Category: General

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Thursday, December 25, 2008

I felt inspired by a fellow Hoosier’s blog post this morning. Doug Masson wrote:

Merry Christmas everyone. Like I’ve said probably too many times, I’m not a religious guy. But, it’s tough to argue with the message — peace to everyone, love your family. Love each other. Sounds easy enough. Looking at the world, apparently it’s harder than it sounds. Still, this is a nice reminder each year.

I’m not particularly religious either, but in a different sense than Doug means (I think). Of course, even assuming that we’re talking about Christianity, sometimes it’s “religion” that gets in the way of the message– both believing it and living it out. This was probably the most important aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry– to mess with the Pharisees who had distorted the message.

The other difficulty is that we’re selective with the message:

We like baby Jesus, but not so much the bearded Man from Galilee.

Or we like some aspects of the bearded Man’s message, but not others. And so, we practice a cafeteria Christianity that’s somewhere between an attenuated Gospel and heresy in doctrine– and in practice, somewhere between lukewarm love and destructive behavior.

Or to borrow from and paraphrase a good sermon I heard in a United Church of Christ service two weekends ago, we’re cool with the cradle, ok with the cross, and not so hot with the throne.

The cradle seemingly makes no demands. It’s somewhere between cute and quaint, warm and fuzzy, myth and Myth. The calls from the cradle are implied and easily trumped by the trappings of the holiday celebration.

The cross, in practice, is a mixed bag. It inspires awe when we focus on what Christ offered to do for us. His Sacrifice, which begins when He goes from Heaven to Cradle, is staggering– in particular, to die for the stupid things that we did, do, and will do. In a word, Christ died for bozos like you and me. As Paul writes in Romans: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

But often, we stop just there, focusing on the Gift of God’s Grace, and not the resulting call: to extend grace as Grace as been extended to us, to love as we have been Loved– not just those who love us, but beyond what is relatively easy.

The throne is left out altogether– that Jesus Christ would not only be Savior, but Lord of one’s life. The results are predictable: relationship becomes religion and ritual, the Church is tainted, God’s Kingdom is diminished. We are then incapable of loving as we were created to do, unable to be who we were created to be.

May Christmas Day be a reminder that we should strive to make every day Christmas– from the cradle to the cross to the throne.

Of course, Santa is based on a historical character. And in many (but certainly not all!) ways, he points forward to Jesus Christ. But in a broader sense, God has created a mystical, mythical, and magical world– that can be overdone or mis-imagined. That said, the more common error is to under-do or under-imagine– out of our “modern” heritage and tainted worldview.

I’ve blogged on this quite a few times– and three times in the past month, in noting the 100th anniversary of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a connection between Harry Potter, D&D, Chesterton and Lewis, and the ultimately irrational hyper-extension of rationality.

My family and I just watched Elf the other night on TV– a charming little movie with the same message. (I’m on a bit of a Will Ferrell kick these days– after seeing Talladega Nights after this post.)

Here’s Tony Woodlief in the WSJ (hat tip: Linda Christiansen) on the same general topic– with applications to Santa Claus and our ability (&/or willingness) to believe (or not)…

After describing his 8-year old son determining that Santa was not real, “the talk” they had, and his son’s ultimate question (“He isn’t real, is he?”), Woodlief moves into deeper waters:

Perhaps a more responsible parent would confess, but I hesitate. For this I blame G.K. Chesterton [and] “Orthodoxy”…One of its themes is the violence that rationalistic modernism has worked on the valuable idea of a “mystical condition,” which is to say the mystery inherent in a supernaturally created world. Writing of his path to faith in God, Chesterton says: “I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”

Magic-talk gets under the skin of many, like renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. This is doubly so when it is what the Christ-figure Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” calls “the deeper magic,” an allusion to divinity. Mr. Dawkins is reportedly writing a book examining the pernicious tendency of fantasy tales to promote “anti-scientific” thinking among children. He suspects that such stories lay the groundwork for religious faith, the inculcation of which, he claims, is a worse form of child abuse than sexual molestation.

I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being….

Blog author: hunter.baker
posted by on Friday, December 19, 2008

It’s the end of the year, so the book lists are out. I’m thinking about conservative icon Russell Kirk.

