

Here we hear echoes of Martin Luther: “At once a righteous one and a sinner! Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”

If the Pew survey is reliable, it speaks greatly to the cause of Christ in America that great wealth has not resulted in the level of apostasy and practical atheism present in other countries. Only when rightly and appropriately valued does wealth occupy a morally praiseworthy place in the world, as a means of glorifying God through service to our neighbor.

Folks like John Piper and Craig Gross (whose efforts in an anti-pornography ministry is profiled at length here) have done a great deal to keep American Christianity from accommodating sexual guilt that lies unforgiven in cultural appeasement. We are of course and by no means blameless or perfect, and our “success” relative to other countries is less important than our failure relative to God’s demands of holiness.

But what these things do show is that the Gospel and the extent to which God remains a vital reality in the lives of people does matter greatly in this world, not least of which in how it affects the way we relate to the culture around us and begin to use penultimate things rightly.

This Sunday, November 11, is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.

A prayer “For the Persecuted” (BCP 1928):

O blessed Lord, who thyself didst undergo the pain and suffering of the Cross; Uphold, we beseech thee, with thy promised gift of strength all those of our brethren who are suffering for their faith in thee. Grant that in the midst of all persecutions they may hold fast by this faith, and that from their stedfastness thy Church may grow in grace and we ourselves in perseverance, to the honour of thy Name, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost art one God, world without end. Amen.

For more on how you can help the persecuted church, visit The Voice of the Martyrs.

In the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the character of film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, declares, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time last night, thanks to the recommendation from a friend in Virginia. As a fan of classic films, I had high hopes for this film, which was directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder also directed one of my favorite classics films, Stalag 17.

William Holden starred in the film, playing a Hollywood script-writer named Joe Gillis. It is evident Gillis is an out of work and down on his luck kind of guy. Gillis meets Desmond when he is trying to flee the men attempting to repossess his automobile. He has a blowout and parks in the garage of what appears to be an abandoned mansion, which is owned and inhabited by Desmond and her butler. The dark, sinister, and shady side of Hollywood takes off from there. Desmond is a former silent movie super star, now washed up and forgotten. She hires Gillis, in the belief he can help launch her “return” to Hollywood glory by editing her movie script. If you are interested in an overview of the entire plot, check out this film site.

Sunset Boulevard masterfully portrays the emptiness of self love and selfishness gone mad. It is equally a haunting look at spiritual emptiness and decay. I was drawn in by the dramatic acting of Gloria Swanson, who turns into a warped and pathetically sad individual as she continually plots her return, which is in reality only in her mind. The dramatic scene at the end is a captivating portrayal of this madness at its pinnacle. The film was obviously controversial, because it exposed such a negative and dreary portrayal of Hollywood in its heyday.

The film is packed with powerful imagery and symbolism. In addition, the powerful use of black and white was phenomenal, which was made all the more haunting when coupled with the musical score. What is also powerful, is that the film is so relevant for today’s audiences. One look at Hollywood gossip shows, Hollywood worship television shows, and the self love, narcissistic culture, makes this clearly evident.

As a Christian, the film scores big as a reminder of the decay and shallowness of a life that pursues vanity, greed, and narcissism. It also reminds us that sin has consequences. Many of us are aware of people who are locked in the prison of their shallow, self-loving world. The probing question being, are we a community that seeks to be saved, and sacrifice for others, or a society seeking instant gratification? The vexing question has even found its way into the Church, in the form of prosperity gospel theology. But those who know the power and truth of real freedom, know Christ. We are made whole and complete in the sacrifice, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul said in 2nd Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Paul also notes in Romans , “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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Here’s a definition of freedom worth noting:

The Word of God teaches that the Christian is a free man and should “stand in the freedom which Christ has made him free.” What is meant by Christian freedom? What is freedom in general? We answer: it is not the right and the ability to do as one pleases, but the ability to move without constraint in the sphere for which God made us. Freedom therefore is not inconsistent with limitation and law. The bird is free only when it can move in the air unhindered. A worm is free when it is not prevented from moving in the ground–in a sphere which would mean bondage and death for many other creatures. A locomotive is not free unless its motion is confined to the two rails on which it was made to run. Man was made in the image of God to be like Him and to reflect his holiness. Consequently he is free only when he moves without constraint in the sphere of holiness and obedience to God’s law.

