Posts tagged with: theology

Blog author: jballor
Friday, April 11, 2008
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Late last month I argued that recipients of the federal government’s stimulus package “should use this rebate money as they see fit, since they are the ones most familiar with their own situations and their own needs. Consider giving part of the money to charity or saving, paying off debt or investing.” Now other voices are giving similar advice, recommending saving rather than spending.

Rick Haglund, a Michigan business columnist for the Grand Rapids Press, notes that “Some saving measures can go a little too far, though. I recently heard a personal financial consultant say people can save by no longer buying that cup of coffee and newspaper on the way to work.”

“Give up the coffee, but please, please keep buying the paper. The newspaper business is in a terrible financial state,” he writes. Haglund thinks that newspapers are more important to the country than coffee…a debatable proposition. Coffee, not oil, might well be the lifeblood of American enterprise.

But the economic status of newspaper publishing is in a strange place. I’ve been getting the weekend paper for a year or so, and when I renewed I received a call from the paper just to tell me that I’d be getting the rest of the week for free (a good thing too, or I would have missed Haglund’s column).

It reminded me of getting a postcard in the mail from the government telling me to expect a rebate…no notice necessary, just send the free stuff and the money. I don’t think it cost the Grand Rapids Press millions of dollars to make the phone calls, though (it cost the feds $42 million to mail out those inane little rebate notices).

In any case, it makes more sense for many newspapers to give their issues away to get a boost in circulation numbers than it does to count on the income from subscriptions. I also recently saw one of the narrowest daily newspapers I had ever seen last weekend, part of the trend to cut printing costs. (I can’t complain too much, though, since the Port Huron Times Herald has published more than one of my commentaries. Keep up the good work!)

Of course, some folks, like Betty J. Mazur, are going to do just what the government wants them to do with the money. “I’m going to buy new clothing with my check,” she said. (The piece linked above is in part about how it is necessary to file federal taxes for 2007 in order to get the 2008 rebate. Marketplace discusses that, and also debunks some myths about the rebate, here.)

Oh, and don’t forget to blame conservative theology for the credit crisis. After all, it seems as if adherents to so-called “conservative” theology don’t save as much as they ought.

How any decent sociologist could have this reaction is beyond me: “Keister was surprised that when demographic factors — such as education, age and race — were held as constant, religion still proved to be an influential factor in wealth accumulation” (emphasis added).

Amazing, just amazing. Can you dare admit that religious beliefs really do influence behavior?

Keister says a typical “conservative Protestant” might be a member of the Assemblies of God, Churches of Christ, Nazarene and Pentecostal churches. I guess they’ve forgotten what John Wesley said.

When John concluded his gospel, he supposed that if all of Jesus’ doings were written down, “that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

The last two millennia have seen quite a bit of change, to be sure. Christians have done their best to make John’s comment come true, filling the world with writings on the life of Jesus, the biblical revelation, and the implications of the gospel for every aspect of all walks of life.

But at the dawn of the third millennium, we are seeing an increasing shift to digital media (sometimes, but not always to the detriment of analog media like books), it’s conceivable that a single hard drive might have room for all the books that have ever been written (and not just the religious, theological, and biblical ones).

And as there has always been demand for the Bible (said to be the best-selling book of all time), so too there is demand for new and innovative ways to apply the power of computers to religious and theological texts. Currently these demands are being met by the de facto cooperation between non-profit and for-profit enterprises.

Take, for instance, the developing relationship between the non-profit Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the for-profit Logos Bible Software.

In addition to advertising on CCEL’s website and in their electronic newsletter, Ken Verhulst, a spokesman for CCEL, says that there’s an agreement for Logos software to be sold by CCEL. The non-profit then receives a share of the sale price. “These funds are used to keep CCEL going,” he says.

Phil Gons, who works in Logos’ press relations department, says that his company has “a good relationship with CCEL” and that they are in talks “about ways we can work together.”

