Posts tagged with: Sociology

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, August 31, 2012

Conference: “Global Commodities: The Material Culture of Early Modern Connections, 1400-1800″

Global History and Culture Centre – University of Warwick – 12-14 December 2012. This International conference held at the Global History and Culture Centre of the University of Warwick seeks to explore how our understanding of early modern global connections changes if we consider the role material culture played in shaping such connections. In what ways did material objects participate in the development of the multiple processes often referred to as ‘globalisation’? How did objects contribute to the construction of such notions as hybridism and cosmopolitanism? What was their role in trade and migration, gifts and diplomacy, encounters and conflict? What kind of geographies did they create in the early modern world? What was their cultural value vis-à-vis their economic value? In short, this conference seeks to explore the ways in which commodities and connections intersected in the early modern world.

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Over on The American, Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the University of London, argues that population change is reversing secularism and shifting the center of gravity of entire societies in a conservative religious direction:

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Earlier this week the Christian Post published an article with some statements from me about evangelical (and more broadly Christian) debates about the federal budget proposals. In the piece, “Evangelical Christians Agree, Disagree on Budget Priorities,” I said that

The Church, the Christian faith, is not to identify with a single political order, or structure, party or platform. It does show something of the dynamism and vitality of the Christian faith that, in the midst of what the world thinks are the most important things, like politics, in the midst of disagreements about those things, Christians come together and worship every Sunday and say the same Lord’s prayer and in many cases cite the same creed, engage in the same sacramental practices, and so on.

This conviction is one of the things that animated my thinking when I wrote Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

One of the driving figures in the case made in that book is Paul Ramsey, who wrote that “the specific solution of urgent problems is the work of political prudence and worldly wisdom. In this there is room for legitimate disagreement among Christians and among other people as well in the public domain—which disagreement ought to be welcomed and not led one way toward specific conclusions.”

I was reminded of this perspective again when listening to the interview Gabe Lyons did with Chuck Colson back in 2007. At one point in the interview, Gabe asks Chuck about younger evangelicals’ disenchantment with the politicization of evangelical Christianity. One of the things Chuck says is,

I do a very unscientific poll myself whenever I talk to young people and I know exactly the kind of answers you’re getting. They’re turned off by what they regard as right wing politics. Which is unfortunate. I wrote a book about this called “Kingdoms and Conflicts,” recently re-released and updated by Zondervan as “God and Government.” It says Christians shouldn’t be [in the hip pocket] of any political party. It’s a mistake when we are looked upon as marrying an ideology.

On the danger of ideology, he continues: “The greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a manmade formulation about [how] world [ought to] work. We don’t believe in that. We believe in the revelation of truth in Scripture.”

In returning to my comment cited above, I think we can see corporate worship as a kind of litmus test for what does and does not inspire us, ideologically, confessionally, and otherwise. Perhaps there are churches or parishes or even denominations and ecumenical bodies that we deem unfaithful, or at least distasteful, for the way they have integrated a social or political ideology into the corporate life of the church. But even so:

Would you be comfortable worshiping next to someone at church on Sunday morning whose political convictions are diametrically opposed to yours? If so, why? And if not, why not?

I saw the fine film Act of Valor last month, and I was struck by the level of sacrifice displayed in the lives of the service members featured. I have wondered in the meantime whether the scale of the sacrifice that’s been required of American service persons over the last two decades is sustainable.

One of the film’s characters leaves behind a pregnant wife, and beyond all of the usual and somewhat abstract “faith and freedom” reasons for serving in the armed forces, it becomes clear that service members are making the sacrifices of their time, talents, and lives to protect and defend their loved ones.

One of the things we struggle with in our church culture is the idea that “ministry” can only refer to the work of ordained ministers of the church. In the same way, though, the use of the language of ministry in common parlance illustrates something about how important that work is. It’s the same with how “serving your country” used to be understood. “Service” used to be shorthand for “serving in the armed forces.” Now it’s certainly true that this isn’t the only important way to serve your fellow citizen. But this use of language does show something about the value placed on the sacrifices undertaken by those who do serve in the military.

Roger Sterling CO

I wondered after seeing Act of Valor how long people would continue to be willing go abroad to fight and protect their nation, their friends, and their families when their own families, churches, and charitable organizations are under attack, not just from enemies abroad, but domestically, from policy decisions, legislative invention, and judicial activism.

