Blog author: eschansberg
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
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A friend persisted in asking me to read The Shack. Although it has been a “#1 New York Times Bestseller”, it came on the radar when I was in a busy season, so I’m not sure I would have read it or even noticed it– without his encouragement.

I’m really glad I read it. Beyond enhancing my “cultural relevancy” (LOL!), The Shack was thought-provoking. Although I’m not sure I agree with everything in it– especially where one must speculate a good bit to draw inferences– I’m a wheat & chaff guy. And for whatever chaff Young delivers, he brings a lot of wheat to the table as well.

Young’s book is well-crafted and an easy read. On occasion, the conversations come off as stilted, but that’s difficult to avoid in a book so dominated by dialogue. And the book might not be easy to handle emotionally or theologically for some people– an important point to which I’ll return shortly.

In a nutshell, comparing it to some other relatively famous books, I’d say it’s:

1.) 50% The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis;
2.) 30% The Normal Christian Life by Watchman Nee or The Saving Life of Christ by Ian Thomas; and
3.) 20% Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen.

1.) The Shack is a cousin of Lewis’ book on Heaven and Hell in that it speculates on biblical topics that are vital but not clearly delineated in the Scriptures…

And like Lewis, Young works (effectively) to give himself wiggle room within his artistic portrayal. (Young uses basic literary devices at the beginning and the end of the book.) This is absolutely key because it indicates the speculative nature of his work– and it signals that Young does not take himself or the details of his picture too seriously.

2.) The Shack points to the importance of the “Spirit-filled life” within “sanctification”. I benefited tremendously from more traditional, straight-forward works like Nee and Thomas. But Young is trying to communicate some of the same principles through narrative/fiction.

This is both vital and vastly under-sold within the Church. Too often, people try to “live out the Chistian life” in their own power– “the flesh”. The result is sub-optimal in terms of outcomes, motives, perseverance, energy, and so on. But it isn’t meant to be that way. Christ himself said that it was for our own good that He would leave the Earth– so that the Spirit would come to empower believers to live that life through us (Jn 14:26, 16:7)….

3.) Young’s work is like Osteen’s in that it can be misread by some– and is, at the same time, especially relevant for certain audiences. I’ve already argued this in my review of Osteen’s book. I would recommend both books to most people who have been “wounded” by circumstances, a church, or the Church– especially if they can read it alongside a mature believer.

That said, the book could easily be misunderstood and misapplied by those who tend to read things (too) literally. Despite the ample praise the book has received, I think that’s the reason for the bulk of the criticism launched at it….

Derek Keefe provides a nice overview of the debate on the Christianity Today blog….

Among other things, this growing backlash broaches important questions about the proper relationship between art, theology, and the Church for evangelicals and their close kin….Switching directions, we must also ask what it means for Christian traditions and communities to be faithful to artists and their craft. This, too, is a theological question: How does the Church show good faith toward those sub-creators in God’s human economy whose very creative inclinations are evidence that they bear the image of a God who delights in creating?…My hunch is that we probably see a failure to keep faith on both sides here, and that it would be a good thing for all of God’s Church to discuss the when’s, where’s, why’s, and how’s of our mutual infidelities.

In a word, I’d recommend The Shack to those who are mature in their faith, those who have seen Christianity as duty and religion, those who are not prone to take things to literally/seriously, those who have endured profound pain and disappointment, and those who have been “burned by the church”.

In any case, may God use The Shack as a blessing to those who read it.

For the full review, click here.

I’ve been meaning to do an in-depth post examining the various troubles facing the recycling industry. One day I’ll get to it. For now, though, I’ll settle for the rather snarky observation that some newspapers are finally worth the paper they’re printed on.

That’s right, the value of a ton of recycled mixed paper is exactly zero right now. There are those who argue that the economics of recycling are still solid, even though the demand for recycled commodities has sharply declined in recent months.

That may well be true, but now more than ever some discernment is needed. As Christians concerned about proper stewardship of the environment, we need to use our minds as well as our hearts and test the spirits, so to speak.

The right answer to the drop in the value of recycled commodities doesn’t seem to be an uncritical spending spree. That is, we shouldn’t buy flatscreen TVs and other electronics from China just in order to give the recycling industry a boost. Recycling qua recycling isn’t all its cracked up to be. And if there’s less demand for recycled commodities, that in part means that people are reducing (and even re-using). Remember the “three Rs”? Reduce, reuse, and recycle.

But continued recycling might make sense (and dollars) in other areas (metals, for instance, are perhaps the most valuable recycled commodities, with a nearly infinite capacity for re-purposing). Not all recyclable commodities are (re)created alike.

When the industry doesn’t need to be supported by taxpayer money and the items are valuable enough to have someone come and collect them (rather than me having to pay in one form or another to have them recycled), then I’ll be a true believer.

And speaking of unintended consequences, just how much electronics waste is the mandated switch to digital TV in the United States going to create?

Unemployment hit 7.2% in December, the highest since January 1993– as the economy was recovering from the pseudo-recession of 1991-1992.

In November 1982, the unemployment rate was 10.8%.

