Posts tagged with: culture

When I watched Eric Metaxas deliver his remarks at this year’s national prayer breakfast, I was awed with the way he challenged the president on the issue of life and religious liberty. His words were wrapped in humor and informed by a powerful history that gave an edge to his remarks.

Metaxas challenged the president and the audience with the witness of historical figures such as William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He invited them to live out their faith and to defend the innocent and our religious freedoms. “Wilberfoce suddenly took the Bible seriously that all of us are created in the image of God, to care for the least of these. You think you’re better than the Germans of that era? You’re not,” said Metaxas. He asked: “Whom do we say is not fully human today?” If you haven’t heard his address it’s well worth your time.

In the new issue of Religion & Liberty, Metaxas defends religious liberty and offers insight into the challenges facing the culture and nation. He will keynote Acton’s Annual Dinner in October of this year.

Three great book reviews can be found in this issue. Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse offers an analysis of Leon Aron’s Road to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991. Rev. Gregory Jensen reviews Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and Jonathan Witt reviews Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. All three reviews uplift universal truths about God and man, something we are proud of and strive to do in the pages of R&L.

The issue also includes an excerpt titled “Desiccated Christianity” from Rev. Robert Sirico’s new book Defending the Free Market . The “In the Liberal Tradition” figure is Acton’s good friend Charles W. Colson (1931-2012). Acton had the privilege of conducting the last media interview with Colson. It’s a powerful testimony.

There is more content in the issue and be sure to check out my editor’s notes for additional comments and insight.

One of the most basic forms of entertainment that friends and families share together is playing board games, such as Monopoly or Risk. While we may not realize is how much these games are teach us about economic ideas such as trade or scarcity.

I must confess I’m a bit of a board game snob. I don’t really care for common games like Monopoly as I prefer so-called “designer” games such as the Settlers of Catan or Power Grid. In an article for the Washington Post, Blake Eskin calls Settlers the “board game of our time.”

Eskin explains that Monopoly had an appeal in the depression-era because it allowed poor kids the opportunity to feel rich and successful for a day. He also mentions several of the reasons I do not care for Monopoly: It takes several hours to play; the outcome is too dependent on luck; it can often become clear who is going to win far before the game actually ends, etc. It is also an elimination game, meaning that an early loser can be stuck with nothing to do for hours while their friends finish the game.

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Cranach, autoritrattoDaniel Siedell, Director of Cultural and Theological Practice at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has a fine review of Steven Ozment’s The Serpent and the Lamb: Cranach, Luther, and the Making of the Reformation in the latest issue of Books & Culture.

As Siedell observes, “Ozment liberates Cranach from the confines of art history by offering a broader cultural framework within which to evaluate Cranach’s historical significance.”

One of the merits of Ozment’s study is that he thus situates Cranach in the context of his position in the royal court of Frederick the Wise:

His duties included decorating the Elector’s castles, designing and painting festival tents and uniforms, documenting hunting trips and his extensive relic collection, as well as making cake molds for birthday parties. This kind of workshop production has struck art historians as unbecoming of a fine artist.

Indeed, there is much in the modern approach to art that disdains such worldly and workaday considerations. As Siedell writes, noting a piece on the entrepreneurial aspects of early modern art, “most artists, especially those working at the highest echelons of culture, are obsessed with getting paid, in part, because at those levels, payment is much more sporadic and asking for it much less becoming.”

Indeed, “Art does not exist without some kind of market. The task of any artist is to find—or create—it, yet art historians have been slow to accept the market as a defining feature of artistic practice.”

As for the theological and religious aspects of his life and work,

Ozment’s Cranach embodies a proto-Lutheran approach to culture and vocation. Apparently unconcerned with the burden of demonstrating or achieving his salvation through his work, Cranach was freed to use and enjoy his God-given talents as a painter, politician, businessman, and advisor. He is also a historical example of what James Davison Hunter has called, in To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010), “faithful presence.” The Serpent and the Lamb makes the convincing case that without Cranach’s faithful presence, the Lutheran Reformation would not have possessed the scope that it had.

For more on Ozment’s book on Cranach as well as more generally on the Lutheran doctrine of vocation and its relevance for today, check out the eponymous blog of Gene Edward Veith.

