Today’s NYT has an op-ed by David Brooks that’s been getting good cyber-circulation, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Brooks highlights in particular Southern Baptist pastor David Platt, who is touted as the youngest mega-church leader in the country. Rebelling in many ways from the new traditions associated with mega-churches, Brooks says Platt inhabits the nexus between “between good and plenty, God and mammon,” spirituality and materiality, and that Platt “is in the tradition of those who don’t believe these two spheres can be reconciled.”
Here’s what Brooks concludes: “Americans will not renounce the moral materialism at the core of their national identity. But the country is clearly redefining what sort of lifestyle is socially and morally acceptable and what is not. People like Platt are central to that process.”
It’s true that the call to follow Jesus is a radical call. But it is false to juxtapose that radicalism with a demarcation between those areas of life in which one can be faithful to him and not.
What we can really hope for is that each of us will be obedient to Christ in our own callings, whether in plenty or in want, in abundance or scarcity. In the realm of economics, for most people that will mean that they act responsibly with their money, avoiding the temptation to live in the midst of crippling debt and seeking meaning in buying and identity with what we purchase and consume. This is what I’ve called the “fourth” pillar of the new economy, “Spend all you can.”
But as Brooks points out, the pursuit of sustainable wealth and profit in the midst of responsible giving and saving isn’t at all a new idea. It’s only the excessive spending and unsustainable consumption of recent decades that make it seem new.
I post the following excerpt of an editorial from a Danish news outlet without further comment, other than to say that I look forward to giving our PowerBlog community the opportunity to have a grand old time trying to come up with new superlatives to describe just how fantastically stupid this is:
EDITORIAL: Obama greater than Jesus
He is provocative in insisting on an outstretched hand, where others only see animosity.
His tangible results in the short time that he has been active – are few and far between. His greatest results have been created with words and speeches – words that remain in the consciousness of their audience and have long-term effects.
He comes from humble beginnings and defends the weak and vulnerable, because he can identify himself with their conditions.
And no we are not thinking of Jesus Christ, whose birthday has just been celebrated – - but rather the President of the United States Barack Hussein Obama.
For some time now, comparisons between the two have been a tool of cynical opinion that quickly became fatigued of the rapture that Obama instilled prior to and after the presidential election last year.
From the start, Obama’s critics have claimed that his supporters have idolised him as a saviour, thus attempting to dismantle the concrete hope that Obama has represented for most Americans.
The idea was naturally that the comparison between Jesus and Obama – which is something that the critics developed themselves – would be comical, blasphemous, or both.
If such a comparison were to be made, it would, of course, inevitably be to Obama’s advantage.
Please, oh please do read the rest. It’s delightful.
The first item, “Santa and the ultimate Fairy Tale,” quotes Tony Woodlief to the effect that “fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale.” Schansberg’s (and Woodlief’s) take on this question is pretty compelling and worth considering, even though I’m not quite convinced of the value of the Santa Claus fable.
I’m still a relatively new parent (I have a three and a half year-old) and so I’m still in the midst of sorting out with my wife the best way to handle questions of the reality of Santa Claus. Until very recently, I had always been of the opinion that honesty is the best policy.
I’ve never liked the idea of putting God and Jesus on the same epistemic level (even if only for the first decade or so of a person’s life) as say, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus. Rather than “preparing” the child for “embrace of the ultimate Fairy Tale,” it seems to me that such practice can foster a hermeneutic of suspicion, such that when the child finds out Santa Claus isn’t “real” in any empirical sense, he or she will, at least initially, be inclined to lump God in with other “fairy tales.” That kind of approach seems to lead as much to Freud as it does to Lewis.
I don’t mean to be a killjoy. I’m a lover of literature. I am interested (along with Tolkien) in the question of whether the proper pluralization of dwarf is dwarfs or dwarves (I too prefer the latter). I was an English major in college, and I admit to getting a bit teary-eyed when Zooey Deschanel leads a group of hard-bitten New Yorkers in a rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” at the climax of Elf.
And I agree that we need to cultivate the sense that the realm of empirical science isn’t the only or even the best way of talking about ultimate reality. But again, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that for our children we need to prepare the way for the Gospel with fiction, even well-meant fiction. If my child can’t rely on me to tell the truth about Santa, why should he believe what I have to say about God?
Rather than pointing to how such fairy tales pave the way for belief in the “ultimate Fairy Tale,” I’ve always thought that the youthful belief in Santa underscores the fundamentally fiduciary nature of human beings. We are believing creatures. We basically trust, at least at first, what other people and especially our parents tell us. We aren’t born cynical or un-trusting, but rather dependent and credulous.