If you want a really enjoyable and edifying read, I recommend you begin with The Roots of American Order. That book will give you an understandable and historically grounded sense of what “ordered liberty” means. It will also open the mysteries of Kirk wide to the uninitiated reader. The prose is lively. Highly readable.

Kirk is more widely known for the book that made his reputation, The Conservative Mind, but I think The Roots of American Order is a better read for the vast majority of people.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, best known for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. An essay by Theo Hobson, author of the newly-released Milton’s Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, 2008), well summarizes Milton’s integrated theological, political, and social vision (HT: Arts & Letters Daily).

John Milton (1608-1674): “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.”

Instead of secularizing a figure that has been deemed important in the history of political philosophy by some sort of post-Enlightenment textual deconstruction, Hobson attempts to show how Milton’s Christian convictions positively informed his perspective on the responsibilities of both state and church. For Milton faith was no vestigial appendage that contemporary observers might feel at liberty to amputate with warranted zeal.

At the same time, notes Hobson, Milton “started working out a coherent account of England’s religious situation. It wasn’t enough to insist that the church should be more ‘Protestant’, for that term was vague. He realised that the Reformation had evaded the whole issue of church-state relations; it allowed for an authoritarian state church. Real religious reform entailed going right back to the time of Constantine, and questioning the idea of a politically empowered church.” Hobson works out this thesis regarding Milton’s contribution to judge that Milton’s influence has been much more positively felt on the American side of the Atlantic rather than in his native land.

To say that the Reformers “evaded” the issue of church and state is perhaps misrepresenting Milton’s criticism a bit (or if it isn’t then Milton’s criticism ill-stated). It’s one thing to say that the Reformers didn’t address the question in the right way, or came up with the right solution, or didn’t go quite far enough in “reforming” the relationship between church and state. But it’s quite another thing (and a patently false one at that) to say that they didn’t directly and rather thoroughly discuss the issue.

What Milton was really concerned to fight, which Hobson accurately articulates, was the influence of a sort of Constantinian Protestantism, communicated to Britain via figures like Martin Bucer (whose De Regno Christi appeared in 1550) and Wolfgang Musculus (whose Common places were published in translation in 1563 and 1578 in Britain). And while there were important varieties of this Constantinian or magisterial Protestantism in the sixteenth century, there was near unanimity among the major first and second generation Reformers on the question of civil enforcement of both tables of the Law.

Both Bucer and Calvin preferred the hypocrite, who only endangered his own salvation, to the open apostate, who could lead many astray.

The distinction between “religious” obligations in the first table and “civil” obligations in the second table is not identical to a distinction between internal motives and external works. The conflation of these two distinctions is what paves the way for a corrosive kind of secularism, the kind that privatizes or internalizes religion and faith. And as Milton clearly saw, the institutional separation between state and church in no way entails the withdrawal of faith from public life. Indeed, since his own religious convictions so profoundly influenced his political views, to say otherwise would have been to render Milton’s own position untenable.

Kathleen Parker has a major case of secular reason sickness and it needs to be cured. I’ll keep this short and simple. Here is an offensive line from one of Kat’s latest columns:

How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments.

Problem #1: Social conservatives very rarely argue for their public policy positions on the basis of straight-up revelation. It is much more common to hear them talk about scientific evidence that life begins from conception (which could be found in an embryology textbook, for example) than to hear a scriptural exegesis of, say, Jeremiah 1. If anything, American social conservatives have worked quite assiduously to persuade their fellow citizens without direct appeal to revelation.

I think the Yale Law professor Stephen Carter was more correct several years ago when he complained conservative Christians relied on a platform that lacked spiritual distinctives and simply mimicked Republican positions. Mr. Carter is a scholar in the area of law and religion. His observation is well-informed by a review of recent history and current events.

Let us not forget that when some Christian leaders hid behind the separation of church and state to avoid addressing topics like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and nuclear proliferation, their liberal colleagues were applauded for highly public spiritual approaches to those controversies. When liberals do it, we call it “speaking truth to power” or “speaking prophetically.” When conservative religionists enter the political process, everyone suddenly frets about impending theocracy.

Problem #2: Ms. Parker acts as though everything we discuss in politics can be parsed scientifically. This is the same sort of casual toss-off we get when some self-satisfied personage says, “You can’t legislate morality.” Really? Hate crimes? The illegality of segregation? A welfare state? Human rights?