And for more on art, culture, and the Christian calling, check out Abraham Kuyper’s newly-translated work on common grace in science and art, Wisdom & Wonder (also reviewed in the latest issue of Books & Culture).

Acton On The AirDr. Samuel Gregg, Acton’s Director of Research, has become something of a regular guest on Kresta in the Afternoon of late; below you’ll find audio of his two most recent appearances.

Leading off, Sam appeared with host Al Kresta on February 15th to discuss Pope Benedict’s concept of the dictatorship of relativism in the context of the HHS mandate debate, and the potential consequences of the death of absolute truth. Listen via the audio player below:

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Then, on the 22nd, Dr. Gregg made another appearance with Kresta to discuss the concept of ordered liberty, contrasting the concepts of freedom for excellence vs. freedom of indifference. You can listen to the interview below, and if you’re interested, head over to the Acton bookshoppe to pick up a copy of On Ordered Liberty, his book on the same topic.

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Blog author: jcarter
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
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In the latest addition to my Jane Austen Theorem*, Thomas Rodham makes the case for reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher who proposes “a virtue ethics for bourgeois life, the kind of life that most of us live today.”
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Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, January 18, 2012
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I had the pleasure of being a guest on today’s installment of Coffee & Markets, the fine podcast hosted by Kevin Holtsberry and Pejman Yousefzadeh. I got to talk about Abraham Kuyper and his essays on common grace, particularly in the areas of science and art.

These essays are available in translation in Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art, the first selection from the broader three-volume Common Grace translation project.

Check out the podcast and some related links over at the Coffee & Markets website.

“Stupid is the new smart,” and “Pop culture is a wasteland” are just a few lines from Daniel J. Flynn’s introduction to Blue Collar Intellectuals: When the Enlightened and the Everyman Elevated America. Certainly, one does not need to read Flynn’s account to surmise that there are grave problems with our culture. But many would miss some great stories and a return to a people and time that crafted a great uplifting for mass audiences.

Flynn has profiled six intellectuals or thinkers who sprung out of the immigrant backgrounds and / or a working “blue collar” origins. They opened up and popularized the great works, theories, and conversations of Western Civilization for the everyman. It seems it is of little coincidence that in profiling Mortimer Adler, Eric Hoffer, Ray Bradbury, Will and Ariel Durant, and Milton Friedman, Flynn touches on diverse streams of thought such as history, literature, economics, philosophy, and popular story teller. Flynn laments that we do not see these type of public intellectuals today and we are surrounded by passive and meaningless entertainment that not only debases but detaches us from the great ideas and a common heritage.

Will and Ariel Durant popularized history with their widely popular 11-volume The Story of Civilization. Flynn lauds them as writers who “extracted history from the academic ghetto whither it had retreated, opening the conversation about the past to all comers.”

Mortimer Adler, who compiled The Great Books of the Western World set, once quipped, “The only education I got at Columbia was in one course.” That course studied the classic works of Western Civilization and Adler sought to package them for mass consumption. A brilliant mind, Adler received a Ph.D from Columbia without ever receiving a high school diploma, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Adler held a disinterest and disdain for the academic bubble, and in turn academics turned their noses up at his work for packaging and popularizing the great works. “The Great Books Movement, for better or worse, offered education minus the middleman. It is no wonder the middleman objected so vociferously,” says Flynn.

The idea that somebody who took on entrepreneurial endeavors and worked a myriad of jobs in the economy might make a better or more notable economist makes sense. But it’s not always the case, when one looks at say the lifelong academic John Maynard Keynes. Flynn notes what many free marketers already know about Milton Friedman and that is he “waited tables, peddled socks door-to-door, and manned roadside fireworks stands. He attended the public schools and lived in rent controlled apartments.” Friedman harnessed his experiences, professorship, books, a “Newsweek” column, and a PBS series to popularize libertarian free-market economic principles. He transformed public policy and much of the economic lingo and ideas we borrow today directly comes from the free-market economist.

Eric Hoffer, the longshoremen philosopher, was the favorite author of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His book The True Believer covers the psychology of mass movements. “Hoffer’s patriotism stemmed from the belief that America was the workingman’s country. That the everyman became president hardly proved America’s mediocrity; it proved the excellence of the American everyman,” says Flynn.