This is an important thing to know about humans from a theological and anthropological point of view, but equally important is the recognition of how wrong that credulity can go. We are basically believing creatures, but without the Gospel that belief is corrupted and we create idols for ourselves. Would you say believing in Mardukh, Mammon, and Ba’al “prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale”?
All of which leads me to the item I thought of when reading that first post: the famous “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial from 1897. As you might guess from my comments above, I have mixed feelings about the editorial, but I thought I’d recommend it since it seems so relevant to Schansberg’s point.
The other post of Schansberg’s that caught my attention was his other Christmas Day offering, in which he contrasts the Lord of the cradle, the cross, and the throne, calling for a comprehensive apprehension of Jesus Christ.
That made me think of this quote from Ed Dobson about Jesus, contained in a story from the Christmas Day Grand Rapids Press (I was out of town so I only got to it over the weekend):
“Everybody loves a baby,” mused Dobson, 58. “But when you start reading the teachings of this baby, and about the sufferings of this baby, you begin to understand better who he is.”
The story goes on in a lot more detail about Dobson’s recent history since retiring from his pastorate at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. There’s a lot more of interest in that piece.
But his quote speaks quite pointedly to Schansberg’s emphasis on the comprehensive Christ. We need to know of his birth, death, and resurrection.
Yesterday’s Grand Rapids Press had an attention-grabbing feature graphic, which highlights an online interactive “game” that gives more information about each of the candidates for the “economic blame game” bracket.
Press Graphic/Milt Klingensmith
The four brackets are broken down by group, so the four major categories at fault are 1) the financial industry; 2) consumers; 3) government; and 4) inexplicable forces.
Notably absent are the media (except perhaps as personified in Jim Cramer’s “Mad Money”) and government over-regulation, including especially the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 and variations on that theme in the intervening decades. To be sure, “deregulation” is a top seed on the government side, and makes the blame game Final Four. But the summary for that option manages to lay the blame on Ronald Reagan and his dictum: “Government is not the answer to our problems. Government is the problem.”
The Press’ pick for the blame game champion is “Fear and Panic.” Writes Press copy editor Dan Hawkins, “So for your consideration, we rounded up 32 suspects and arranged them in a tournament bracket, as we did for White House scandals and the presidential race. For the first time, however, we decided to declare a winner. This crisis, this worst-of-the-worst competition, is too awful to leave without a scapegoat.”
There isn’t really a good representative for what I consider to be greatly culpable, the culture of consumptive capitalism (as opposed to democratic or entrepreneurial capitalism). Consumptive capitalism adds “spend all you can” to the more stable triumvirate of flourishing: earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.
And today comes news that confirms that the recession of the US economy began in December of 2007. The Press’ advice for the ordinary American citizen is “Don’t panic.” If that’s true for the everyday American, how much more so for the Christian.
One reality saves us from the necessity to assign blame to others and enables us to accept responsibility. As we begin the season of Advent in 2008, it is proper for us to reflect on the ultimate “scapegoat,” our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who bore the sins of the world on the cross, rose again, ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full in His wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, In the light of His glory and grace.
This is not to say that we ignore the hard economic realities of our world. But the “fear and panic” created by material concerns need to be put into proper perspective, relativized and mitigated by hope in one whose kingdom will have no end.
If it be all for nought, for nothingness At last, why does God make the world so fair? Why spill this golden splendor out across The western hills, and light the silver lamp Of eve? Why give me eyes to see, the soul To love so strong and deep? Then, with a pang This brightness stabs me through, and wakes within Rebellious voice to cry against all death? Why set this hunger for eternity To gnaw my heartstrings through, if death ends all? If death ends all, then evil must be good, Wrong must be right, and beauty ugliness. God is a Judas who betrays his Son And, with a kiss, damns all the world to hell– If Christ rose not again.
–Unknown Soldier, killed in World War I (From The Life of Christ in Poetry, comp. Hazel Davis Clark)
“O GOD, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our Judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.”
With next week’s reading of Rauschenbusch in view, here’s how Kuyper evaluates Christian socialists: “Socialists constantly invoke Christ in support of their utopias, and continually hold before us important texts from the Holy Word. Indeed, socialists have so strongly felt the bond between social distress and the Christian religion that they have not hesitated to present Christ himself as the great prophet of socialism” (27).
