I’ve written a fair bit over recent months about trends in charitable giving and Christian tithing. One the latter point, I touched on the importance of tithing in my latest “On the Square” feature at the First Things site. I’m looking forward to getting a look at Douglas LeBlanc’s book, Tithing: Test Me in This. We are seeing right now just how critical faithful charity can be in the midst of disaster.

The Barna Group recently released a major new research study focusing on many of these trends, “Donors Proceed with Caution, Tithing Declines.” This data is worth looking at more closely and there’s a lot to digest. But here’s how Barna initially frames the study:

“The economic downturn influenced donations later than it affected other aspects of our spending,” explained David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Once it kicked in, though, donors have cut back significantly in their giving to churches and nonprofits. Now, even as the economy shows some signs of improvement, donors are still reluctant to return to their previous levels of generosity. They may be less shell-shocked than 15 months ago, but they are still cautious.

Has the economic downturn impacted your giving? If so, how?

I wrote several blogs last week about the value and importance of the Church Fathers. One of the early Greek Fathers was Clement of Alexandria, born in Athens around A.D. 150. His parents were pagans. He was converted to faith in Christ and began to travel widely searching for faithful Christian teachers. He attended the famous School of Theology in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus in A.D. 180. After he settled there he became the director of the school, thus Clement of Alexandria. A few years after he became the director he was forced to quickly flee during the persecution of Septimius Severus. He took refuge in Cappadocia, where he died in A.D. 215, thus he is called a Cappadocian Father.

StClementOfAlexandriaSt. Clement is considered one of the forerunners of what we now call systematic theology. He was the first Christian writer to recognize secular philosophy (Neoplatonism) and incorporate some of its major ideas in service of the Christian faith. Most of his literary output has been lost but one work, on riches and wealth, is still considered valuable to the church. Commenting on Mark 10:17-22 Clement addressed some of the common interpretations of this text by saying:

1. Our Lord was not telling Christians to get rid of their wealth. He was telling them to banish from their souls the primacy of riches. “Unfettered greed can suffocate the seed of true life.”

2. It is not something new to renounce riches and distribute them to the poor. This, said Clement, was done long before Jesus came. Some did this to devote themselves to the arts and in search of vain knowledge while others sought fame and glory by this means.

3. What our Lord does command here is something new, something proper to God who alone gives life. Clement writes:

He does not command what the letter says and what others have already done. He is asking for something greater, more divine, more perfect than that which is stated –that we denude the soul itself of its disordered passions, that we pull out the roots and fling away what is foreign to the spirit. Here, then, is the teaching proper to a believer, and the doctrine worthy of the Savior. Those, who before Christ’s coming despised material goods, certainly gave up their riches and lost them, but the passions of the soul increased even more. For having believed that they had done something superhuman, they came to indulge in pride, petulance, vainglory, despising others.

Clement wrote that a person could give everything away only to doubly regret his decision. To teach that Jesus intends for every disciple to give up everything contradicts statements like those of Luke 16:9, which urges us to make friends by the use of wealth. “Riches then should not be rejected if they can be of use to our neighbor. They are accurately called possessions because they are possessed by people, and goods or utilities because with them one can do good and because they have been ordained by God for the use of men.”

What Clement is saying is that goods and possessions can be instruments in the hands of skilled servants who use them to bless others and advance great good. “Riches, then, are also an instrument.” If rightly used they can bring about justice and service. He added, “In themselves riches are blameless.”

So what is the problem with riches? Riches present an opportunity to do great good or serious evil. “The one to be accused is the person who has the ability, through the choice he makes, to put it to good use or to misuse it. And this is up to the mind and judgment of man, who is free and able to manage what is given him for his use.” Simply put, we are required to be good stewards of all goods and possessions we have been given by whatever means.

So the problem riches present to us, concludes Clement, is in how they are used by our disordered passions. “The rich – who are going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom – will have to understand these words intelligently, and not in a dull and superficial way.”

My experience with people who possess great means is that this is an accurate understanding of the true problem. The real problem is not in riches themselves but in human passions and desires. Wealthy people can bring immense blessing to people and mission. Make no mistake about this, prosperity is always to be preferred to poverty. But those who prosper must understand that they bear greater responsibility to deal with their passions and desires and to use their possessions and goods for the kingdom of God.