Gons also points to BibleTech, a newly-inaugurated conference held in January hosted by Logos that had a large turnout of open source and non-profit folks. The conference website lists participants like OpenText.org, “a web-based initiative to provide an annotated corpus of Greek texts and tools for their analysis,” and the CrossWire Bible Society, “an organization with the purpose to sponsor and provide a place for engineers and others to come and collaborate on free, open-source projects aimed at furthering the Kingdom of our God.”

That isn’t to say that non-profits don’t feel some market pressures, too. Verhulst says that there is a strong push to move CCEL towards self-sufficiency. The donor who keeps CCEL going “is encouraging us to strive towards ‘independence’ — not profit status, just the ability to sustain ourselves.”

All this is a new twist on an old story in theological and biblical publishing. There have always been critics of major publishers like Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, and Tyndale, which are for-profit enterprises. Crossway, by contrast, is a non-profit venture that focuses on publishing around the English Standard Version.

The reality of the situation in the digital world is that open source and for-profit ventures are just as much partners as they are competitors. Given its practical focus, for example, CCEL generally limits itself to “public domain” works, while companies like Logos can use tools like their pre-publishing and community pricing systems to gauge market demand and bring major projects like Luther’s Works and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics to digital publishing.

As in other sectors, enterprise is the driver of innovation, without which other non-profit ventures might not be possible. Even “public domain” works were once published for sale. It isn’t the case, either in traditional or digital publishing, that the choice is simply between for-profit or non-profit efforts. Instead, we live with the all-or-nothing complementary reality of both for-profit and non-profit publishing. And we are better off for it.

UMAction, the Methodist wing of IRD that supports traditional and historic Methodism is encouraging women in the United Methodist and Wesleyan tradition in ministry to consider attending the “Come to the Water” conference in Nashville from April 10-13. John Lomperis of IRD appropriately notes, “Many evangelical clergywomen in the United Methodist Church feel sidelined or excluded in some of the denomination’s official clergy women’s networks because of a dominance of intolerant theological liberalism.”

Just last night I was talking to a female probationary member in a United Methodist Annual Conference who said she was required to listen to sermons that praised liberation theology and attend seminars that promoted many kinds of theological and political liberalism. Fortunately, this conference will stand in stark contrast to the famous Re-Imagining Conference.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, December 27, 2007
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For my money, some of the most interesting titles in recent years in the field of Christian scholarship have come from IVP Academic (an imprint of InterVarsity Press). The latest catalog features an announcement of Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, as well as an interview with the author, which prompted a couple reflections. (The interview is available for pdf download here, Fall 2007)

I remember my first teaching assignment, a survey course in American history. We were covering slavery and related issues and the topic of Christianity and race came up. I made what I thought was a fairly obvious historical point about Christianity: identifying it with white Europeans is shortsighted considering that for several centuries Christianity was dominated by Africans, Palestinians, and Middle Easterners. The students, Ivy Leaguers all, looked at me in amazement, as though they were unaware of the fact. That memory returned as I read about Oden’s book, whose thesis is, in the author’s words,

Christianity has a much longer history than its Western European expressions. Africa has played a decisive role in the formation of Christian culture from its infancy, a role that has never been adequately studied or acknowledged, either in the Global North or South.

Oden also makes a point that lay behind my reaction to a trio of books that I reviewed for the forthcoming Journal of Markets & Morality (issue 10:2, to print any day): “…Euro-American intellectuals have transmitted [modern Western theological ideas] to Africa where they have been camouflaged as if to assume that these prejudices were themselves genuinely African.” The thought of Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Marcuse, he observes, has influenced writing in and about Africa far more than the thought of Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, and Augustine, though it is self-evident which set of ideas is more genuinely “African” in any historical/geographical sense of the term. In my review, I display some unease about the appropriation of heterodox theology by African priests studying in Europe and the United States.

In the same IVP catalog:

The Legacy of John Paul II: An Evangelical Assessment

The Decline of African American Theology by Thabiti M. Anyabwile

Just Business: Christian Ethics for the Marketplace by Alexander Hill

Blog author: rnothstine
Friday, November 16, 2007
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“If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.” Proverbs 21:13

I remember being very young and hearing a minister dramatically describe the flames and fires of hell in a sermon. I know I was somewhere between the age of six and seven. At this time, I also had little knowledge of salvation in Christ, so I worried about my eternal destination. Couple this thought with a dream I remember having even earlier as a child, where in the dream I was being chased by a devil with a pitchfork. Wrapped with fear by just the possibility of damnation I was drawn to scripture that talked about heaven and hell.