Here’s what Jesus’ social message really consists in: “If you ask what Jesus did to bring deliverance from the social needs of his time, here is the answer. He knew that such desperate needs grow from the malignant roots of error and sin, so he placed the truth over against error and broke the power of sin by shedding his blood and pouring out his Holy Spirit on his own. Since rich and poor had become divided because they had lost their point of union in God, he called both together back to their Father who is in heaven. He saw how the idolizing of money had killed nobility in the human heart, so he held up the “service of Mammon” before his followers as an object for their deep contempt. Since he understood the curse that lies in capital, especially for the man of great wealth, he adjured him to cease his accumulation of capital and to gather not treasure on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break in and steal (Matt. 6:19). He rejected the rich young man because he could not decide to sell all his goods and give to the poor. In his heart Jesus harbored no hatred for the rich, but rather a deep compassion for their pitiable condition. The service of Mammon is exceedingly difficult. Sooner would a camel go through the eye of a needle than would a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 9:16-24). Only when the possession of money leads to usury and harshness does Jesus become angry, and in a moving parable he tells how the man who would not release his debtor is handed over to torturers and branded as a wicked servant who knows no pity (Matt. 18:23-35)” (37-38).
Likewise Kuyper says: “The socialists so flatly reverse [this] when they preach it: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33). For both rich and poor, Jesus’ teaching simultaneously cuts to the root of sin in our human heart” (39-40).
The deep interconnections between material want and spiritual need: “A charity which knows only how to give money, is not yet Christian love. You will be free of guilt only when you also give your time, your energy, and your resourcefulness to help end such abuses for good, and when you allow nothing that lies hidden in the storehouse of your Christian religion to remain unused against the cancer that is destroying the vitality of our society in such alarming ways…You do not honor God’s Word if, in these circumstances, you ever forget how the Christ, (just as his prophets before him and his apostles after him) invariably took sides against those who were powerful and living in luxury, and for the suffering and oppressed. Even more appalling is the spiritual need of our generation. When, in the midst of our social misery, I observe the demoralization that follows on the heels of material need, and hear a raucous voice which, instead of calling on the Father in heaven for salvation, curses God, mocks his Word, insults the cross of Golgotha, and tramples on whatever witness was still in the conscience–all in order to inflame everything wild and brutish in the human heart–then I stand before an abyss of spiritual misery that arouses my human compassion almost more than does the most biting poverty” (62-63).
Solidarity as expressed ultimately in the sacrament of communion: “The tremendous love springing up from God within you displays its radiance not in the fact that you allow poor Lazarus to quiet his hunger with the crumbs that fall from your overburdened table. All such charity is more like an insult to the manly heart that beats in the bosom of the poor man. Rather, the love within you displays its radiance in this: Just as rich and poor sit down with each other at the communion table, so also you feel for the poor man as for a member of the body, which is all that you are as well. To the poor man, a loyal handshake is often sweeter than a bountiful largess. A friendly word, not spoken haughtily, is the gentlest balm for one who weeps over his wounds. Divine compassion, sympathy, and suffering with us and for us–that was the mystery of Golgotha. You, too, must suffer with your suffering brothers. Only then will the holy music of consolation vibrate in your speech. Then, driven by this sympathy of compassion, you will naturally conform your action to your speech. For deeds of love are indispensable” (77). See also 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
Is state welfare an adequate substitute for Christian charity? Never: “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior” (78).
While I was in seminary in Kentucky, students were required to complete a relatively extensive service project that assisted and helped the poor and marginalized in our community. My group volunteered at a teen pregnancy center, others at nursing homes, or with organizations like Habitat for Humanity. At the pregnancy center we led job training, financial classes, and other practical skills for work and the home. A different group went another direction, they passed out petitions that called upon the federal government to do more for the less fortunate.
Ryan Messmore of the Heritage Foundation, notes the obvious today when he says, “When people need assistance, therefore, the first place many think to turn is Washington D.C.” In a piece titled “My Neighbor’s Keeper?” for FrontPage magazine, Messmore lifts up the moral responsibilities we have to assist and help those among us. Messmore’s piece also strongly argues that a “hyper – individualistic” view actually leads to a more powerful and centralized government. Provided below are some common sense and convicting words from his article:
It would be a detriment to our sense of mutual responsibility for one another if the continued recourse to federal programs for remedies caused Americans to view their tax payments — which fund government social service programs — as their contribution to helping people in need. Even the knowledge that such federal programs exist, regardless of their actual effectiveness, may cause some to conclude that the ball is in somebody else’s court.