My commentary is about the recovery efforts in the aftermath of the tornadoes that struck the South in late April. The focus of this piece is primarily what is going on in Alabama, but it is true for the entire region that was affected. I’d like to thank Jeff Bell of Tuscaloosa for lending his time to talk with me about his experiences. There were so many inspirational anecdotes and stories he offered. I only wish there was room to include them all. I will follow up with more of his story in a separate piece for Religion & Liberty. This is the link to the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. The commentary is printed below.

Out of the Whirlwind: God’s Love and Christian Charity

by Ray Nothstine

Traffic was “reminiscent of a fall football weekend,” declared an AP report last week from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Volunteer armies, faith-based charities, and other service organizations descended upon affected areas in the wake of tornadoes that killed 238 people in Alabama alone. Now, following the whirlwind, we are seeing the compassion and strength of a faith-filled region.

As federal groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency work to repair their reputation following intense criticism after Hurricane Katrina, the experienced workers from faith-based charities are leading on several fronts. Many church groups now have state of the art kitchen trailers that can easily feed 25,000 a day. University of Alabama professor David T. Beito called the relief efforts “extremely decentralized” and added, “I don’t know if a more secular city would fare nearly as well.”

One grassroots organization is proving to be effective at meeting immediate needs through social networking. Toomer’s for Tuscaloosa, which has partnered with the Christian Service Mission, is a group of Auburn University sports fans who have united on Facebook to reach out to their rivals. Fans post a need and somebody responds nearly instantaneously to address the situation or share updates. Toomer’s Facebook network has exploded and they are now assisting flood victims and the tornado-ravaged community of Smithville, Miss. In a letter thanking the governor of Alabama for his leadership during the crisis, Toomer’s declared:

In one way or another, none of this would have been possible had you not minimized the red tape for this faith-based volunteer support initiative, our ability to get to affected areas was largely due to a lack of resistance from a governor who truly believes in the citizens of his state.

In an interview, Tuscaloosa resident Jeff Bell described the tornado as “destruction like I have never seen in my life.” Bell, who took shelter during the storm in the basement of a Baptist church, said he prayed what he thought was his final prayer. Bell said of the recovery, “What I am seeing is spiritually amazing. Black and white churches are forming a bond as well as all different denominations.”

Bell, who lost his job because of the tornado, praised the business community. “Small business owners who have lost everything are finding ways to help their employees,” he said. Big business has contributed, too. Hyundai Motor Company alone pledged $1.5 million for recovery efforts.

One of the strengths of faith-based charities is they do not have to make income tests before they help people in need. Unfortunately, sometimes when FEMA does help an individual its bureaucratic tentacles can cause more harm than good. This was the case in Iowa after flooding in 2008, where individuals and families applied for money after their homes were destroyed. After months and months of waiting, they finally received funds. But this year 179 recipients were later told they were never eligible and had to pay it back in 30 days. Some had to return as much as $30,000. A recent report said that a “low number” of Alabama residents had applied for federal assistance for various reasons including being “leery of government help.”

For many in the South, church life is the center of community. Members do not just spend Sunday in the pews but attend myriad weekly activities at their centers of worship. To say the church is the pulse of a community is no exaggeration.

Christianity proclaims a future regeneration of a disordered world. The Church is that earthly reminder and Sunday worship is a powerful symbol of a gathering of the redeemed for the day of restoration. It remains a comforting place for questions of “Why?” during disasters and trial. Alabama is second to only Mississippi as the most religious state, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The gospel, as embodied by Christ, is the story of giving and sacrificing for those we do not know. It is little wonder that government assistance efforts are playing catch-up across the South. “Southerners have long tended to be conservative on issues of government, stressing provision from family and churches rather than government intervention in times of crisis,” says Charles Wilson Reagan professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Alabama, affectionately nicknamed “The Heart of Dixie,” is no longer just a powerful symbol for the region or the Old South. It has become a universal symbol for what a faith-filled community can do when its people are unleashed as a force for good.

Incandescent light bulbs are months away from being banned because they do not meet the efficiency requirements passed by Congress in 2007 that take effect starting 2012; however, before the ban takes place there may be a need to further evaluate the safety and benefits of CFL light bulbs.

