Posts tagged with: culture

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.
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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.

The Blauwpoort in Leiden in the winter.The newest edition of the Journal of Markets & Morality is now available online to subscribers.

This issue of the journal features a Scholia translation of selections from On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity by Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), the Huguenot, Reformed, scholastic theologian (a Latin version of Junius’ original treatise is available for download at Google Books, along with a host of his other works). Best known as a professor of theology at Leiden University from 1592–1602, Junius authored this treatise in order to address rising challenges in the young Dutch Republic. In his translator’s introduction, Todd Rester summarizes the Republic’s concern, “[I]f Scripture alone is the authority in the Church for faith and morals… how does it apply in the realm of the Christian State?” Junius’ careful and sober analysis of the various kinds of law and each law’s proper sphere of application transcends his time and context, standing as a significant reference for anyone who may seek to address the question, “What relation is there between the Law of Moses and the Law of the State?” Furthermore, the interdisciplinary character and depth of the work serve as an example of the fluidity and overlap of often-perceived contradictory disciplines and methods of the time, such as humanism and scholasticism, theology and law. Thus, for the student of political philosophy and historical theology alike, On the Observation of the Mosaic Polity stands as an excellent resource for the study of the engagement between historic, Christian faith and the rule of law.

In addition to our standard fare of articles and book reviews, this issue marks the introduction of the Journal of Markets & Morality’s first publication of the symposium of the Theology of Work Consultation of the Evangelical Theological Society, which will appear serially in the spring issue. It is our conviction that this will serve as a helpful forum for an integrated perspective on stewardship, work, and economics for both business and ministry leaders.

Given the journal’s ongoing policy of distinguishing between current issues (the two latest issues) and archived issues (which are freely available), this means that issue 13.1 is now fully and freely available to the public.

For access to the two current issues, including the newly-released 14.1, I encourage you to consider subscribing as an individual as well as recommend that your institution subscribe to the Journal of Markets & Morality.

I cannot permit the death of His Imperial and Royal Highness Otto von Habsburg at age 98 on July 4th to pass unnoticed. To look into his face was to gaze into the map of the 20th Century, and to hear him recount his ideas, insights and encounters was worth more than an entire course in European history in most universities.

Only slightly acquainted with the man (his father Emperor Karl was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004), I was struck not merely by his exhaustive knowledge of history, economics, culture, and languages (with whom else does one begin the conversation by being asked, “And in what language shall we converse?”); what is now most memorable about the man was his modesty and clear Christian faith, so apparent to anyone who views the video clip here.

The occasion for the speech was a Rome conference sponsored by Acton Institute and Istituto Acton on the topic of “Centesimus Annus and Deus Caritas Est” held at the Pontifical Gregorian University. Joining the Archduke and myself on the panel were papal biographer George Weigel and the French economist Jean Yves Naudet.

Otto von Habsburg’s lively presentation represents the best of Catholic “liberal’ thinking, integrating a sound economic sensibility with a clear moral commitment.

When von Habsburg’s mother Zita died in 1989 her body was brought in state to the Imperial crypt of the Habsburg dynasty at the Capuchin Church in Vienna. The scene was striking: As the bier waited at the entrance to the church, an attendant with staff in hand knocked at the door. From inside a friar, holding a large candle, asked who was seeking entrance. The attendant replied that it was Her Imperial Highness Zita Maria. The simple friar replied, “We do not know her.” The attendant knocked once again, and was again asked who seeks entrance. This time he replied, “Zita, a poor sinner,” at which reply the friar welcomed her into the church.

For all that Otto von Habsburg saw in his long and fruitful life the one and only thing that he, and we, can bring with us into eternity, is the plea for mercy at the feet of a merciful God.

Anima eius et animae omnium fidelium defunctorum per Dei misericordiam requiescant in pace.