The simple fact is that politics concerns itself with the realm of value as well as the realm of fact. There are both religious and philosophical approaches to questions of value. Is there any compelling reason to commit epistemological segregation, Ms. Parker? Must the religious contestants sit at the back of the bus to satisfy you?

Blog author: eschansberg
posted by on Thursday, November 27, 2008

In sports, there is a debate (between interesting and inane) about the meaning of a “Most Valuable Player” award: is it the best “individual” player (often measured in terms of a handful of statistics) or the player who is most valuable to his team (without that player, the team would not be nearly as good)?

The same could be said for holidays. For Christians, the “greatest” holidays are Christmas, Good Friday, and especially, Easter. But I’d argue that Thanksgiving is still the “best” holiday.

Christmas has a lot of cultural and consumerist baggage. Good Friday is vital but not the end of the story. And Easter gets overlooked easily– and in any case, doesn’t have an easy or appropriate way to celebrate it.

But Thanksgiving– at least in its ideal form– is awesome. It’s a time for extended family to gather and reflect, a four-day weekend which begins with gratitude and ends with worship, a grand opportunity to enjoy the fruit of the earth in combination with creative human preparation, and most of all, a time to enjoy God’s blessings and “give thanks”.

In this sense, Thanksgiving is like every other great holiday. It is meant to be a special celebration of that which we should celebrate every day. From Valentines Day to Mothers Day, from Veterans Day to July 4th, we set aside certain days for explicit celebration. But at the same time, the “event” is meant to be a continuous “lifestyle”– to celebrate, remember, or observe each of these every day of our lives. In this sense, all holidays are perhaps best understood through their etymology– as “holy days”– special but emblematic.

Speaking of etymology, I’m not certain that the words “grace” and “gratitude” are related. (A quick flip through my Websters does not resolve the question.) But they are certainly related conceptually. One angle on the Gospel is that Christians are grateful for God’s offer of grace and are then drawn to feeling and expressing graciousness in every aspect of their lives.

Thanksgiving allows Christians to celebrate God’s grace in its many forms– from the “common grace” extended to all to the providential graces of history through God’s sovereignty, from the universal grace available to all in Jesus Christ to the specific graces afforded to each of us in our daily lives.

In a sense, then, Thanksgiving allows us to celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter in one fell swoop. If so, maybe Thanksgiving is both the best and the greatest holiday of them all.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, October 13, 2008

Speaking of the Nazis, I highly recommend Heiko A. Oberman’s essay, “From Luther to Hitler,” contained in the posthumously published The Two Reformations (Yale University Press, 2003). The piece is short and pointed, well worth the read, and just one of a number of excellent essays in that collection.

Here’s how Oberman concludes (p. 85):

I do not intend this analysis to serve the cause of exculpating the Germans who were fated to be born too early. Rather I hope to direct attention to the decade of decision between 1925 and 1935, particularly to the responsibility of academic leaders, who enjoyed a status of respect unparalleled in the rest of Europe. Among those leaders martin Heidegger, Emanuel Hirsch, and others constituted a kind of Nazi think tank that provided Hitler with some of his most effective ideological executioners. Although they are now restored to what may be their rightful glory as scholars, they have forfeited their claim to be regarded as citizens of humanity.

Ideas have consequences and academic leaders have a public responsibility. History, too, has a duty to judge the moral quality of those ideas and what consequences they had.

August 28 at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, the son of a black African delivered a rousing acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. It occurred 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and told America “I have a dream.”

Even Americans unconvinced that the Democratic nominee is the right choice for America should take heart from the fact that half a century after King struggled against vicious, institutionalized racism, the United States has become a place that can fairly consider an African-American for the highest political office in the land.

But if as King urged, we are careful to judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, the convergence stretching across 45 years begs a question: Has Barack Obama’s political career embodied Martin Luther King’s dream of justice for all?

King dreamed of a day when his nation would “live out the true meaning” of a creed inscribed in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The reality is, Barack Obama supports policies that aggressively, even violently undermine that dream.

One might assume I’m referring to the rights of the unborn, and certainly Obama has voted consistently to deny unborn babies the right to life. Obama even blocked modest attempts to end the gruesome practice of partial birth abortion. After the cervix is dilated in this procedure, the baby–who often is old enough to survive outside the womb–is partially delivered, feet first. The abortionist then sticks a needle into the back of the child’s head and suctions out her brains. As an Illinois state senator, Obama twice refused to support a bill banning the practice.

