Category: General

In case you’re interested, I wrote and just posted a five-part review of Miller’s book, Finding Darwin’s God.

enjoy! eric

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, January 15, 2009

It’s usually good to steer clear of apocalyptic predictions of any sort, but as temperatures struggle to break the 10 degrees fahrenheit mark under full sun here in the Great Lakes region, talk of a “demographic winter” feels more compelling than warnings of global warming.

More seriously, the release of a new film by that name is the occasion for Jenny Roback Morse’s reflection on the economics of population. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field and I am skeptical of any argument simplistically connecting population growth (or decline) with economic growth (or decline). But I am convinced that something as fundamental as demography must play a significant role in economic trends, and it does seem that, in general, economists and policymakers alike have neglected or at least failed to appreciate the importance of the issue. (For a counterexample, see Oskari Juurikkala’s analysis of pending pension crises: Pensions, Population, and Prosperity.)

It is hard to see how strong economic growth can be sustained in the face of a declining population: it’s just asking too much of technological advance and productivity gains.

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A friend persisted in asking me to read The Shack. Although it has been a “#1 New York Times Bestseller”, it came on the radar when I was in a busy season, so I’m not sure I would have read it or even noticed it– without his encouragement.

I’m really glad I read it. Beyond enhancing my “cultural relevancy” (LOL!), The Shack was thought-provoking. Although I’m not sure I agree with everything in it– especially where one must speculate a good bit to draw inferences– I’m a wheat & chaff guy. And for whatever chaff Young delivers, he brings a lot of wheat to the table as well.

Young’s book is well-crafted and an easy read. On occasion, the conversations come off as stilted, but that’s difficult to avoid in a book so dominated by dialogue. And the book might not be easy to handle emotionally or theologically for some people– an important point to which I’ll return shortly.

In a nutshell, comparing it to some other relatively famous books, I’d say it’s:

1.) 50% The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis;
2.) 30% The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee or The Saving Life of Christ by Ian Thomas; and
3.) 20% Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen.

1.) The Shack is a cousin of Lewis’ book on Heaven and Hell in that it speculates on biblical topics that are vital but not clearly delineated in the Scriptures…

And like Lewis, Young works (effectively) to give himself wiggle room within his artistic portrayal. (Young uses basic literary devices at the beginning and the end of the book.) This is absolutely key because it indicates the speculative nature of his work– and it signals that Young does not take himself or the details of his picture too seriously.

2.) The Shack points to the importance of the “Spirit-filled life” within “sanctification”. I benefited tremendously from more traditional, straight-forward works like Nee and Thomas. But Young is trying to communicate some of the same principles through narrative/fiction.

This is both vital and vastly under-sold within the Church. Too often, people try to “live out the Chistian life” in their own power– “the flesh”. The result is sub-optimal in terms of outcomes, motives, perseverance, energy, and so on. But it isn’t meant to be that way. Christ himself said that it was for our own good that He would leave the Earth– so that the Spirit would come to empower believers to live that life through us (Jn 14:26, 16:7)….

3.) Young’s work is like Osteen’s in that it can be misread by some– and is, at the same time, especially relevant for certain audiences. I’ve already argued this in my review of Osteen’s book. I would recommend both books to most people who have been “wounded” by circumstances, a church, or the Church– especially if they can read it alongside a mature believer.

That said, the book could easily be misunderstood and misapplied by those who tend to read things (too) literally. Despite the ample praise the book has received, I think that’s the reason for the bulk of the criticism launched at it….

Derek Keefe provides a nice overview of the debate on the Christianity Today blog….

Among other things, this growing backlash broaches important questions about the proper relationship between art, theology, and the Church for evangelicals and their close kin….Switching directions, we must also ask what it means for Christian traditions and communities to be faithful to artists and their craft. This, too, is a theological question: How does the Church show good faith toward those sub-creators in God’s human economy whose very creative inclinations are evidence that they bear the image of a God who delights in creating?…My hunch is that we probably see a failure to keep faith on both sides here, and that it would be a good thing for all of God’s Church to discuss the when’s, where’s, why’s, and how’s of our mutual infidelities.