New research has some concerned that CFL bulbs contain cancer causing chemicals:

…German scientists claimed that several carcinogenic chemicals and toxins were released when the environmentally-friendly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were switched on, including phenol, naphthalene and styrene.

Andreas Kirchner, of the Federation of German Engineers, said: “Electrical smog develops around these lamps.

“I, therefore, use them only very economically. They should not be used in unventilated areas and definitely not in the proximity of the head.”

Furthermore, the Migraine Action Association has also warned that CFL bulbs could trigger headaches. This was revealed in a report by The Telegraph, a UK paper, and many British experts are insisting that more research needs to be conducted and are recommending that consumers do not panic.

Despite possible medical problems, can we rest assured that the ban of incandescent light bulbs is because the government is concerned about our pocketbooks and wants us to save money on our energy bills, even though the CFL bulbs are more expensive than their incandescent counterparts? Furthermore we are reminded that CFL bulbs last longer. So the government is truly looking out for us right?

Wrong.

As the Wall Street Journal points out, the estimated useful lifespan for a CFL bulb was originally 9.4 years, but now CFL manufacturer PG&E estimates it to be 6.3 years. In some locations, such as bathrooms, the bulbs don’t even last that long. “Field tests show higher burnout rates in certain locations, such as bathrooms and in recessed lighting. Turning them on and off a lot also appears to impair longevity.” As the Heritage Foundation accurately states, “This does not mean that CFLs won’t save consumers energy in the long run. But be wary of government bureaucrats telling you that you’ll save X dollars or save X amount of energy by buying a more efficient washing machine, air conditioner, vehicle, and other machine with energy-efficiency standards.”

And what happens if you unfortunately break a CFL bulb? The Heritage Foundation shows a pretty long list of safety guidelines to follow from the EPA due to the mercury content found in the bulbs. Also, keep in mind that even if you do not break a CFL bulb it still has to be properly disposed, meaning you cannot simply throw it away.

There may be a way to avoid the potentially harmful CFL bulb in 2012. An LED bulb may be on the market that can replace the 100 watt incandescent bulb and it will only cost you about $50 per bulb. Quite the bargain.

British experts may have had a point by urging that more research be conducted. The U.S. government should heed this advice, especially with studies coming out discrediting the CFL bulbs before the ban on incandescent light bulbs takes effect (never mind the fact that the government shouldn’t have banned incandescent bulbs, and instead, should let the market dictate whether consumers decide what light bulb they would like to purchase). Until the government decides to act on this measure I would like to know where I can get in line for my CFL light bulb waiver. Hey, it seems to be working for many constituents in Nancy Pelosi’s district in acquiring ObamaCare waivers.

In Crisis Magazine, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg has a new article that looks at how Catholics reflect on a wide range of financial questions ranging from the federal government’s fiscal woes to consumer debt to a fragile banking system.

Today one looks in vain for Catholic thinkers studying our debt and deficit problems from standpoints equally well-informed by economics and sound Catholic moral reflection. We don’t, for instance, hear many Catholic voices speaking publically about the moral virtues essential for the management of finances such as prudent risk-taking, thrift, promise-keeping, and assuming responsibility for our debts — private or public.

Instead, one finds broad admonitions such as “put the interests of the poor first” in an age of budget-cutting. The desire to watch out for the poor’s well being in an environment of fiscal restraint is laudable. But that’s not a reason to remain silent about the often morally-questionable choices and policies that helped create our personal and public debt dilemmas in the first place.

One Catholic who has proved willing to engage these issues is none other than Pope Benedict XVI. In his 2010 interview book Light of the World, Benedict pointed to a deeper moral disorder associated with the running-up of high levels of private and public debt. The willingness on the part of many people and governments to do so means, Benedict wrote, “we are living at the expense of future generations.”

In other words, someone has to pay for all this debt. And clearly many Western Europeans and Americans seem quite happy for their children to pick up the bill. That’s a rather flagrant violation of intergenerational solidarity.

Read “Debt, Finance, and Catholics” on the Crisis Magazine website.