A report released this week by the Council on Foreign Relations found that educational shortfalls at the K-12 level have significant domestic and national interest implications. As Joel Klein, co-chair of the task force report, said,

One statistic that blew members of this task force away is that three out of four kids today in America are simply ineligible for military service. It’s unbelievable. We’re drawing our national security forces from a very small segment of the population. And a lot of the problem is they simply don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to serve in the military.

One of the proposed solutions and needs identified to correct this problem was to introduce greater innovation into secondary education, especially through expansion of school choice initiatives. As Klein says, “We need to generate an environment that leads to innovation, and that empowers parents to really look over the next decade or so. We need to look at how we can transition from a monopoly on public school systems to one that gives parents and their children meaningful choices that stimulate innovation and differentiation.”

It seems to me, though, that the drift in this country is not toward empowering parents, families, charities, and churches. And so I wonder (and worry) what the future of America’s armed forces look like if we have the combination of increasing unwillingness and inability to effectively serve. The segment of the population that is both willing and able to serve might well become increasingly small, and no presidential fiat or campaign plank about increasing the size of the military could make it otherwise.

A recent study by Millennial Branding reveals that

“Owner” is the fifth most popular job title [listed on Facebook] for Gen-Y [i.e., Millennials] because they are an entrepreneurial generation. Even though most of their companies won’t succeed, they are demonstrating an unprecedented entrepreneurial spirit.

The study does not speculate on the causes of this upsurge in enterprise and creativity among 18-29 year-olds, but no doubt “Mother Necessity” has her hand in it somewhere. Our country and world are facing serious financial crises and offering us little assurance of any positive resolution before we are handed the reins of the world. This last summer’s gridlock in Congress over our looming default was a case-in-point, and the Eurozone crisis continues to cast a gloomy shadow on our economic future.

That Millennials are becoming increasingly more entrepreneurial in light of this, however, is a glimmer of hope. While it will surely take key contributions from members of every generation in their various callings to steer clear of economic disaster (or recover from it), we can at least take comfort in the fact that with the increase of Millennial entrepreneurs (even if “most of their companies won’t succeed”), there is good reason to hope for future job and wealth creation so vital to economic stability and recovery.

In my post “The Church, Vocation, and Millennials,” I examined a recent Barna study’s analysis that one major reason that Millennials are leaving Christianity behind has been a neglect to link vocation and faith in much of their religious upbringing. This most recent Millennial Branding study highlights a specific vocation that ought not to be neglected: entrepreneurship. As Fr. Robert Sirico writes in The Entrepreneurial Vocation, the “chosen profession” of entrepreneurs “deserves to be legitimized by their faith.”

Christians once believed that their faith was a way of life (the Way, in fact). Assuming that this study is accurate, if Church leaders want their community to stop hemorrhaging Millennials, an increased focus on how that Way of Life, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, permeates their vocations—especially entrepreneurship—would be welcome.

Glenn Barkan, retired dean of Aquinas College’s School of Arts and Sciences here in Grand Rapids, had a piece worth reading in the local paper over the weekend related the current trend (fad?) toward buying local. In “What’s the point of buying local?” Barkan cogently addresses three levels of the case for localism in a way that shows that the movement need not have the economic, environmental, or ethical high ground.

At the economic level, Barkan asks, “Does the local stuff taste better than the imported stuff?” This is essentially a question about competitive advantage. This is the economic idea that some locations, given geographic, cultural, or other features, are better places to produce certain things than other places. Try as one might, it is difficult to grow mangoes in Michigan.

But one of the arguments against large-scale (statewide, national, or global) trade is that there are large environmental consequences. To this point, Barkan writes, “Following this thread means that most decisions which in the past were made on a variety of criteria will now be made only upon the criteria of consuming resources in transportation. How can I keep my carbon footprint small? No more Swiss chocolate, Italian cheese or French wine. Is this what we want?” I think that is what many of the localists in fact do want. It is somehow immoral for me, living in Michigan, to consume mangoes grown in Mexico.

What these kinds of considerations lead to is the moral claim that, in Barkan’s case, for instance, “I have some sort of moral obligation to buy Granny Smith apples from Michigan, and not from Washington.” To this Barkan responds that one mark of moral calculation is discerning where needs really lie: “If I had to choose between making a purchase which provided an income for a very needy family in Alabama, or a less needy family in Kent County, I think I would choose the former.” And better yet, given the relative wealth of even the poor in America on a global scale, we might say that poor workers in the developing world need trade more than the relatively poor in America.