Ray Bradbury, still writing, and most noted for Fahrenheit 451, could not afford college. He has proudly said that he is an alumnus of the Los Angeles Public Library. Bradbury glamorized small town Midwestern life and the significance of books, while slamming the detached superficial culture that suffers from a lack of education and critical thinking.

Flynn has weaved together some wonderful stories to remind us that great culture and deeper ideas are accessible to the masses. I have often wondered how some history professors could turn a lively and passionate subject boring. History, and other academic subjects, have too often been turned into gender-bending, “evil colonialist” type studies, eschewing much of the established work of Western Civilization. They deliberately use their own inner language and codes. “The ivory tower has become a tower of babble,” Flynn says.

He makes the easy case that a vapid society is objectionable and bankrupt of purpose, meaning, and ideas. He also highlights the less known significance on society of six influential thinkers, who because of their background, were able to help uplift the masses to the great ideas and release those ideas from an academic ghetto. Outside of Friedman, I did not know much about these figures and the stories he tells are lively and I did not realize how some of these thinkers already had had an influence on me. Growing up, my family had the set of The Great Books of the Western World, so it was fascinating to hear the story behind it.

As somebody with a divinity degree, and as an observer of ministry and churches, I thought about this problem in our faith culture. Today, there is a serious issue with the need to see Church as a form of entertainment first. Too often churches reflect the very same problems that plague our culture. There is little use for serious deeper reflection in some churches, and little use for the study of doctrine and traditions. The consequences are that confusion abounds today about what Christianity teaches and its transformative power. A revival and renewal is not just needed in culture, but in many of our churches too. There is a great need for teachers and preachers to deliver that word in days such as these as well.

Civil War gravestones, Vicksburg, Miss.

2011 kicked off the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. At the beginning of 2011, I began seeing articles and news clippings to commemorate the anniversary. While not a professional historian, I took classes on the conflict at Ole Miss and visited memorials and battlefields on my own time. I must give recognition to Dr. James Cooke, emeritus professor of history at the University of Mississippi, for his brilliant and passionate lectures that awakened a greater interest in the subject for me. After reading a lot of anniversary coverage, I noticed unsurprisingly, the topic of faith was neglected.

I thought it would be a good idea to feature a few articles on the Civil War in Religion & Liberty. I asked Mark Summers, a historian from Virginia to pen something on the topic. I have known Summers for over a decade and I knew that he understood the Acton Institute and Religion & Liberty enough to deliver. He is a first class historian and the ideas for the articles were entirely his own.

The first piece, “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War” is a fascinating look at the evangelical revivals that spread through the Confederate ranks. The revivals, and of course the war itself, definitely played a significant role in shaping today’s strong religious vibe in the American South. Summers says himself in the piece,

Prior to the American Revolution, New England had been the “Bible Belt” of America, while church attendance in the South was scant. The Second Great Awakening shifted the culture of Dixie, and America as a whole. The revivals took hold in the “backcountry” amongst the yeoman. Southern evangelism reflected the charismatic and independent character of the Appalachian farmers. Southern yeomen declared their independence from the staid faith of the plantation gentry. While planters dominated politics and business, humbler folk shaped the culture of Southern Sundays.

Summers wrote about the Catholic Church and Catholic soldiers in the Fall 2011 R&L. He primarily focused on Catholics in the North and how the Church was unique from American Protestantism with its ability to stay unified despite the horrific conflict. Those who have studied American Protestant history are well aware that many denominations split along sectional lines and many of the divisions we have today resulted or were exacerbated by the Civil War. Summers notes,

Indeed, it was this unity of the Catholic Church which proved unique among American Christianity. While Protestant denominations split over theological and sectional lines, the Catholic Church stood as the only major church which remained united during the war, even if its congregants fought on opposite sides.