We’ve launched a redesigned Acton PowerBlog but there’s more to it than just a visual update.  You’ll find the following enhancements:

  • A simpler look that seeks to better emphasize important features of the blog
  • Convenient tab navigation on the right for frequently used items
  • Increased real estate for blog posts like the one you’re reading
  • Increased emphasis on social media including:
    • New links near the top right and bottom of the page to Acton’s key social pages
    • A live Facebook page stream on the right so you can see what’s happening without leaving the blog
    • More “Like” and send buttons on front page blog posts (not just the first one)
  • A new comment system that preserves all old comments while adding increased functionality
  • A better subscribe page with more feed links and information

The new comment system is probably the largest change after the redesign itself.  With this system (called Disqus) you no longer have to type your name and email every time you want to comment.  Now you can login with an account from a number of websites including Facebook, Twitter, and Disqus itself in order to comment here.  You can also give feedback on comments by liking and replying to them.  If you have a Disqus account you can build a “commenter reputation” and your comments will carry more social weight with people seeking higher quality insights.

We welcome your feedback in the comments for this post.

 

Tomorrow evening economist Victor Claar will be leading an Acton on Tap where he will talk about fair trade. As a Christian and an economist, Claar brings a unique perspective to the discussion. He will be asking a number of key questions including: Is fair trade truly the best way to help the poor, and, if not, then what can we do instead?

The blog, Common Sense Concept, recently reviewed Claar’s new book, Fair Trade? Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution. This rerview provides a sneak peak of the discussion ahead at this week’s Acton on Tap:

But good intentions aren’t enough, and as economist Victor Claar in his new book, neither are manipulative trade initiatives. For Claar, author of Fair Trade: Its Prospects as a Poverty Solution, the fair trade movement simply “cannot deliver on what it promises,” and Christians would do well to pay heed.

[…]

Thus, Claar focuses the bulk of his critique on whether such initiatives truly achieve long-term and sustainable success and prosperity. Does fair trade actually lead to the enrichment of the lives it touches, or does it simply give them a temporary boost? Does it — or can it — lead to “transformational, lasting change,” or is it simply our way of giving them a few extra nickels for that week’s bread and milk (not wholly insignificant, mind you)?

Given that coffee is perhaps the most popular of fair-trade commodities, Claar focuses his attention there, providing an initial overview of the coffee market itself, followed by a discussion of fair trade strategies as commonly applied. Here, we learn a few important things: (1) coffee is easy to grow, (2) its price is inelastic, and (3) the “market appeal” of one’s beans is essential for success. Additionally, and most importantly, (!!!) demand is dropping while supply is rising.

“Simply put,” Claar explains, “coffee growers are poor because there is too much coffee.”

[…]

The book offers plenty of arguments against such schemes, but this often unspoken reality illuminates the most central: Artificial, top-down fair trade programs toy with price signals and manipulate individuals to do the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Incentives matter,” says Claar. “Once the stakes of any economic game have changed, people alter their behavior accordingly.”

Join us on Tuesday, May 17, from 6:30-8:00 PM at the Derby Station (2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506) as what is sure to be a very enlightening and lively discussion.

For more information on tomorrow’s Acton on Tap click here.

Click here to read the entire blog post on Common Sense Concept.

I have noted, in various blogs and comments, the value and importance of the Acton Institute for several years. I have been a blogger for Acton, attended a number of their events as a guest, and assisted them in several ways in public ventures. In general I have been an open supporter of Acton’s vision of freedom and virtue in public theology. Acton provides a unique partnership for ACT 3 since it is a think tank that includes wide religious participation (Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox/Jewish) while it embraces what I call missional-ecumenism as one of its core values. The specific mission of Acton Institute is “to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

Now I have personally been given an opportunity to work with Acton. On April 1 I became a Senior Advisor, with particular emphasis on reaching the Protestant evangelical community. grabill I work very closely with Dr. Stephen Grabill, an accomplished scholar and wonderful brother in Christ. A Christian foundation recently gave Acton a generous gift to expand its work among evangelicals. This project makes it possible for me to serve even more effectively with Acton. I will be an active participant in conversations, planning and development with certain members of the Acton staff in order to shape content, tools, programming and messaging for the evangelical community. I will also recruit evangelical leadership from seminaries, universities, denominations and local churches who will become Acton participants. In this role I will find and network leaders, especially younger leaders, for participation in special Acton events and one-day seminars. I will also use email and other social means to converse with these leaders and future leaders.

front-kuyper One of the truly important components of this new Acton evangelical initiative is the translation of the remaining (un-translated) written work of the famous Dutch minster, theologian and public servant, Abraham Kuyper. His work on common grace, so important for Protestant thought, will soon be available in English because of this Acton initiative. Another good friend, Dr. Nelson Kloosterman, is doing the translation. This will prove to be a huge resource for recovering a robust and orthodox Protestant social theology.