An article in the Spring issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality makes the implications of these kinds of considerations quite well. In “Social Choice: The Neighborhood Effect,” Brian K. Strow and Claudia W. Strow write in the context of wealth redistribution, “a lower-middle-class worker by Massachusetts standards may be a net beneficiary of income redistribution at the Commonwealth definition of society but is likely to be a net contributor at the national definition. They most certainly would lose the vast majority of their income if the world were used as the definition of society.”

The payoff for Barkan is that “a soul is a soul. Whether it is a Kent county soul, or one from California, or Ghana. I choose to have my purchasing decision do the most good for the most needy. Regardless of localism.”

Or as economist Victor Claar put it, “we should treat people as people, no matter where they happen to live. We are all created in the image of God. I find it distressing that we protect relatively affluent Americans when we should give everybody an opportunity to do something they can do well, at a low cost, in a high quality way.”

A person’s a person, no matter how far.

Urban prairie Detroit 2I wrote a bit about my short essay describing some of the principles and concepts at play concerning intergenerational ethics and economics. There are also important intergenerational cultural consequences following the Great Recession. A decade ago there was much concern about the rootlessness of current generations and the transience of the workforce. But that ability for workers to move quickly to new jobs in other cities and states has been undermined by the housing crash. Most anyone who bought a home in the last decade will not be moving anywhere anytime soon.

As Robert Bridges contends in a WSJ op-ed, “Coming generations need to realize that while houses are possessions and part of a good life, they are not always good investments on the road to financial independence.” The “ownership society” means something far different today than it did even a decade ago.

In her book How the West was Lost, Dambisa Moyo describes well some of the background leading up to the housing crash. One of the contributing factors was this cultural ideal of a “homeownership” society and resulting government policy to promote homeownership. She contends,

The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.

She also judges that there are significant intergenerational implications:

Under the government guarantee system which propels the rapid appreciation of house prices, the only winners are those who can downsize (downgrade) their housing, or move to a different area, and buy a smaller (cheaper) place. Everyone else loses…. This ‘escalator’ effect continues until the time that the kids go to college. It’s a wealth transfer from the younger generation to the older generation as house prices become more expensive.

One of the effects of what Moyo calls “government guarantee system” is that resources (capital) was increasingly invested in homes that might have been invested in other, more productive, sectors.

An incisive piece by Roben Farzad explores why the aftereffects of the housing bubble are not likely to go away anytime soon. He quotes Doug Ramsey of Minneapolis investment firm Leuthold Group, “a student of asset bubbles,” who says, “The housing decline will be a long, multiyear process, and the multiplier effect across the economy will be enormous.”

Jonathan Smoke, head of research for Hanley Wood, a housing data company, argues, “We’ve gone through a period when we should have been tearing down houses. The supply of total housing stock is beyond what is necessary.”

Why then are we still celebrating “new housing starts” as signs of a rebounding economy rather than a continuation of misplaced investment and cultural priorities?

Earlier this year I was invited to participate in a seminar sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies and Students for a Free Economy at Northwood University. In the course of the weekend I was able to establish that while I wasn’t the first theologian to present at an IHS event, I may well have been the first Protestant theologian.

In a talk titled, “From Divine Right to Human Rights: The Foundations of Rights in the Modern World,” I attempted to trace the development of the concept of “rights” in the West historically, from the ancient world to modern times. A corollary purpose was to show the students that liberty and religion are not inimical or diametrically opposed.

Shawn Ritenour, a faculty presenter at last month’s Acton University, pursues a similar purpose in a recent post at his blog, Foundations of Economics (after his book of the same name. Timothy Terrell reviews Ritenour’s book in issue 13.2 of the Journal of Markets & Morality). Ritenour writes, “While it is true that many non-believers embrace and promote the free society and many libertarians despise Christ[, i]t does not follow, however, that Christianity and liberty have nothing to do with one another.” He goes on to provide some more resources for this point, particularly arguing that “a close study of God’s Word reveals that social institutions that promote liberty are positively mandated.”

Human rights are one of these social institutions that promote liberty and are positively mandated by the Bible. In my presentation at the Northwood seminar, I drew on some resources from the Acton film, The Birth of Freedom. In particular, I shared this video featuring John Witte Jr. that addresses the question, “How Has Judaism Contributed to Human Rights?”

As Lord Acton puts it, in ancient Israel “the throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognised no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven.”

Anarchist punks are out and the socially-aware hipsters are in (even though they don’t want to say they’re “in”). A little over a decade ago, the hipster scene made its biggest comeback since the 1940s. Though they come in all shapes and sizes, many contemporary hipsters can be found riding their fixed-gear bikes to the farmers’ market or at a bar in skinny jeans drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.

