Posts tagged with: culture

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
By

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.

If you’ve watched any football or baseball recently, you’ve probably seen this Audi commercial. It’s quite funny, and it’s right up Acton’s alley: it artfully distinguishes between proper and improper stewardship of one’s wealth. In this case, an awkward after dinner exchange shows what happens to the use of wealth when culture is diminished:

We have on the one hand a couple appreciative of the aesthetic triumphs of humanity (the Browns), and on the other, a couple of barbarians (the Joneses). In order to get to know each other, the Browns go over to the Joneses’ house for dinner, where they are struck by the Joneses’ art collection – the latter, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, seem to be the world’s greatest collectors of the Dutch master Vermeer.

But it turns out that the Joneses are boors who have no idea of the value of their collection, and can appreciate only the Smiths’ expensive car. Their wealth may have been acquired by the virtues of industry and thrift, but it is wasted if it is not spent on things of value.

On MercatorNet, Sarah Phelps Smith writes what must have been intended as a companion piece to the Audi commercial: a review of the Florentine art exhibit Money and Beauty; Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities running right now in that city. The exhibit is a collection of banking artifacts, coins, and art from the Medicis and other Florentine banking families.

The exhibit is particularly relevant right now because, as Wall Street has done, the Medicis became wealthy by providing indispensible financial services, and along the way they made some rather imprudent decisions (Dr. Smith provides the example of business done with royalty, who could default at will). The Medicis also supported the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and others Renaissance geniuses, and for that, Western Civilization will always be in their debt.

It’s easy to point out that a months-long drum circle in the middle of New York City isn’t a cultural achievement, no matter how many sleepless nights are inflicted on the neighbors. But what should have instead of those drum circles? Besides making you depressed about federal funding of the arts (with apologies to cowboy poets in all states), Dr. Smith reminds us that you can’t take it with you:

Do we, as a culture, use “disposable income” to foster artists who have put the time and effort into learning their craft so that they can make beautiful objects with a beauty that will last five hundred years? Perhaps the exhibition can leave us with a desire to encourage people with means to commission, support and propagate works of art that will be timelessly beautiful and universal in appeal, so that when history looks at the products of our culture we (or rather those who come after us) will find our legacy worth looking at.

The Audi marketing team breaks the cringe making silence in their commercial with the text “True greatness should never go unrecognized.” They playfully acknowledge that their big sedans are toward the bottom of the important-things-in-life scale, and that someone for whom a Vermeer might as well be a Thomas Kinkade is not living a fully human life. It’s funny — you can’t be in the business of selling high end cars without rejecting cultural relativism.

Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?A friend of mine preached a sermon last week from the gospel text of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, with the title, “Brother, Can You Spare a Denarius?” You can check out the video here. One of the things Rev. Eichinger highlights is what a gift the ability to work and earn a living truly is.

Echoing Martin Luther’s famous dictum Wir sein pettler (“We are all beggars”), Rev. Eichinger says, “It is God demonstrating his grace when he provides us with work and vocation so that we can provide for ourselves and our family.” The hymn following the sermon was, “Hark, the Voice of Jesus Calling.” Here’s the first stanza:

Hark, the voice of Jesus calling,
“Who will go and work today?
Fields are white and harvests waiting,
Who will bear the sheaves away?”
Loud and long the master calls you;
Rich reward he offers free.
Who will answer, gladly saying,
“Here am I. Send me, send me”?

In God’s Yardstick, their book on stewardship, Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef note that it is our habit to “take for granted all the possibilities which work alone provides. And we become aware of how work sustains the order which makes life possible when that order is rent by lightning flashes of riot or war, and the necessities which work normally provides become difficult to come by.”

The way in which God’s providential care for us extends to providing us the regular means to earn our daily bread was the theme in a brief reflection on President Obama’s jobs speech a few weeks ago. In the meantime, Baylor University released a survey that found some correlation between faith in God, work, and government. According to Christianity Today, the survey “found that nearly three-quarters of Americans agree that ‘God has a plan for all of us.’ Those who agreed more strongly were more likely to see financial success as the result of hard work and ability. As a result, they were also least supportive of government programs that help those out of work.” Below the break is a full story courtesy ENI that explores the Baylor study. For a heart-breaking glimpse into what uncritically sharing a “denarius” with a stranger can do, read this story.
(more…)

Awhile back someone questioned the scholarly credibility of the Acton Institute on the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) Facebook page in connection with one of our student award programs, specifically contending the institute is “not scholarly.” To be sure, not everything the institute does is academic or scholarly.

The Blauwpoort in Leiden in the winter.But we do some scholarship, which as an academic and a scholar I like to think is worthwhile. In fact, our commitment to quality research is one of the things that is most remarkable about the institute.