In a word, I’d recommend The Shack to those who are mature in their faith, those who have seen Christianity as duty and religion, those who are not prone to take things to literally/seriously, those who have endured profound pain and disappointment, and those who have been “burned by the church”.

In any case, may God use The Shack as a blessing to those who read it.

For the full review, click here.

After finals, I cranked through some books! Among those, one of G.K. Chesterton’s fictional works, The Flying Inn.

Chesterton was a prolific author. He’s well-known in some circles for his fictional work, particularly his “Father Brown” mystery series. (I haven’t tried those yet.) In this realm, I had read (and enjoyed) the classic The Man Who Was Thursday.

His non-fiction is oft-quoted but rarely read (like Dorothy Sayers and to a lesser extent, C.S. Lewis). That’s a shame, because it is a real pleasure to read. (It is a bit challenging– think Lewis’ thicker stuff.) He’s a gifted writer with a sharp pen and wit for the ideas he’s challenging and inspirational in the things he describes. In that arena, I have read Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Everlasting Man, and most recently, an edited volume of his writings on family.

The Flying Inn was an easy read and a fun romp. Along the road– and the travels of the primary characters– Chesterton takes a number of funny/serious pokes at prohibition, legalism, bureaucracy, power vs. authority, the limits of law, class-based hypocrisy on entertainment and “art”, “progressivism”, Islam, Nietzsche, political correctness, “higher biblical criticism”, and pompous individuals….

For excerpts of interest from TFI itself and excerpts from a review of TFI, check out the longer blog entry on SchansBlog

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, January 9, 2009

Part of the reason Richard John Neuhaus will be remembered is for his impact on Christians in higher education. There is no question that his seminal book The Naked Public Square and then his journal First Things changed the way many of us think about religion and culture. He also did something I think is nearly impossible with FT. He created a serious journal that causes many people (a great many of them professors) to do a little dance when they find it in their mailbox.

First Things is not an academic journal, but it is close and better. Instead of dividing knowledge up into a million little pieces and then writing ad nauseum about those subcompartments. First Things invites strong minds to contribute big essays about the intersection of religion, culture, law, politics, art, music, etc. The result is readable and edifying. When I was younger, I knew it was above my head, but I pursued it for improvement, just like a gangster listening to a pronounciation soundtrack to improve his speech. First Things took me places. Today, when I meet a fellow reader, I meet a friend.

Enough of the unsolicited advertisement. I saw a snippet of an email exchange about Neuhaus that is worth reproducing here. I won’t include the name in case the person wants that to remain private:

Converted (to Catholicism) about 1990 or 91. He is one of those Missouri Synod Lutherans who had a tremendous early education in their prep schools and liberal arts college…then a fine seminary education. It was the old German gymnasium system where young guys went off to prep school at 14 and learned German, Greek, Latin, church history, the confessions even before they got to college. The college at Fort Wayne gave them a terrific liberal arts education—classics, literature, history, languages—and then off to seminary. Pelikan, Wilken, Neuhaus, Marty, and many lesser lights came through that system. Valparaiso’s golden age occurred when these highly educated pastors also went into other fields and got doctorates. They had dual educations that made faith and learning engagement a natural thing. M.Divs with a degree in law, economics, literature. Very erudite types who occupied many positions at Valpo. But that has all disappeared….a great but probably necessary loss. How many families would send their boys off to prep school at 14 and what church could afford to run prep schools all over the country for their young men?

But Richard was one of that group….didn’t really need a doctorate.

No, he didn’t really need that doctorate. Wish we could reproduce that system for young people from families without tremendous means.

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, January 9, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus is dead. We’ve lost some big ones in the last year. Many of you will not realize how big this one was. I pray Jody Bottum and some of the others in the First Things (Neuhaus’ hugely influential journal) world can carry on his legacy. Though Neuhaus’ death leaves a chasm to be filled, I think Dr. Bottum is the right man for it.

