It is the new year and the time of reflection is upon us. In 2008, we witnessed a revolutionary left-liberal presidential victory and the onset of substantial economic challenges.

Under the circumstances, I thought now might be a good time to propose a list of outstanding books for the intellectually curious friend or fellow traveler.

I would not dare attempt to put these in order based on excellence. Just consider it a series of number ones.

1. Lancelot by Walker Percy — A southern moderate-liberal is slowly fading out of his own life. He doesn’t know what his purpose is or where his marriage and family are going. But then, something strange happens. He discovers there is such a thing as evil. Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but Lancelot is my favorite.

2. Witness by Whittaker Chambers — Surely, the greatest memoir of any man of the right. Possibly, the greatest memoir ever. I once tried to copy out the passages that meant the most to me and ended up just typing in whole pages at a time. For those too young to know, Chambers was an American traitor loyal to the Communist cause, who left the Communists for what he felt was the losing side. He had to do it because of his recovered belief in God. In the course of his life, he became a senior editor of Time magazine and ultimately defeated Alger Hiss in legal battles over Hiss’s identity as a communist agent. Since Frost/Nixon is hot, you might also know that Richard Nixon’s presidency would likely never have happened without his championing of Chambers’ cause.

3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — I can’t resist putting Chambers and Rand together, especially since Chambers was the instrument William F. Buckley used to read Rand out of the conservative movement. As a Christian, I find Rand’s work antithetical to my own sensibilities, but I have to admit its power. Besides, this is a conservative-libertarian list and she can’t be left off. On the other hand, as literature, it cannot rank with the greats. I still remember the moment when John Galt grabs a microphone to speak to the nation . . . and one hundred pages later is wrapping it up!

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre — This is arguably the finest and most readable piece of political philosophy I have ever encountered. Anyone who wonders why our political discourse has become so poisonous and incommensurate should read this work. So, for that matter, should anyone interested in answering John Rawls. George W. Bush would have known long ago that “the new tone” was destined to fail, if only he’d read his MacIntyre.

5. Anarchy, Utopia, and the State by Robert Nozick — I’ll make this one simple. Robert Nozick provides the most convincing case for a minimalist state that I’ve ever seen. You can break your head on his symbols and formulas, but bear with it because you WILL get it if you keep reading. Even if you were only to read the short portion where he tells his “tale of the slave” you will be confirmed in your libertarian instincts.

6. Man and the State by Jacques Maritain — This collection of lectures about the relationship between the individual, the culture, and the state contains the kind of essential thought we wish every politician understood. Careful, wise, insightful. You will understand many things better after reading Maritain. If you would like to read political philosophy, but have been afraid to start, this may be your entry point.

7. Stained Glass by William F. Buckley — William F. Buckley is dead and I don’t feel so good, myself. However, I am comforted by reading his best works. This Blackford Oakes heart of the Cold War novel is one of his strongest entries. You want to see the kind of chess match the Soviets and Americans were playing? Then, read this Buckley spy novel.

8. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer — Would you like to know who was the prince of the Christian conservatives? It wasn’t Falwell or Robertson. It was Francis Schaeffer. The missionary who set up a Swiss Chalet spent years arguing with college students in Europe. Along the way, he formed a convincing apologetic for the existence of God and the reality of values. (I am almost required to point out that Schaeffer was wrong in his critique of certain figures. So, I said it. Still, this book is great stuff.)

9. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis — I could have chosen almost any title by C.S. Lewis, so I picked the one that had the greatest emotional impact on me. Perelandra is the second book of Lewis’s space trilogy (underappreciated next to Narnia). The story centers around the drama of Adam and Eve being replayed on a new planet with an earthman there to witness it. Utterly compelling and, of course, full to bursting with philosophical and spiritual meaning.

I like Robert Samuelson’s recent column about the difficulty (impossibility?) of accurately analyzing economic reality, let alone predicting its future. Over the past several months a few people, mistaking me for someone who knows a great deal about economics, have asked what I think about the financial crisis, the stock market, the recession, etc. My response is usually something along the lines of the following: Anyone who pretends to know and understand completely the causes of the economic meltdown and/or how to “fix” it, is either not very smart or is selling something (e.g., political schemes or financial advice).

It is a bitter pill for modern man–maybe contemporary Americans, especially–to swallow, but the fact is we can’t control the economy, even if we have “learned the lessons” of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the tech bubble of the 1990s. And often enough our efforts to manage and control it aggravate whatever problem we’re trying to address.

Recognizing this truth can be depressing, or it can be freeing.

It’s a reminder to all who are even occasionally viewed, described, or invoked as “experts” always to wield our opinions with humility. It won’t stop us from pontificating, but it should prevent anyone from taking us too seriously.