The Moneyed Yuppies. Source: Hipster Christianity


 
An interesting sub-category has emerged: Christian hipsters. According to Brett McCracken in an article titled Hipster Faith in Christianity Today, Christian hipsters are rebelling against the over-spiritualized Christian culture they were raised in. Some of them say they have been scarred by contemporary Christian music, door-to-door evangelism and the non-denominational megachurches of their childhood. McCracken, also the author of Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, says Christian hipsters are rebelling against

…the stereotypical evangelical church of the 80s – 90s: The Republican, middle class, abortion-clinic-picketing, anti-gay, anti-welfare, legalistic, not-so-interested-in-art-or-books WASP evangelical.

McCracken says the Christian hipster culture is small, but influential. Christian hipsters are returning to a more intellectual, traditional and back-to-basics Christianity. They are Protestants who may secretly wish they were Orthodox or Catholic in some respects. Chances are they read books by C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and probably prefer traditional hymns and Sufjan Stevens to Hillsong. Christian hipsters might like shopping at thrift stores, studying abroad, reading philosophy, drinking organic coffee, smoking cigars and serving beer or scotch at bible study.

Christian hipsters also express themselves theologically:

…through preaching that often emphasizes covenantal and ‘new creation’ ideas and attempts to construct a more ecclesiological or community-centric view of salvation. Things like soul-winning and going to heaven are downplayed in favor of the notion that heaven will come down to earth and renew the broken creation. Thus, the world matters. It’s not a piece of rotting kindling that we will abandon for heaven one day. It’s the site of a renewed kingdom. All of this informs hipster Christianity’s attention to things like social justice, environmentalism, and the arts, because if God is building his kingdom on earth, then it all matters.

As mentioned in McCracken’s book, the theological beliefs of the typical Christian hipster can be linked with the Emerging Church, which is associated with authors and pastors like Donald Miller, Brian McLaren, and Rob Bell. According to an article in Christianity Today titled Five Streams of the Emerging Church by Scot McKnight, the doctrine of the Emerging Church is hard to define because systematic theology is viewed suspiciously. Since living out the Gospel is more emphasized than doctrinal beliefs, Christian hipsters who associate themselves with the Emerging Church are generally more focused on helping the poor rather than evangelism.

So what are the economic implications of the Emerging Church? They have been criticized for placing a heavier focus on the material world rather than the spiritual world, which is somewhat reminiscent of the Social Gospel movement in America led by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 19th and early 20th century, according to McKnight:

Sometimes, however, when I look at emerging politics, I see Walter Rauschenbusch, the architect of the Social Gospel. Without trying to deny the spiritual Gospel, he led his followers into the Social Gospel. The results were devastating for mainline Christianity’s ability to summon sinners to personal conversion. The results were also devastating for evangelical Christianity, which has itself struggled to maintain a proper balance.

The Social Gospel promotes the postmillennial view that Christ will not return until social evils are rid by human effort. Rauschenbusch was very critical towards capitalism and viewed socialism as the means to achieve justice on earth. It is too soon to tell if Christian hipsters and the Emerging Church will reflect the Social Gospel movement as strong as the past, but certain figures in the movement certainly echo a similar economic theme.

In his controversial book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren’s theological views have been criticized for twisting the Gospel and suggesting social and economic issues are more important than spiritual issues. On page 210 of his book, McLaren says,

Genesis provides a genealogy for all the pain and evil in the whole social structure of humans on planet Earth: it can be traced back to a problem of consumption beyond limits.

Some claim McLaren has replaced biblical themes with political and economic themes of consumption and class warfare (reminds me of someone named Karl Marx).

I do not fault McLaren’s desire to live in a better world. We all desire a better world because we were made for something far greater. Nevertheless, if McLaren believes human efforts can bring The Kingdom of God to earth, his beliefs are not biblical. In the words of Christ,

My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight for Me. But now My Kingdom is from elsewhere. (John 18:36)

Though the Christian hipster culture might not have a definitive doctrinal theology or a sound economic philosophy, they do have a deep passion for the poor and the desire to live out the Gospel. As Christians, the question is not if we should care for the poor, but how to care for the poor. We cannot properly care for the needy if we over-spiritualize or over-materialize the world because the church is called to address both spiritual and physical needs. Effectively caring for the physical needs of the poor requires a solid economic philosophy that fosters competition, innovation and wealth creation.

The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.

We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:


One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”

I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.

It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.

A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”

The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.

This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”

The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).

When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”