Anthony Sacramone is a former managing editor of First Things. He is also one of my favorite writers. So, I’m happy to bring you his wonderful tribute to Neuhaus. Here’s a taste:

Woody Allen said that 90% of life is just showing up. Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at civil-rights marches in the 1960s or pro-life marches of the 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at the altar as a parish priest or at the bedside of a dying friend, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. As writer, lecturer, editor, raconteur, counselor, teacher — Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Every day. Until today.

And by the way, the New York Times didn’t do badly, either. I give them credit, particularly since Father Neuhaus spent part of his last column writing about how his desire to read the NYT had continued to slip.

It is the new year and the time of reflection is upon us. In 2008, we witnessed a revolutionary left-liberal presidential victory and the onset of substantial economic challenges.

Under the circumstances, I thought now might be a good time to propose a list of outstanding books for the intellectually curious friend or fellow traveler.

I would not dare attempt to put these in order based on excellence. Just consider it a series of number ones.

1. Lancelot by Walker Percy — A southern moderate-liberal is slowly fading out of his own life. He doesn’t know what his purpose is or where his marriage and family are going. But then, something strange happens. He discovers there is such a thing as evil. Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but Lancelot is my favorite.

2. Witness by Whittaker Chambers — Surely, the greatest memoir of any man of the right. Possibly, the greatest memoir ever. I once tried to copy out the passages that meant the most to me and ended up just typing in whole pages at a time. For those too young to know, Chambers was an American traitor loyal to the Communist cause, who left the Communists for what he felt was the losing side. He had to do it because of his recovered belief in God. In the course of his life, he became a senior editor of Time magazine and ultimately defeated Alger Hiss in legal battles over Hiss’s identity as a communist agent. Since Frost/Nixon is hot, you might also know that Richard Nixon’s presidency would likely never have happened without his championing of Chambers’ cause.

3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — I can’t resist putting Chambers and Rand together, especially since Chambers was the instrument William F. Buckley used to read Rand out of the conservative movement. As a Christian, I find Rand’s work antithetical to my own sensibilities, but I have to admit its power. Besides, this is a conservative-libertarian list and she can’t be left off. On the other hand, as literature, it cannot rank with the greats. I still remember the moment when John Galt grabs a microphone to speak to the nation . . . and one hundred pages later is wrapping it up!

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre — This is arguably the finest and most readable piece of political philosophy I have ever encountered. Anyone who wonders why our political discourse has become so poisonous and incommensurate should read this work. So, for that matter, should anyone interested in answering John Rawls. George W. Bush would have known long ago that “the new tone” was destined to fail, if only he’d read his MacIntyre.

5. Anarchy, Utopia, and the State by Robert Nozick — I’ll make this one simple. Robert Nozick provides the most convincing case for a minimalist state that I’ve ever seen. You can break your head on his symbols and formulas, but bear with it because you WILL get it if you keep reading. Even if you were only to read the short portion where he tells his “tale of the slave” you will be confirmed in your libertarian instincts.

6. Man and the State by Jacques Maritain — This collection of lectures about the relationship between the individual, the culture, and the state contains the kind of essential thought we wish every politician understood. Careful, wise, insightful. You will understand many things better after reading Maritain. If you would like to read political philosophy, but have been afraid to start, this may be your entry point.

7. Stained Glass by William F. Buckley — William F. Buckley is dead and I don’t feel so good, myself. However, I am comforted by reading his best works. This Blackford Oakes heart of the Cold War novel is one of his strongest entries. You want to see the kind of chess match the Soviets and Americans were playing? Then, read this Buckley spy novel.

8. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer — Would you like to know who was the prince of the Christian conservatives? It wasn’t Falwell or Robertson. It was Francis Schaeffer. The missionary who set up a Swiss Chalet spent years arguing with college students in Europe. Along the way, he formed a convincing apologetic for the existence of God and the reality of values. (I am almost required to point out that Schaeffer was wrong in his critique of certain figures. So, I said it. Still, this book is great stuff.)

9. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis — I could have chosen almost any title by C.S. Lewis, so I picked the one that had the greatest emotional impact on me. Perelandra is the second book of Lewis’s space trilogy (underappreciated next to Narnia). The story centers around the drama of Adam and Eve being replayed on a new planet with an earthman there to witness it. Utterly compelling and, of course, full to bursting with philosophical and spiritual meaning.

I like Robert Samuelson’s recent column about the difficulty (impossibility?) of accurately analyzing economic reality, let alone predicting its future. Over the past several months a few people, mistaking me for someone who knows a great deal about economics, have asked what I think about the financial crisis, the stock market, the recession, etc. My response is usually something along the lines of the following: Anyone who pretends to know and understand completely the causes of the economic meltdown and/or how to “fix” it, is either not very smart or is selling something (e.g., political schemes or financial advice).

It is a bitter pill for modern man–maybe contemporary Americans, especially–to swallow, but the fact is we can’t control the economy, even if we have “learned the lessons” of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the tech bubble of the 1990s. And often enough our efforts to manage and control it aggravate whatever problem we’re trying to address.

Recognizing this truth can be depressing, or it can be freeing.

It’s a reminder to all who are even occasionally viewed, described, or invoked as “experts” always to wield our opinions with humility. It won’t stop us from pontificating, but it should prevent anyone from taking us too seriously.

To substantiate this claim about the ignorance of the experts, here is an enjoyable summary of the worst economic predictions of 2008, courtesy of Business Week. (My fave: “I think you’ll see [oil prices at] $150 a barrel by the end of the year” —T. Boone Pickens, June 20, 2008.)

Here’s to an equally unpredictable 2009.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The year is 1943 and Valkyrie, the second release under the revamped United Artists brand, opens with German officer Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) on assignment in Africa. He had been sent there because his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had become dangerously explicit and bellicose. His promotion to lieutenant-colonel of the general staff and transfer from the European lines to Africa is intended to give him some protection from pro-Nazi officers who might make trouble for him.

An attack on a transport column in Africa leaves Stauffenberg badly wounded. He loses his left eye, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand, and his right hand above the wrist. Given director Bryan Singer’s resume (which includes X-Men) and the opening sequence, initial concerns that the film might be turned into an action movie are quickly dispelled. Given that the end of the movie is never in doubt, the movie never quite becomes a suspense thriller either. Yet Valkyrie still manages to deliver a thought-provoking and moving story of loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and doubt. (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, December 26, 2008

One of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read lately is Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in the January 2009 issue of First Things. It’s accessible online only to subscribers, but you can find the publication at academic and high-quality municipal libraries and it will be freely available online in a month or two.

Wilken makes so many interesting and informed observations that I don’t know where to start. Among the points to ponder:

“In the long view of history, and especially from a Christian perspective, the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance” than the Crusades. In the eleventh century, Wilken notes, the population of Asia Minor was virtually 100% Christian; by 1500, it was 92% Muslim.

“Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” The missionary impulse in Christianity is strong and its history impressive. But Wilken points out that Christians often view that history selectively and that Islam’s spread is equally impressive and seems at present to be more durable. (On two recent books about the early spread of Islam, see this review.)

Christianity’s fading in so many places undermines precisely those claims on which it prides itself: its catholicity, its capacity to embed itself in any culture, anywhere. “If Christianity continues to decline in Europe,” Wilken cautions, “and becomes a minority religion, its history will appear fragmentary and episodic and its claim to universality further diminished by the shifting patterns of geography.”

“By focusing on what went wrong, on Islamic terrorism, on Wahhabism, or on radical Islamists, we miss ways in which Islam is adapting constructively to a changing world.” The unparalleled success and staying power of Islam, Wilken insists, obligates us to take it more seriously–not merely as a threat, I take him to mean, but as a world view that is immensely powerful and attractive. “If we see Islam as a historical relic, incapable of change and betterment, inimical to reason and science, a form of religion that is disadvantaged in the modern world,” he writes, “we will never grasp the formidable challenge it presents to Christianity.”

For Christians, the article raises some uncomfortable questions. That’s not a bad thing. For its historical insight, for its analysis of the interaction of Christianity and Islam, and for its suggestive glance at the future, it is well worth reading.