While this is worth noting, I had in view a more startling instance of Senator Obama deviating from Dr. King’s vision of justice for all. Recently California pastor Rick Warren interviewed Obama as part of the Saddleback Forum and, at one point, asked the candidate, “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” The senator said that answering the question was “above my pay grade.”

Most of the subsequent media analysis assumed that his answer applied only to unborn babies. But the senator’s voting record tells a different story.

In 2001 and 2002, as an Illinois state senator, Obama repeatedly declined to vote for the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, a bill to protect newborns who survive late-term abortions. Senator Obama has asserted that problems in the wording of the bills drove his decisions not to support this and the partial-birth abortion bills. But in 2003 the Born Alive Infant Protection Act was sent to a committee Obama chaired, giving him the chance to modify anything about the bill he disliked. He never called the bill up for a vote.

Obama has presented himself as a pro-choice moderate. In fact, Obama is far to the left of his own party on the born-alive issue. A similar bill in the U.S. Congress was opposed by only 15 members of the House and was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate. The bill was even supported by NARAL Pro-Choice America. This is not surprising: the bill outlaws infanticide. What is surprising is that Senator Obama could not find a way to support the bill.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” But Obama has refused to extend justice, even the most basic human right, to a segment of the youngest children among us.

Some people have tried to minimize the difference between King and today’s abortion-on-demand lobby by pointing to an award King accepted from Planned Parenthood in 1966. But in a Feb. 25 written release, King’s niece, Dr. Alveda Scott King, noted that King accepted the award when “abortion was illegal in every state and before Planned Parenthood started publicly advocating for it.” In Planned Parenthood’s citation for the award, “not only is no mention of abortion made, it states that ‘human life and progress are indeed indivisible.’”

King’s niece added, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘The Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the future of his children for personal comfort and safety,’ and, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ There is no way my uncle would condone the violence of abortion, violence that Planned Parenthood has always tried to mask, which brings painful deaths to babies and can result in torn wombs, serious infections, and emotional devastation for their mothers.”

The Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution that followed, called for a limited national government that protected the inalienable rights of its citizens. At least as regards health care, Senator Obama is advocating something quite different: an ever expanding nanny state intimately involved in our medical choices, and yet one unwilling to protect a newborn child’s inalienable right to life.

In his interview with Warren, Obama emphasized that as a nation we “still don’t spend enough time thinking about the least of these.” But who counts as “the least of these”? A newborn who has survived an attempt on her life strikes me as a pretty good candidate.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Anders Chydenius (1729-1803)

The answer of the Nordic philosopher and priest Anders Chydenius (1729-1803) applies equally well to his younger contemporary Malthus as to 21st-century neo-Malthusian paganism:

Would the Great Master, who adorns the valley with flowers and covers the cliff itself with grass and mosses, exhibit such a great mistake in man, his masterpiece, that man should not be able to enrich the globe with as many inhabitants as it can support? That would be a mean thought even in a Pagan, but blasphemy in a Christian, when reading the Almighty’s precept: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.’

Indeed, the biblical answer to Chydenius question would seem to clearly be, “No.” Remember, after all, you are worth more than many sparrows.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Wednesday, August 13, 2008

As The Dark Knight sets box office records, and the Acton Institute plunges deeper into the business of film production, it might be an opportune time to revisit the question of Christianity and movies.

Scads of ink have already been spilled on the subject, which is of course part of the larger question of the relationship between Christianity and art, upon which many great minds have ruminated. (See, for example, Jacques Maritain on Art and Scholasticism.)

On the PowerBlog, besides the occasional movie review, John Armstrong (here) and Jordan Ballor (here and here) have alluded to the broader questions raised at the intersection of morality, movie production and viewing, and evangelization.

A provocative recent contribution to the discussion comes from Time magazine’s Anthony Sacramone, writing at On the Square. Sacramone refers to the defunct Motion Picture Production Code (one part of an interesting history of Catholics and American movies) in the course of a critique of the contemporary Christian Movieguide, concluding,

There should be a happy medium between resigning oneself to the rank nihilism emitted from cineplexes like stink lines from an R. Crumb cartoon, and pining for the days when the Production Code had to be formally amended to permit Rhett Butler’s valedictory “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”