The allegory of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel offers several important teaching lessons. Just as the prodigal son provides a look into the great depth of love, grace, and forgiveness of God the Father, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus points to the coming wrath. Additionally, it reinforces the seriousness of sin, and that there will be many who will not believe despite a believable resurrection account. Note, the indirect tie to Christ and resurrection in the parable is intentional.

We know from the Gospel account Lazarus suffers immensely on earth and the rich man is comforted with wealth and earthly pleasures. In the first-century Judean culture at this time, the common belief among religious leaders was if somebody was sick or lame it was because they were wicked. This belief is just as misguided as a literal reading of this parable might seem to declare the rich are damned and the poor are righteous, solely because of their poverty. Unfortunately, there are preachers who are teaching this falsehood, just as their preachers who shamelessly preach God wants us to be blessed with material abundance and comforts. Remember, we are made righteous by Christ alone (Romans 3:24).

The parable turns or reverses itself with the death of the beggar and the rich man. Now, Lazarus is comforted by the bosom of Abraham in heaven and the rich man is tormented in hell. Lazarus literally means “he whom God helps.” Jesus told several parables in the 16th chapter of Luke, and the account mentions that the Pharisees overheard and sneered at Christ. Christ responded by saying, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”

This parable ultimately tells us little about heaven and hell, because a strict literal reading is to miss the point entirely. Revelation is a much better book to examine for descriptions of the afterlife. Even so, there will indeed be separation from the righteous and unrighteous. It does tell us however, that the compassionate are heard by God. Compassion also deals with responding to the message and teachings of Christ and his Good News.

In addition, the parable is a powerful reminder of the question, “What are you doing with your blessings bestowed to you by God?” In this Thanksgiving season, as in all seasons, it is essential for us to transform our minds beyond the here and now. The parable teaches us about sin, selfishness, and greed, but it also teaches us about our spiritual condition. The rich man represents one who has turned away from trusting God and is trusting his lineage (Abraham) and trusting himself, or his own wealth. Lazarus, throws his trust in the charity and compassion of God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see God.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a reminder to be authentic and charitable to our neighbors, just as Christ is. It also reminds us real charity and authentic charity is in knowing God and walking with God. Those who know the Lord will have compassion. Especially since they so easily recognize their dependence and need of God.

In the classic 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the character of film star Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, declares, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time last night, thanks to the recommendation from a friend in Virginia. As a fan of classic films, I had high hopes for this film, which was directed by Billy Wilder. Wilder also directed one of my favorite classics films, Stalag 17.

William Holden starred in the film, playing a Hollywood script-writer named Joe Gillis. It is evident Gillis is an out of work and down on his luck kind of guy. Gillis meets Desmond when he is trying to flee the men attempting to repossess his automobile. He has a blowout and parks in the garage of what appears to be an abandoned mansion, which is owned and inhabited by Desmond and her butler. The dark, sinister, and shady side of Hollywood takes off from there. Desmond is a former silent movie super star, now washed up and forgotten. She hires Gillis, in the belief he can help launch her “return” to Hollywood glory by editing her movie script. If you are interested in an overview of the entire plot, check out this film site.

Sunset Boulevard masterfully portrays the emptiness of self love and selfishness gone mad. It is equally a haunting look at spiritual emptiness and decay. I was drawn in by the dramatic acting of Gloria Swanson, who turns into a warped and pathetically sad individual as she continually plots her return, which is in reality only in her mind. The dramatic scene at the end is a captivating portrayal of this madness at its pinnacle. The film was obviously controversial, because it exposed such a negative and dreary portrayal of Hollywood in its heyday.