To substantiate this claim about the ignorance of the experts, here is an enjoyable summary of the worst economic predictions of 2008, courtesy of Business Week. (My fave: “I think you’ll see [oil prices at] $150 a barrel by the end of the year” —T. Boone Pickens, June 20, 2008.)

Here’s to an equally unpredictable 2009.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
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The year is 1943 and Valkyrie, the second release under the revamped United Artists brand, opens with German officer Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) on assignment in Africa. He had been sent there because his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had become dangerously explicit and bellicose. His promotion to lieutenant-colonel of the general staff and transfer from the European lines to Africa is intended to give him some protection from pro-Nazi officers who might make trouble for him.

An attack on a transport column in Africa leaves Stauffenberg badly wounded. He loses his left eye, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand, and his right hand above the wrist. Given director Bryan Singer’s resume (which includes X-Men) and the opening sequence, initial concerns that the film might be turned into an action movie are quickly dispelled. Given that the end of the movie is never in doubt, the movie never quite becomes a suspense thriller either. Yet Valkyrie still manages to deliver a thought-provoking and moving story of loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and doubt. (more…)

Nicholas Kristof’s Dec. 21 New York Times column was, he says, “a transparent attempt this holiday season to shame liberals into being more charitable.” He quotes Arthur Brooks’ “Who Really Cares” book which shows that conservatives give more to charity than liberals.

The upshot is that Democrats, who speak passionately about the hungry and homeless, personally fork over less money to charity than Republicans — the ones who try to cut health insurance for children.

“When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Kristof echoes Rev. Robert Sirico’s Dec. 17 Acton commentary “Why We Give” (published on Dec. 23 in the Detroit News) which also looks at Brooks’ work on giving and the deeper theological dimensions of charity.

… the tradition of gift-giving is rooted in the gift that God offers to the world in his Son who comes in the appearance of a frail babe. Likewise, the Magi, the Wise Men, who came from the East, brought the Christ-child exotic gifts to celebrate his Advent.

There is another, perhaps more practical aspect of the giving of gifts that is worth pondering which was brought to the fore by Arthur Brooks, author of the 2006 book “Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why it Matters.” Brooks investigated the American habit of giving and what he found surprised some, irritated others and confirmed some suspicions that I have had for some time. Among his findings was that the general profile of the gift-giver is one who has a strong family life and who attends church regularly.

Read more of Rev. Sirico’s column >>>

Blog author: jballor
Monday, December 29, 2008
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Two of Eric Shansberg’s recent PowerBlog posts got me thinking of some other things I had run across in the last couple weeks during the run-up to Christmas Day.

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.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, December 26, 2008
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One of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read lately is Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in the January 2009 issue of First Things. It’s accessible online only to subscribers, but you can find the publication at academic and high-quality municipal libraries and it will be freely available online in a month or two.

Wilken makes so many interesting and informed observations that I don’t know where to start. Among the points to ponder:

“In the long view of history, and especially from a Christian perspective, the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance” than the Crusades. In the eleventh century, Wilken notes, the population of Asia Minor was virtually 100% Christian; by 1500, it was 92% Muslim.

“Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” The missionary impulse in Christianity is strong and its history impressive. But Wilken points out that Christians often view that history selectively and that Islam’s spread is equally impressive and seems at present to be more durable. (On two recent books about the early spread of Islam, see this review.)

Christianity’s fading in so many places undermines precisely those claims on which it prides itself: its catholicity, its capacity to embed itself in any culture, anywhere. “If Christianity continues to decline in Europe,” Wilken cautions, “and becomes a minority religion, its history will appear fragmentary and episodic and its claim to universality further diminished by the shifting patterns of geography.”

“By focusing on what went wrong, on Islamic terrorism, on Wahhabism, or on radical Islamists, we miss ways in which Islam is adapting constructively to a changing world.” The unparalleled success and staying power of Islam, Wilken insists, obligates us to take it more seriously–not merely as a threat, I take him to mean, but as a world view that is immensely powerful and attractive. “If we see Islam as a historical relic, incapable of change and betterment, inimical to reason and science, a form of religion that is disadvantaged in the modern world,” he writes, “we will never grasp the formidable challenge it presents to Christianity.”

For Christians, the article raises some uncomfortable questions. That’s not a bad thing. For its historical insight, for its analysis of the interaction of Christianity and Islam, and for its suggestive glance at the future, it is well worth reading.

Among those on the so-called Religious Right, it is common to reduce political interests to “life” issues– most notably, abortion.

But in recent months, in the midst of the financial crisis and an economic recession, I’ve gotten many letters and emails about fund-raising problems within Christian organizations.