–“Christian Liberty,” in “Report of the Committee on Worldly Amusements,” Agenda: Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, To convene June 13, 1928 at Holland, Mich., p. 22.

The biblical text cited above is Galatians 5:1.

Regarding John Armstrong’s insightful post yesterday, I want to pass along some related wisdom on the subject from Richard Baxter from his 1682 treatise, How to do Good to Many. Writing on the text of Galatians 6:10, he writes about the problem and responsibility of passing along wealthy estates to heirs:

III. The Text plainly intimateth that it is a great Crime in them, that instead of doing good while they have opportunity, think it enough to leave it by Will to their Executors to do it. When they have lived to the flesh, and cannot take it with them, they think it enough to leave others to do that good, which they had not a heart to do themselves: But a treasure must be laid up in heaven before-hand, and not be left to be sent after, Matth. 6. 20, 21. And he that will make friends of the Mammon of Unrighteousness, must now be rich towards God, Luk. 12. 21. It’s no victory over the World, to leave it when you cannot keep it: Nor will any Legacy purchase Heaven for an unholy worldly soul.

IV. Yet they that will do good neither Living nor Dying are worst of all. Surely the last Acts of our Lives, if possible, should be the best; And as we must live in health, so also in sickness, and to the last in doing all the good we can; and therefore it must needs be a great sin, to leave our Estates to those that are like to do hurt with them, or to do no good, so far as we are the free disposers of them.

The Case, I confess is not without considerable difficulties, how much a man is bound to leave to his Children, or his neerest Kindred, when some of them are disposed to live unprofitably, and some to live ungodly and hurtfully. Some think men are bound to leave them nothing, some think they ought to leave them almost all: And some think that they should leave them only so much as may find them tolerable food and raiment. I shall do my best to decide the case in several propositions. (more…)

I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me. With me are riches and honor, enduring wealth and prosperity. My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver. I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, bestowing a rich inheritance on those who love me and making their treasuries full.

Proverbs 8:17-21

The biblical wisdom literature makes it abundantly plain, as does the rest of the entire Bible, that it is God alone who grants both wealth and blessing. There are numerous ways to get wealth but the way of godly gain is by seeking God, and the way of his righteousness, alone. And those who are given wealth by God will usually have an inheritance to give at the end of their lives. This is summed up quite well in these words: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors as it is today” (Deuteronomy 8:18).

I have been thinking a great about the theology of wealth over the past two or three years. I have also been immersed in a discussion of the subject, with about twenty Christian businessmen and women, for the past two days at the Kuyper Business Summit in San Diego, sponsored by the Center for Cultural Leadership. I have become convinced that the Church has little or no balanced understanding, in the pulpit or the pew, about this subject. We either feel that seeking wealth is inherently wrong, and then deal with the attendant guilt feelings that come with generating wealth, or we promote a “health and wealth” theology that stresses great wealth as the personal promise of God for every Christian who knows how to ask and receive by faith. Both are failed ideas theologically and thus badly distorted when applied to daily living.

Wealth is the blessing of God! He alone gives it. To some he grants the ability to gain wealth for his glory. This, in itself, means much more than merely attaining wealth so you can support your family and then give large sums to charity. (These are both good goals but not the whole picture!) Some are clearly called to make wealth as a divine calling. Indeed, I am convinced that many businessmen and women are so called by God to produce wealth but the Church has been of little or no help in creating the right context and support for this to actually happen in the right way. An alternative theology to these two extremes is to be found in the work of the Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper, thus the name of the very event I am attending. Serious readers should explore Kuyper’s thought on this matter. John Schneider’s outstanding book, The Good of Affluence (Eerdmans), should also be a must read for serious consideration of this important subject. (Schneider is a professor at Calvin and presents, by far and away, the best short volume on this subject in our time.) (more…)

Just over a year ago an article of mine was published, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59 (2006): 263-280.

In this piece I argue that the basic theological disagreement between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to do with the former’s radical denial of natural theology. One of the three cases I examine is the exchange between the two theologians when the Aryan clause, which excluded ethnic Jews from public service, was imposed on the Christian churches in Germany.