The film is packed with powerful imagery and symbolism. In addition, the powerful use of black and white was phenomenal, which was made all the more haunting when coupled with the musical score. What is also powerful, is that the film is so relevant for today’s audiences. One look at Hollywood gossip shows, Hollywood worship television shows, and the self love, narcissistic culture, makes this clearly evident.

As a Christian, the film scores big as a reminder of the decay and shallowness of a life that pursues vanity, greed, and narcissism. It also reminds us that sin has consequences. Many of us are aware of people who are locked in the prison of their shallow, self-loving world. The probing question being, are we a community that seeks to be saved, and sacrifice for others, or a society seeking instant gratification? The vexing question has even found its way into the Church, in the form of prosperity gospel theology. But those who know the power and truth of real freedom, know Christ. We are made whole and complete in the sacrifice, suffering, and resurrection of Christ. The Apostle Paul said in 2nd Corinthians, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Paul also notes in Romans , “We share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”

I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
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In this week’s Acton Commentary, I examine the (non)necessity of promoting a democratic government in post-invasion Iraq. I haven’t written much on Iraq in this or any other venue, for a number of reasons. But this piece is one that I’ve been waiting to write for a long time, and was really only waiting for the proper occasion. That prompting came a few weeks ago when U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra from Holland, MI said, “The mission for us is not to establish a democracy in Iraq, but to make the region secure and stable.”

This piece appeared earlier in the Orange County Register, “Iraq: Democracy not required,” which garnered this response, “Democracy without liberty? I think not” (see also the 2003 Acton Commentary, “Success in Iraq: Guaranteed Property Rights as a Precondition for Democracy”).

Here are some links that have been floating around my inbox that are related to some of the points brought up in this week’s commentary. First and most directly relevant, from Christianity Today, “Bush’s ‘Theological Perspective.'”

Next, here is a link to an H-Net review of a recent book on civil society in post-war Germany, particularly the “Heidelberg Action Group,” whose founding manifesto “challenged socialist ideologies that stressed the role of a strong state and the primacy of national interest. They envisioned a form of socialism focused upon the realization of individual freedom and the creation of autonomous and self-reliant persons.”

And finally I’d like to point you to a review in the Claremont Review of Books by Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett on a book that argues for a greater “democratization” of the American constitution. It may come as a surprise to some, but our Constitution was initially and still remains to a large extent “counter-majoritarian.”

And related to foreign policy in particular, Barnett notes the curiousity that “It has become de rigueur among American constitutional law scholars to refrain from recommending our particular form of government to others when advocating democracy around the world. While most Americans prefer the safety of our counter-majoritarian Constitution, our constitutional ‘experts’ are happy to urge others to live the truly majoritarian ideal. Now Sandy Levinson is urging Americans as well to adopt a more majoritarian constitution. But maybe the time has come instead to let the rest of the world in on our little secret.”

Update: See “The Ottoman Swede,” by Roger Cohen, which says in part, “distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy,” and “The Road to Partition,” by David Brooks. See also these two Marketplace pieces (here and here) with the normally rather disagreeable Robert Reich, discussing in part his new book Supercapitalism.

I have argued for many years now that free markets are intrinsically good. I have tried to engage this issue with Christians but many are either not interested or do not see any importance in the pursuit. I know markets can become bad masters when people lack virtue. I also know that the alternatives to free markets have littered the twentieth century with more death than any single cause in human history. (Think socialism, fascism and Marxism.) And representative democracy, a republic of just laws, is not perfect either but it sure beats the alternatives. Shared power is always better than control by the one or the few. Social engineering and economic planning by an elite and powerful few strips us of both human dignity and true freedom.

Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, is the author of a new book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Politics, that has a significant bearing on how we should think about the political side of economic concerns in America. Professor Caplan concludes, in words that are not at all comforting to me personally, that most Americans cast their votes on the basis of irrational biases about economics. This, he reasons, is why candidates who oppose free markets, free trade, profits and immigration win. Sadly, I am quite sure that he is right about this point.