Since the “natural rate of unemployment”– the part of unemployment you can’t get rid of (at least without severe long-term consequences)– is generally thought to be 4.0-4.5%.

So, today’s unemployment rate is 2.7-3.2% higher than the natural rate– less than half of the unemployment above the natural rate in 1982 (6.0-6.3%).

And of course, we’re nowhere near the unemployment of the Great Depression when the rate was in double-digits for more than a decade, including 19% in 1939– the 6th year of the (wildly over-rated) “New Deal”.

After finals, I cranked through some books! Among those, one of G.K. Chesterton’s fictional works, The Flying Inn.

Chesterton was a prolific author. He’s well-known in some circles for his fictional work, particularly his “Father Brown” mystery series. (I haven’t tried those yet.) In this realm, I had read (and enjoyed) the classic The Man Who Was Thursday.

His non-fiction is oft-quoted but rarely read (like Dorothy Sayers and to a lesser extent, C.S. Lewis). That’s a shame, because it is a real pleasure to read. (It is a bit challenging– think Lewis’ thicker stuff.) He’s a gifted writer with a sharp pen and wit for the ideas he’s challenging and inspirational in the things he describes. In that arena, I have read Orthodoxy, Heretics, The Everlasting Man, and most recently, an edited volume of his writings on family.

The Flying Inn was an easy read and a fun romp. Along the road– and the travels of the primary characters– Chesterton takes a number of funny/serious pokes at prohibition, legalism, bureaucracy, power vs. authority, the limits of law, class-based hypocrisy on entertainment and “art”, “progressivism”, Islam, Nietzsche, political correctness, “higher biblical criticism”, and pompous individuals….

For excerpts of interest from TFI itself and excerpts from a review of TFI, check out the longer blog entry on SchansBlog

Blog author: hunter.baker
Friday, January 9, 2009
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Part of the reason Richard John Neuhaus will be remembered is for his impact on Christians in higher education. There is no question that his seminal book The Naked Public Square and then his journal First Things changed the way many of us think about religion and culture. He also did something I think is nearly impossible with FT. He created a serious journal that causes many people (a great many of them professors) to do a little dance when they find it in their mailbox.

First Things is not an academic journal, but it is close and better. Instead of dividing knowledge up into a million little pieces and then writing ad nauseum about those subcompartments. First Things invites strong minds to contribute big essays about the intersection of religion, culture, law, politics, art, music, etc. The result is readable and edifying. When I was younger, I knew it was above my head, but I pursued it for improvement, just like a gangster listening to a pronounciation soundtrack to improve his speech. First Things took me places. Today, when I meet a fellow reader, I meet a friend.

Enough of the unsolicited advertisement. I saw a snippet of an email exchange about Neuhaus that is worth reproducing here. I won’t include the name in case the person wants that to remain private:

Converted (to Catholicism) about 1990 or 91. He is one of those Missouri Synod Lutherans who had a tremendous early education in their prep schools and liberal arts college…then a fine seminary education. It was the old German gymnasium system where young guys went off to prep school at 14 and learned German, Greek, Latin, church history, the confessions even before they got to college. The college at Fort Wayne gave them a terrific liberal arts education—classics, literature, history, languages—and then off to seminary. Pelikan, Wilken, Neuhaus, Marty, and many lesser lights came through that system. Valparaiso’s golden age occurred when these highly educated pastors also went into other fields and got doctorates. They had dual educations that made faith and learning engagement a natural thing. M.Divs with a degree in law, economics, literature. Very erudite types who occupied many positions at Valpo. But that has all disappeared….a great but probably necessary loss. How many families would send their boys off to prep school at 14 and what church could afford to run prep schools all over the country for their young men?

But Richard was one of that group….didn’t really need a doctorate.

No, he didn’t really need that doctorate. Wish we could reproduce that system for young people from families without tremendous means.

Richard John Neuhaus is dead. We’ve lost some big ones in the last year. Many of you will not realize how big this one was. I pray Jody Bottum and some of the others in the First Things (Neuhaus’ hugely influential journal) world can carry on his legacy. Though Neuhaus’ death leaves a chasm to be filled, I think Dr. Bottum is the right man for it.

Anthony Sacramone is a former managing editor of First Things. He is also one of my favorite writers. So, I’m happy to bring you his wonderful tribute to Neuhaus. Here’s a taste:

Woody Allen said that 90% of life is just showing up. Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at civil-rights marches in the 1960s or pro-life marches of the 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at the altar as a parish priest or at the bedside of a dying friend, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. As writer, lecturer, editor, raconteur, counselor, teacher — Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Every day. Until today.

And by the way, the New York Times didn’t do badly, either. I give them credit, particularly since Father Neuhaus spent part of his last column writing about how his desire to read the NYT had continued to slip.

For those concerned with a vigorous intellectual engagement of the religious idea with the secular culture, these past 12 months have been a difficult period.

On February 28, 2008, William F. Buckley, Jr. the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement in America, died. Only last month, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, passed away at 90 years old. Cardinal Dulles was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians, a thinker of great subtlety, and a descendent from a veritable American Brahmin dynasty.