Although such concerns don’t rise to the level of abortion, they– and thus, economics and the politics that affect those economics– are non-trivial as well.

Beyond that, there are many issues which speak to “economic justice”– another huge Biblical theme.

If you’re familiar with Acton’s work, I’m preaching to the choir. But it bears repeating: We only have so much time to invest in politics, but economics and political shenanigans within the economic sphere should not be dismissed out-of-hand.

Blog author: eschansberg
Thursday, December 25, 2008
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I felt inspired by a fellow Hoosier’s blog post this morning. Doug Masson wrote:

Merry Christmas everyone. Like I’ve said probably too many times, I’m not a religious guy. But, it’s tough to argue with the message — peace to everyone, love your family. Love each other. Sounds easy enough. Looking at the world, apparently it’s harder than it sounds. Still, this is a nice reminder each year.

I’m not particularly religious either, but in a different sense than Doug means (I think). Of course, even assuming that we’re talking about Christianity, sometimes it’s “religion” that gets in the way of the message– both believing it and living it out. This was probably the most important aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry– to mess with the Pharisees who had distorted the message.

The other difficulty is that we’re selective with the message:

We like baby Jesus, but not so much the bearded Man from Galilee.

Or we like some aspects of the bearded Man’s message, but not others. And so, we practice a cafeteria Christianity that’s somewhere between an attenuated Gospel and heresy in doctrine– and in practice, somewhere between lukewarm love and destructive behavior.

Or to borrow from and paraphrase a good sermon I heard in a United Church of Christ service two weekends ago, we’re cool with the cradle, ok with the cross, and not so hot with the throne.

The cradle seemingly makes no demands. It’s somewhere between cute and quaint, warm and fuzzy, myth and Myth. The calls from the cradle are implied and easily trumped by the trappings of the holiday celebration.

The cross, in practice, is a mixed bag. It inspires awe when we focus on what Christ offered to do for us. His Sacrifice, which begins when He goes from Heaven to Cradle, is staggering– in particular, to die for the stupid things that we did, do, and will do. In a word, Christ died for bozos like you and me. As Paul writes in Romans: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

But often, we stop just there, focusing on the Gift of God’s Grace, and not the resulting call: to extend grace as Grace as been extended to us, to love as we have been Loved– not just those who love us, but beyond what is relatively easy.

The throne is left out altogether– that Jesus Christ would not only be Savior, but Lord of one’s life. The results are predictable: relationship becomes religion and ritual, the Church is tainted, God’s Kingdom is diminished. We are then incapable of loving as we were created to do, unable to be who we were created to be.

May Christmas Day be a reminder that we should strive to make every day Christmas– from the cradle to the cross to the throne.

Of course, Santa is based on a historical character. And in many (but certainly not all!) ways, he points forward to Jesus Christ. But in a broader sense, God has created a mystical, mythical, and magical world– that can be overdone or mis-imagined. That said, the more common error is to under-do or under-imagine– out of our “modern” heritage and tainted worldview.

I’ve blogged on this quite a few times– and three times in the past month, in noting the 100th anniversary of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a connection between Harry Potter, D&D, Chesterton and Lewis, and the ultimately irrational hyper-extension of rationality.

My family and I just watched Elf the other night on TV– a charming little movie with the same message. (I’m on a bit of a Will Ferrell kick these days– after seeing Talladega Nights after this post.)

Here’s Tony Woodlief in the WSJ (hat tip: Linda Christiansen) on the same general topic– with applications to Santa Claus and our ability (&/or willingness) to believe (or not)…

After describing his 8-year old son determining that Santa was not real, “the talk” they had, and his son’s ultimate question (“He isn’t real, is he?”), Woodlief moves into deeper waters:

Perhaps a more responsible parent would confess, but I hesitate. For this I blame G.K. Chesterton [and] “Orthodoxy”…One of its themes is the violence that rationalistic modernism has worked on the valuable idea of a “mystical condition,” which is to say the mystery inherent in a supernaturally created world. Writing of his path to faith in God, Chesterton says: “I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”

Magic-talk gets under the skin of many, like renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. This is doubly so when it is what the Christ-figure Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” calls “the deeper magic,” an allusion to divinity. Mr. Dawkins is reportedly writing a book examining the pernicious tendency of fantasy tales to promote “anti-scientific” thinking among children. He suspects that such stories lay the groundwork for religious faith, the inculcation of which, he claims, is a worse form of child abuse than sexual molestation.

I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being….

Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
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O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!
Oh night divine! Oh night when Christ was born!
Oh night divine! Oh night! Oh night divine!

Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother,
and in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we;
Let all within us praise his holy name.
Christ is the lord, that ever, ever praise we.
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!
Noel! Noel! Oh night; oh night divine!