Creators Syndicate writer John Stossel, in reviewing the professor’s new book, says: "People tend to acquire wrong opinions about economic policy packaged in worldviews they inherited while growing up." Since people resist, and often strongly, having their own worldview challenged or changed they will vote for those candidates who make them feel good. Stossel concludes that this means "They will vote irrationally." I have long sensed that this was true on an intuitive level but the professor’s argument tends to fortify what I had only sensed but not quite had a handle on how to argue my case well. Simply put, most voters see no compelling reason to vote otherwise since their choices in elections bear no direct consequence on their lives, at least as they understand their lives. Gloomily Stossel concludes, "When irrationality is free, people will indulge their biases." (more…)

If you haven’t checked out this piece in the most recent issue of Religion & Liberty, you owe it to yourself to do so: “The Leaky Bucket: Why Conservatives Need to Learn the Art of Story,” by David Michael Phelps.

In this essay, Phelps makes the claim, “While conservativism is now a powerful force in the American political landscape, it is still the underdog in a war of connotation. (This is evident in the fact that the phrase ‘compassionate conservative’ had to be invented.) And I think there are two reasons why conservativism, by and large, does not yet appeal to the heart as does ‘bleeding heart’ liberalism.”

Here are two items in support of Phelps’ thesis. The first is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, in which Niebuhr is discussing Marx’s doctrine of the proletariat’s eschatological destiny. It is clear that Marx’s narrative has captured Niebuhr’s imagination:

There is something rather imposing in this doctrine of Marx. It is more than a doctrine. It is a dramatic, and to some degree, a religious interpretation of proletarian destiny. In such insights as this, rather than in his economics, one must discover the real significance of Marx. His economic theory of labor value may be impossible, but this attempt at the transvaluation of values is in the grand style. To make the degradation of the proletarian the cause of his ultimate exaltation, to find in the very disaster of his social defeat the harbinger of his final victory, and to see in his loss of all property the future of a civilisation in which no one will have privileges of property, this is to snatch victory out of defeat in the style of great drama and classical religion.”

The second piece is a quote from a comment on another blog that struck my fancy:

Acad Ronin writes:

I got the following from a mystery novel set on the English-Scottish border in the 14th Century or so. It’s the best treatment of the issue of the rule of law that I have found to date.

Rule of Law

Carey looked down at his hands. “Do you know what justice is?” he asked at last, in an oddly remote voice. “Justice is an accident, really. It’s law that’s important. Do you know what the rule of law is?”

“I think so. When people obey the laws so there’s peace…”

Carey was shaking his head. “No. It’s the transfer of the duty of revenge to the Queen. It’s the officers of the Crown avenging a man’s murder, not the man’s father or the family. Without law what you have is feud, tangling between themselves, and murder repaying murder down the generations. As we have here. But if the Queen’s Officers can be relied on to take revenge for a killing, then the feuding must stop because if you feud against the Queen, it’s high treason. That’s all. That’s all that happens in a law-abiding country: the dead man’s family know that the Crown will carry their feud for them. Without it you have bloody chaos.”

It was strange to hear anyone talk so intensely of such a dusty subject as law; and yet there was a fire and passion in Carey’s words as if the rule of law was infinitely precious to him.

“All we can do to stop the borderers killing each other is give them the promise of justice – which is the accidental result when the Crown hangs the man who did the killing,” he said, watching his linked fingers. They were still empty of rings and look oddly bare. “You see, if it was only a bloodfeud, anyone of the right surname would do. But with the law, it should be the man that did the killing, and that’s justice. Not just to take vengeance but to take vengeance on the right man.”

“So you’ll make out a bill for Sweetmilk Graham and go through all the trouble of trying Hepburn and producing witnesses and finding him-guilty …”

“And then hanging him, when a word to Jock of the Peartree would produce the same result a lot more easily. But that wouldn’t be justice, you see, that would only be more feuding, more private revenge which has nothing to do with justice or law or anything else. Justice requires that the man have a trial and face his accusers.”

Source: Chisolm, P.F. 1994. A Famine of Horses. New York: Walker and Co.

Now there’s a conception of the rule of law portrayed in compelling narrative form.

See also, “The Morality of Narrative Imagination,” “Bavinck on the Moral Imagination,” and Reinhold Niebuhr Today.