In April I represented Acton at the Mission America Coalition in the affinity track on marketplace theology and mission. God willing, I will do more of the same in similar contexts. The really neat thing about this special partnership is that I am already ministering in these contexts thus adding Acton to my missional network is both logical and uncomplicated. I will still do the same ACT 3 work that I’ve been doing for nearly twenty years but now I will do it as a defined partner with Acton Institute. I will cultivate relationships, develop institutional networks and strategically expand the missional-ecumenical vision by equipping leaders for unity in Christ’s church, a unity that has at its core both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

I hope you will become more familiar with Acton Institute in the coming months. I will be saying more about my partners and more about my work with them as ACT 3 and Acton forge a new relationship for better serving the whole Christian church.

au2011-promo I will be a teacher at the Acton University June 14-17. I teach a class titled: “Introduction to Protestant Social Thought.” I call this public theology and I believe one of the greatest needs of our time is a deep, thoughtful and contextually rigorous social (public) theology. My generation was raised on a thoughtless, partisan political theology without a solid foundation and the next generation has rightly reacted against this ideological mix. I will attempt to show, on June 16, a better way to understand Protestant contributions to this debate. Check out the Acton site for information on the Acton University. I hope some of you will attend in June. (If you qualify then check out the scholarships available, but first be sure to make formal application.) I would love to see some of you in Grand Rapids. This is a wonderful event and the people you will meet are wonderfully diverse and come from all over the world.

David Lohmeyer has done it again. Following this gem from the original series, David has turned up a clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard quotes Lord Acton:

David’s continuing mission? To find such quotes from the rest of the Star Trek series, including Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise (we’ll give him a pass on the cartoon series).

In today’s edition of Capital Commentary, HBU assistant professor of literature Micah Mattix explores the question, “How Might the Arts Be Funded?” He ably and briefly surveys the recent history of politics surrounding the NEA.

And he concludes by noting that art is inherently “relational” and that “the problem with large, centralized organizations like the Endowment is that they are often unable to take such relational elements into account.”

He muses:

However the arts are to be funded, this relational element of art must be taken into account. Instead of encouraging artists to write against their audience out of spite or merely play it safe, funding should help artists to flourish while encouraging them to communicate the truth (of which speaking “prophetically” is part) in love. I wonder if funding the arts at the local level might help to do exactly this.

We can think of it in another helpful way as the concept of subsidiarity (which is a principle of society, not just politics) applied to the arts, specifically artists and their communities and audiences. In some ways this question about funding and the arts is a subset of the broader cultural critique of the market economy, that is, that markets do not support authentic cultural expression. This also has to do with whether you think work, leisure, or some third thing is the basis of culture.

In an argument analogous to that which Abraham Kuyper makes in his treatise, Common Grace in Science and Art, it may be at one time that the arts were necessarily dependent on institutional support from the church and the state in order to exist and grow. But we are certainly at the point, at least in the developed West, where it is not strictly necessary from a purely financial point of view that the government serve as the sole, or even primary, patron. The ideal in this vein is that the arts flourish and mature, come into their own and stand in their own independent space, related to other spheres yet distinct from them in terms of their general sustenance. (This is not to say that civic and sacred art projects are out of bounds, but that they do not exhaust the limits of art as a cultural phenomenon. They are, rather, projects that are intended to illustrate the grandeur of the empire, whether temporal or eternal, respectively.)

Mattix draws on a recent controversy over the Christian stewardship of art published in the Journal of Markets & Morality between Calvin Seerveld and Nathan Jacobs. You can find the text of their dialogue in issue 12.2, and you can also listen to a subsequent podcast moderated by David Michael Phelps (in two parts: Part 1 and Part 2).