I show that for Bonhoeffer this imposition was a clear violation of the church’s sovereignty and an occasion for declaring a state of confession, in which the fundamental elements of the Christian faith hang in the balance. For Barth, however, the Aryan clause was not so clearly related to his own theological preoccupation with natural theology as to merit immediate ecclesiastical action. Here’s a letter from Barth to Bonhoeffer at the time:

Perhaps the damnable doctrine which now holds sway in the church must first find vent in other, worse deviations and corruptions; in this connection I have gathered a pile of German Christian literature and can only say that on all sides I am most dreadfully portrayed! It could then well be that the encounter might take place at a still more central point.

Bonhoeffer could hardly imagine a “worse deviation” and I argue that this disagreement played a central role in Bonhoeffer’s disillusionment in the ability of the church to resist the Nazis in the so-called “church struggle.” In Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, he said this of Barth’s actions at the time: ‘Even like-minded theologians such as Karl Barth and Hermann Sasse decided to wait for even “worse” heresies than the “racial conformity” of the Civil Service Law.’

Later on Barth would acknowledge his mistake. In a letter to Bonhoeffer’s best friend Bethge in 1967, Barth reflects on that time:

New to me…was the fact that Bonhoeffer in 1933 viewed the Jewish question as the first and decisive question, even as the only one, and took it on so energetically. I have long felt guilty myself that I did not make this problem central, in any case not public, for instance in the two Barmen declarations of 1934 which I had composed. Certainly, a text in which I inserted a word to that effect would not have found agreement in 1934—neither in the Reformed Synod of January, 1934; nor in the General Synod of May at Barmen. But there is no excuse that I did not fight properly for this cause, just because I was caught up in my affairs somewhere else.

In his book Bonhoeffer as Martyr (which I’m currently reviewing), Craig J. Slane writes,

Passage of the Arierparagraph left the church a twofold possibility: first, and most obvious, consider its theological response to the matter of Jews in its membership, a consideration that would eventually involve the church in border disputes with the state; and second, to develop a responsible theological and ethical position on the state’s aggression against the Jewish race itself. Of course, anti-Semitism had long been an issue in Western culture. Perhaps it was for that very reason that his [Bonhoeffer's] colleagues could not seem to muster much concern.

See also, “A Time to Tear, a Time to Speak.”

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
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How’s this for an expression of un-Christian retributiveness?

If God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing some six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.

–Heinrich Heine, Gedanken und Überlegungen; quoted and translated in Freud, Civilization and its Discontents.

Read that quote within the context of these two related biblical texts, Genesis 4:23-24 and Matthew 18:21-23, and tell me what you think.

The justification for capital punishment isn’t that it is a necessary precondition for personal forgiveness.

The folks over at the Reformation21 blog, produced of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have a great discussion going about the spiritual, cultural, and pastoral implications of pornography (here, here, and here).

The first post takes up the Naomi Wolf article, “The Porn Myth,” which also occasioned in part my reflections on the pornification of culture in general and technology in particular.

Carl Trueman aptly wonders (in the second post),

Could it be that pornography is the ultimate free market industry — creative of, and driven by, an insatiable need for change to create new demands and new markets with personal solipsistic gratification as the all-consuming and ever elusive goal? If so, there are elements of it which are symptomatic, rather than constitutive, of a much wider cultural problem and which thus require more radical cultural criticism than `it’s bad for women and it’s dirty’, true and serious as these undoubtedly are. Porn addiction becomes merely an extreme example of the general way we live today and of the worldly expectations which our culture infuses into us as natural and acceptable.

(Trueman also recommends two pieces on pastors and pornography, available here and here. And here’s a follow-up story to the latter piece.)

I read Trueman’s critique in the light of the observation made by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the mid-90’s, that among social conservatism there is “an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral social goods that they value—that it may even subvert those goods.” The commodification of sexuality seems to fit into the latter category (i.e. the subversion of goods).

(As an aside, so-called “crunchy cons” might claim to represent this “older Burkean tradition,” but from what I’ve seen its an open question to what extent they appreciate “the material advantages of a free-market economy.”)

And in the third post linked above, Rick Phillips coins the following phrase: “The idolatry of the porn worldview.”

Relating the pornography theme and another recent Reformation21 post on the necessary connection between faith and works, check out the work of X3Church, particularly the Esther Fund, which connects with people who work in the porn industry to try to give them a new life after porn. It’s a ministry with “a passion to help porn stars find freedom from the porn industry by helping them rebuild their lives through financial assistance, education and more.”