So as an evangelical scholar at the Acton Institute, I was excited to have a chance to discuss the work we do, particularly with respect to the academic research the institute supports and publishes, with the Emerging Scholars Network, an outreach of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship “called to identify, encourage, and equip the next generation of Christian scholars who seek to be a redeeming influence within higher education.”

Given the ESN’s significant task, I was also glad to be able to extend an offer to the ESN community to become more familiar with the scholarly work of the institute by offering a complimentary two-year digital subscription to the Journal of Markets & Morality, our peer-reviewed publication indexed by the leading databases of both religion and economics. The latest issue includes our first installment of papers presented in connection with the Theology of Work Consultation of the Evangelical Theological Society.

For the whole interview with ESN’s Micheal Hickerson and details about the offer, visit the ESN blog.

James Hoffa put on quite a performance this weekend—first on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and then in Detroit at a Labor rally with President Obama. Also this weekend, President Biden revealed that the White House seems to have given up and decided America is already a “house divided,” with “barbarians at the gate” in the form of the Tea Party. Coverage of these incidents is available from whichever news outlet you trust, but there is one thing that CNN has probably missed: this weekend’s rhetoric is a vivid reminder that most labor organizations have moved far beyond their proper and defensible role.

Though “the condition of the working classes” is much different now than it was when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in 1891, the document provides a strong justification of labor unions and their position in society. This is done in the context of a response to the advances of socialism on one hand and atheistic individualism on the other. It would be inflammatory, perhaps even violent, to identify the labor leaders of today with Leo’s socialists, and it would be a stretch to say that Hoffa & co. advocate state-owned means of production, but their contribution to political discourse is remarkably similar to Leo’s characterization of socialist tactics:

They are moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.

So far as I can tell, requiring American companies with savings in the bank to spend that money hiring American workers is (1) robbery of the lawful possessors of those savings (which are not, by the way, buried in fields on corporate campuses) and (2) distortion of the functions of the State.

What I can’t find in Rerum Novarum is a justification for Hoffa’s insulting the mothers of Republican leaders. The “spirit of revolutionary change” which caused Leo to write the encyclical is not endorsed by it. (Video of Hoffa’s “remarks” here—strong language warning.)

As for Vice President Biden, he does seem to have read Pope Leo’s encyclical, or at least the part that says “perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” But he seems to have missed the sentence that follows:

Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold.

The Vice President’s careful maintenance of his wall of separation between faith and government is admirable.

Yesterday I was interviewed by WoodTV8 on a story about a controversial billboard near downtown Grand Rapids that reads, “You don’t need God – to hope, to care, to love, to live.” The billboard is sponsored by the Center for Inquiry. My reaction is that the billboard can be a positive because it serves as a conversation starter about a relationship with the Lord and what the meaning of true love and true hope is all about.

When I was an undergraduate student at Ole Miss, I had a religion professor who seemed to be a strong proponent of Buddhism. I believe she was a fair professor and was not trying to indoctrinate anybody into converting, but the class and the studying of other religions called me to study and think deeply about my own faith. The class prompted me to read the Gospels and Scripture closely, which was ultimately a first step into a calling to seminary. Likewise, the billboard may give Christian families and believers a chance to ask the deep questions of what they believe and why they believe. Furthermore, a bland nominal Christianity is no preparation for the difficulties and trials of this world and it is essential to move beyond that.

I’d also like to expand beyond the edited comments from the news report and offer a fuller response about hope and faith. One thing that is apparent today about many skeptics and atheists is that they are very evangelistic. Unlike the past, they are very aggressive about gaining converts and are often reactionary to any faith or religion expressed in culture. In many cases this brand of atheism mirrors a sort of reactionary Christian fundamentalism when it comes to responding to culture.

In a 2007 Weekly Standard piece, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield summed up the the new aggressive atheist tactic this way,

Atheism isn’t what it was in the eighteenth century. Now, the focus of the attack is not the Church, which is no longer dominant, but religion itself. The disdain one used to hear for “organized religion” extends now to the individual believer’s faith. Despite the change, politics is still the thrust of the attack. It’s just that the delusion of religion is now allowed to be the responsibility of the believer, not of some group that is deluding him. A more direct approach is required.

For the Christian, when it comes to hope, care, living, and love, the believer knows that ultimately all those attributes are grounded in Christ. In contrast, the hope of the unbeliever is a hope in the things of themselves and of this world. The believer on the other hand knows that the hope of this world is ultimately a vain, withering, and disappointing hope. But the hope provided by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is an anticipation that does not only not disappoint (Romans 1:5) but is triumphant. The resurrection of Christ is so essential to our future hope that Augustine declared, “In Christ’s death, death died. The fulness of of life swallowed up death; death was absorbed in the body of Christ.” John Calvin added about Christ, “Such is the nature of his rule, that he shares with us all that he has received from the Father. Now he arms and equips us with his power, and adorns us with his beauty and magnificence, and enriches us with his wealth.”