These two articles tell powerful stories about faith in this country during its bloodiest, most heartbreaking period. The country had never seen or experienced such a massive slaughter of life. The pieces authored by Summers tell a story about our own American history but they also tell the story that points to the ancient truth, and that is that God is at work redeeming that which is separated, broken, and in despair. In the words of Isaiah:

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1-3)

Dolphus Weary has a remarkable story to tell and certainly very few can add as much insight on the issue of poverty as he does. When you read the interview, now available online in the Fall 2011 R&L, or especially his book I Ain’t Comin’ Back, you realize leaving Mississippi was his one ambition, but God called him back in order to give his life and training for the “least of these.” One of the things Weary likes to ask is “Are you going into a mission field or are you running away from a mission field?” It’s a great question we should all ask ourselves.

Historian Mark Summers returns to offer another piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Last issue, Summers penned “The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.” In this this issue he has written an article focusing on Northern Catholics and the Catholic Church during the conflict.

David Deavel has offered a very timely review of Mitch Pearlstein’s, From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation. Pearlstein focuses on the 33 percent rather than the one percent. Deavel observes:

This is the percent of children living with one parent rather than two. These children, victims of what many call ‘family fragmentation,’ start out with tremendous social and educational deficits that are hard to narrow, nevermind close. These are most often the children for whom upward mobility has stalled. Their economic well-being has led to decline in American competitiveness and also the deeper cleavages of inequality that have been so widely noted.

I reviewed the new biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. by Carl T. Bogus. This book, written by a self-described liberal, is critical of Buckley but works at achieving fairness. If you want to read a comparison of two very different biographies of Buckley, I also reviewed Lee Edwards sympathetic biography of Buckley in the Spring 2010 issue of Religion & Liberty.

The Russian philosopher and writer Vladimir Solovyov is the “In The Liberal Tradition” figure this issue. Dylan Pahman has already profiled this piece on the PowerBlog so check out his comments here.

There is more content in the issue and the next interview in R&L will be with Reformation scholar and Refo500 director Herman Selderhuis.

Finally, I just want to say learning from Dolphus Weary’s story was a spiritually enlightening experience. I read his book in one night in preparation for the interview and he is truly humble. While Weary offers a lot of insight, I believe his greatest strength is teaching and leading through example. It’s no wonder many ministries have tried to replicate what he has done and now does in Mississippi. There is something to be said for somebody who remains tied to their roots and is proud of where they come from, especially if where they come from may look hopeless by the world’s standards.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
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Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Author: Dustin

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Blue Laws and Black Friday,” I argue that the increasing encroachment of commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving are best seen as questions of morality and the limits of the economic sphere of existence. The remedy for such issues is best sought at the level of relationship (between consumer and retailer, for instance, as well as employer and employee) rather than at the level of legal remedy, as in the case of blue laws.

In an interesting side note, the state of Massachusetts still has blue laws on the books that prevent employees from working before midnight on Thanksgiving Day. The Boston Globe editorializes that “the blue laws are creating nothing but inconvenience; many stores adjust by simply opening at 12:30 a.m. instead of midnight. Workers still come in – but half an hour deeper into the night.”

One rejoinder concerning the relationship between Thanksgiving and Black Friday is that those who have to work on Thursday ought to be thankful to have a job at all, particularly in these times of economic hardship. This is certainly true, but I don’t think this means that employees simply have to silently accept whatever their employer demands of them. As I’ve said, the remedy for this moral problem is best sought in the context of the complex web of relationships between employees, employers, and customers. And we need not derogate the true blessing that work is to say that it ought to have its limits. It seems to me that the widespread impingement of non-essential commercial activity into holidays like Thanksgiving probably crosses these limits, at least in some cases.

All of this means that customers need to be more aware of what their shopping habits and practices demand of businesses. And some companies might realize that the moral demand in certain cases might mean not giving customers what they want (e.g. opening at midnight on Thanksgiving). A salutary example of this kind of response is found in the folks at Hobby Lobby, who have never operated on Sunday.

Their reasoning goes like this: “We have chosen to close on the day most widely recognized as a day of rest, in order to allow our employees and customers more time for worship and family. This has not been an easy decision for Hobby Lobby because we realize that this decision may cost us financially. Yet we also realize that there are things more important than profits. This is a matter of principle for our company owner and officers.”

It’s wonderful when we don’t need laws to tell us what’s the right thing to do.