One of the reasons government is thought to have so much responsibility for the well-being of citizens is that, in modern Western culture, people are viewed more in terms of their isolated autonomy than in terms of their social relationships. In other words, we are prone to think of human beings as self-standing individuals rather than as persons-in-community.
Mutual responsibility is essential within a healthy society, especially a free, democratic one. The more people feel that they can trust and rely upon each other, the less they will need to turn to government for care — or to remedy injustice.
Government does not have a monopoly on responsibility for meeting people’s needs. However, government has increasingly become the primary default setting when discussion turns to who is obligated to care for others. The result is less personal and efficient care for individuals and a weakening of our social fabric of responsibility and sense of moral obligation to one another through a variety of relationships.
For me, perfect relationship and love is modeled in the Triune character and nature of God. God’s perfect love and transforming grace is also how we should try to love and care for others. The disengagement from so much of our society from helping and serving others is not a headline grabber, but it’s a crisis of the heart and soul. Christ himself said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
In much of the Christian world today, the great feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is commemorated (Matt. 17:1-9). In the Eastern Church, as Fr. Seraphim Rose observed, it is customary to “offer fruits to be blessed at this feast; and this offering of thanksgiving to God contains a spiritual sign, too. Just as fruits ripen and are transformed under the action of the summer sun, so is man called to a spiritual transfiguration through the light of God’s word by means of the Sacraments. Some saints, (for example – Saint Seraphim of Sarov), under the action of this life-giving grace, have shone bodily before men even in life with this same uncreated Light of God’s glory; and that is another sign to us of the heights to which we, as Christians, are called and the state that awaits us – to be transformed in the image of Him Who was transfigured on Mount Tabor.”
The Jesus that the disciples knew well and whose looks, in ordinary life, did not differ radically from those of other people, suddenly appears to them in a new and glorious form. In our inner life, a similar experience can happen in three ways.
Sometimes our inward image of Jesus becomes (to the eyes of the soul) so luminous, so resplendent, that we seem truly to see the glory of God in this face: somehow the divine beauty of Christ becomes for us an object of our experience.
Or, sometimes, we feel with great intensity that the inner light, that light which is given to all men born into the world as a guide to their thought and action, is identified with the person of Jesus Christ: the power of the moral law becomes fused with the person of the Son, and the attraction of sacrifice makes us glimpse the sacrificed Saviour, and hear his call.
Sometimes, too, we become aware of Jesus’s presence in some man or woman whom God has set in our path, especially when it is given to us to bring compassion to their sufferings: then, in the eyes of faith, the man or woman is transfigured into Jesus Christ. From this last example, one could evolve a precise spiritual method, a method of transfiguration which could apply to everyone, everywhere and always.
According to published reports, “One popular theory comes from a story in the Quran, the holy book of Islam, about Ibrahim and his son, Ismail. This theory picked up speed because many bloggers wondered if the shootings could be related to terrorism.”
The report continues, “In Islam, Ibrahim is known as the father of the prophets and, upset that people in his hometown still worshiped idols and not Allah, he smashed all but one statue in a local temple with an ax. Ibrahim’s son is Ismail, who also became a prophet. Ibrahim is Arabic for Abraham, who plays a significant role in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
From what I’ve seen, however, there is no other evidence so far linking Cho Seung-Hui to Islam.
One of his rants does include this portion, presumably to his classmates: “You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and Cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything.”
These complaints echo Dinesh D’Souza’s take on the major motivations behind Osama bin Laden’s animosity toward the United States: “the immoral ingredients of American values and culture,” and “a decadent American culture that angers and repulses traditional societies.” But its not at all clear whether D’Souza is ultimately right, and therefore even more questionable whether such perceived similarities reflect any real link.
The words “Ismail Ax” were also written in red ink on the killer’s arm. The Times of London relates the identity of Ismail in Islam as the ‘son of sacrifice’. NBC News says that the killer’s manifesto includes the following statement: “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and the defenseless people.”
But, then again, maybe the explanation for “Ismail Ax” is just as simple as this: “Ismail Ax” is an anagram for “Alias Mix.”
Update: A columnist in a Kuwaiti newspaper writes that America leads the world “towards the abyss and towards a bitter fate – and the crimes that we hear of occasionally are just a drop in the sea of their false culture.” If Cho Seung-Hui wanted to indict American culture, then anti-American sentiment around the world is certainly lending its assistance to his purpose.
Update #2:Jerry Bowyer at NRO on the contents of the killer’s media package: “Envy, deep and powerful, comes through it all. Resentment against our society. Christianity, capitalism, and sports all take their hits. This was a man who hated the American regime — our very way of life.”