As we travel life’s highway, the believer can be assured that God is still on his throne and that those that are hid in Christ are heirs to his glory. If vain and confusing props on the side of the road can help remind us to think and converse in a deeper manner about all that we are promised and will receive by his marvelous grace, then ultimately it is beneficial. When one studies the Gospel story and is rooted in what the Apostle Paul calls “the fulness of Christ,” there is an assurance and confidence the world cannot steal from you.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both weighed in on a moral decline that was exposed during the recent riots in Britain. An AP article titled “Cameron: Riot hit-UK must reverse ‘moral collapse'” covers their contrasting diagnosis and solutions:

Britain must confront a culture of laziness, irresponsibility and selfishness that fueled four days of riots which left five people dead, thousands facing criminal charges and hundreds of millions in damages, Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledged Monday . . .

“We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong,” Cameron said. “We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said, about everything from marriage to welfare to common courtesy.”

Responding to Cameron, who is head of the Conservative Party, Labour’s Miliband offered these words:

In a rival speech, main opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband criticized Cameron’s response as overly simplistic, and demanded that lawmakers focus on delivering better opportunities for disaffected young people. “The usual politicians’ instinct – announce a raft of new legislation, appoint a new adviser, wheel out your old prejudices and shallow answers – will not meet the public’s demand …”

“Are issues like education and skills, youth services, youth unemployment important for diverting people away from gangs, criminality, the wrong path? Yes, they matter,” Miliband said.

More from the article:

Cameron insists that racial tensions, poverty and the government’s austerity program – much of which is yet to bite – were not the primary motivations for the riots across London and other major cities.

Instead, Cameron pointed to gang-related crime, and a widespread failure from Britain’s leaders to address deep rooted social issues, including the country’s generous welfare system.

“Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged – sometimes even incentivized – by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralized,” Cameron said . . .

Both he and Miliband agreed that, following recklessness by bankers, the lawmakers’ expense check scandal, and media phone hacking saga, all sectors of society had a share of the blame.

“Moral decline and bad behavior is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the highest offices, the plushest boardrooms, the most influential jobs, we need to think about the example we are setting,” Cameron said.

At Acton University in June, Metropolitan Jonah said if the West suffers from poverty, it is the poverty of loneliness. “What is secular inside of us is the root of consumerism,” he declared. He also noted, “The fruit of secularism is despair.”

The secularization of culture in the UK and beyond is why rioters fill their emptiness or disenchantment with material goods and gadgets, sadly, their most prized possessions. Ultimately, a meaningless loot to fill a life of disappointment and pain. Much has been made in pointing out the entitlement and welfare culture as the culprit of chaos and unrest. It is indeed responsible too, but carving it up, won’t solve the underlying affliction of our culture.

In a recent Reuters opinion column, Mark Thoma faults academic economists for their failure to predict the housing crash. He says their failure can be attributed to the disconnect between academia and economic forecasters. I don’t agree with Thoma, but I do think he gets it right when he says the failure of modern day economics,

May have something to do with the desire among economists to become more of a science – a heavy focus on theory and math is the result.

During the classical period, economics was closely linked to psychology. In the early 20th century, neoclassical economics veered from the study of psychology as economists sought to reshape the discipline as a natural science.

Modern neoclassical economics draws influence dating back to René Descartes. According to Dr. Robert Nelson’s review of Economics of Good and Evil: The Quest for Economic Meaning from Gilgamesh to Wall Street by Tomas Sedlack, Cartesian thought encouraged a belief that mathematical equations are equivalent to religious truths. The economic man is seen as,

 ‘A mechanical construct that works on infallible mathematical principles, … and economists are [therefore] capable of explaining even his innermost motives’ through mathematical methods.

Philosophical implications suggest modern economics is essentially attempting to reduce individuals to numbers. Economic models that operate in a perfect abstract framework with absolute assumptions conflict with the unpredictable and sometimes irrational behavior of human nature. This may explain why data forecasting without a full picture of the human person is not sufficient in predicting major market failures like the housing crash.

Karen Ho takes an anthropological approach to the financial crisis in her 2008 book  Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. As an anthropology graduate from Princeton, Ho is hired to work at an investment bank and writes about the corporate culture on Wall Street prior to the housing collapse. Homogenous recruitment, constant downsizing, high risk/high reward job liquidity, short-sighted bonuses, and deception of shareholder value were among many behaviors she observed. Such irrational and risky behavior should have been a red flag for any economist, shedding light on a major incentive problem.

Though it can be argued that the separation between modern economics and behavioral economics is necessary for empirical data and analysis, some economists want to see the gap close. According to Sedlack, modern economics should deemphasize the role of mathematics. Math is only the tip of the ice berg; it is vital, but not sufficient in economics. Nelson quoted him saying,

‘Below the mathematics lie much more fundamental issues’ of institutions, culture, and basic belief — even of religion. These issues do not readily lend themselves to mathematical methods.

Some human desires simply cannot be fulfilled by economic objects. A price value cannot be placed on the community, family, knowledge of God and so on. It is impossible to commodify or quantify these desires into an economic model. Richard Neuhaus famously said,

To attribute everything to the economic factor is to perpetuate the terrible lie of the Marxists. In addition to the economic is the political and, most important, the cultural. At the heart of the cultural is the moral and spiritual.

The number one failure of modern economics is an understanding of the human person that is incomplete. Economists must draw on anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and theology to better understand what drives human behavior and decision making. Forecasters will never be able to predict the future the way they would like, but social studies coupled with empirical economic analysis may help economists better understand the why questions that numbers cannot explain.

The Circle of Protection radio advertisements being broadcast in three states right now make their arguments, such as they are, from a quotation of the Bible and a federal poverty program that might be cut in a debt ceiling compromise. But the scriptural quotation is a serious misuse of the Book of Proverbs, and the claims about heating assistance programs are at best overblown: the ads are really no better than their goofy contemporary piano track.

The Circle of Protection, of which the group Sojourners that produced the ads is a founding member, enjoyed the high honor of a meeting at the White House last week, which was supposed to be about the debt ceiling crisis and which poverty programs are in danger. But they came away without even discovering President Obama’s thoughts on the program they were about to feature in a radio campaign.

LIHEAP, the federal heating assistance program Sojourners wails about, doesn’t even have the blessing of the President. The program’s $5 billion budget is twice what it needs to be, he said in February. What the President knows, but can’t say publicly, is that LIHEAP is a waste- and fraud-ridden program operating with exactly the kind of money-is-no-object attitude that precipitated the debt ceiling crisis. Believe it or not, one hundred percent of the fraudulent applications for heating assistance made during a Government Accountability Office investigation were approved.

And not only is the program inefficient, it is actually redundant. As the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, state laws prohibit energy companies from turning off the poor’s heat in the winter, so LIHEAP funds simply go to utility companies that wouldn’t have otherwise collected their fees. Sojourners set up the $2.5 billion in LIHEAP cuts against $2.5 billion in “tax breaks for oil companies.” I don’t see the towering social injustice there, but Sojourners seems to think that energy utilities are eminently more deserving of federal largess than oil companies.

The more serious distortion is the group’s misuse of the Book of Proverbs, with which they begin their ads. “The Book of Proverbs teaches that ‘where there is no leadership, a nation falls’ and ‘the poor are shunned, while the rich have many friends,’” intones Pastor Tom Jelinek at the beginning of the Nevada ad. He is actually quoting two different chapters in Proverbs—eleven and fourteen—which I have indicated by the use of quotation marks. There is no such indication in the radio ad, however: he continues right from chapter eleven to chapter fourteen as if the two passages were one. That is what we call deceitfulness, and it’s best kept out of discussions of Sacred Scripture.

The effect of the deception is that Proverbs’ statement about the poor and the rich seems quite clearly a political one, which in the context of chapter fourteen it is not (unless, like the Circle of Protection, you think that religion exists to serve politics). The surrounding verses say nothing of “nations” or “leaders,” so Sojourners went back to chapter eleven to establish their interpretation. “The poor man shall be hateful even to his own neighbor: but the friends of the rich are many,” reads Proverbs 14:20, and the message is super-political. The wise man of chapter fourteen will be mindful of this friendship gap, and tend to the needs of the poor, who often lack the social safety net of the rich. But the verse is certainly not an anachronistic call to bureaucratic political action.

How ironic. Sojourners, blinded by its own topsy-turvy approach to religious engagement in political debate and reading the Bible as a political document, didn’t see that the verse they were going to quote is an exhortation to private charity. And by welding the verse to another one from another chapter, all the while pretending that they are quoting a singular passage, the group imposes that false interpretation upon radio listeners. I am not suggesting that the trick is deliberate, for how could an organization that sees the Church as the bride of Caesar understand that the Bible is more than a manual for the curing of earthly injustice?

That the ads sound like the work of a Washington PR firm ought to alert listeners to the inherent disorder of the Circle of Protection message. Political activity must be inspired by an evangelical spirit, and when instead the use of Sacred Scripture is inspired by political ends, the Gospel is profaned.