Father Richard John Neuhaus

The third in this towering intellectual triumvirate is Father Richard John Neuhaus, who died in New York after an on and off again battle with cancer, about which he had written in his now mini-classic, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning.

This book is unlike any written in our time in that it is a profoundly serious reflection on questions everyone has, issues everyone thinks about in private, but hardly anyone is willing to speak about or perhaps capable of writing about. Fr. Neuhaus confronts it to the point in which we feel discomfort – and he did this on nearly every issue he wrote about in his long writing career.

How will we be held accountable at death for what we did in life? What does mortality mean? What does it mean to face judgment? How should we live with the questions we have about eternity, and what is the impact on culture and responsibility?

In times past we had a greater clarity about these questions than we do today. Today, if we think about death at all, it is only to keep it as far away as possible, to forestall it, to deny it, and pretend that it doesn’t happen to others and will not happen to us.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote the following:

We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word ‘good’ should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.

Fascinating, provocative, fearless, counter-cultural, and absolutely impossible to ignore. It puts matters of faith at the center, making them impossible to deny. That is the power of Fr. Neuhaus’s mind at work, and it worked for many decades producing an incredible literary legacy. (more…)

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has touched off a row over remarks he made recently concerning the demise of capitalism.

Here’s the context from the Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper:

[the Cardinal] made the astonishing claim at a lavish fund-raising dinner at Claridges which secured pledges of hundreds of thousands of pounds for the catholic church. The Cardinal, dressed in his full clerical regalia, said in a speech at the black tie dinner that he had worried whether the dinner should go ahead because of the troubled economic times. But he went on to say that in 1989, with the collapse of the Berlin wall, that “communism had died.” In 2008, he said, “capitalism had died.”

The response from the business community was swift.

Catholic business people surveyed by The Daily Telegraph insisted that there were plenty of good capitalists, who used the process of making money to benefit all of society. The problems came when capitalism was used by a few to enrich themselves to the detriment of everyone else. Sir Tom Farmer, the Scottish billionaire former owner of car parts firm Kwik-Fit, said: “I seriously hope that capitalism is not dead, but I hope that the abuse of capitalism is dead. I hope that is what the Cardinal meant. At the end of the day it is a system that creates wealth – but it has its failings.”

Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, was interviewed on Ave Maria Radio today by host Al Kresta and asked about the Cardinal’s remarks.
“There is some great irony here of His Excellency speaking at a lavish fundraising event at which one presumes he is about to ask for money for the renovation of the Cathedral, etcetera,” he told Kresta. “Either the Cardinal is possessed of a great insight that no one in that room and few other people are possessd of, or he is speaking economic lunacy.”

Listen to the interview here.

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Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, January 8, 2009
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First Things has announced that Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning.

I am hardly qualified to write a eulogy, having never met the man. No doubt others, including one or two Acton colleagues who knew him better, will perform this service admirably. But I feel compelled to offer a few words, as I have long admired Fr. Neuhaus and his vital work, in particular the journal he edited for many years, First Things (FT).

In the mid-1990s, I was a graduate student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. I was surrounded by smart people who, with some exceptions, disagreed profoundly with most of my own views on religion, culture, and public life (to use FT’s trinitarian formula). I am grateful for that interaction and for the intellectual stimulus that Penn provided, but I was also lonely and desperate for some intellectual sustenance from a perspective both more conservative politically and more orthodox theologically. Browsing through the library one day, I came across FT. (How it had taken me so long to discover it, I don’t know.) Under the circumstances, it seemed to be literally a godsend. Social policy, science, academia–it tackled all the contentious issues at the front of my consciousness as an inexperienced but aspiring scholar who needed allies and guides as I sought to make sense of the relationship between faith and reason. It did so at a level of intelligence, clarity, and civility consistently higher than any other publication I’ve ever encountered.

From that day–when I could afford a subscription to only one periodical–to the present, I have been a devoted FT reader. And to no part of the journal have I been more devoted than Fr. Neuhaus’s monthly roundup of religion, culture, and public life, The Public Square. For more than ten years it has provoked me to thought, laughter, and (not very often) disagreement. For Fr. Neuhaus and for the journal he inspired, I am sincerely grateful. I never met him, but I feel that I’ve lost a longtime companion.

I’m ambivalent about the value of term limits, but one thing that can certainly be counted in their favor is that they (at some point at least), force lawmakers to go out and try to make a living in the economic environment which they helped to shape. In Michigan, nearly half of the 110-member House of Representatives will consist of new members. Of the 46 new members, 44 are coming from seats that were open because of term limits.

And now we have reports that ex-legislators are having a tough time finding private sector jobs in the state. As the AP reports, “The task of finding new gigs will be tougher than usual for this year’s crop of term-limited lawmakers because of Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate, which in November reached 9.6 percent — the highest monthly rate since March 1992.”

It’s been said that those who can’t do, teach. But sometimes those who can’t do, legislate. That’s in part an argument in favor term-limits, part-time legislatures, and something other than a system that encourages the formation of career politicians.

I recognize that serving in government is an important and even a divine calling. Still, I have a hard time finding a great deal of sympathy for those who after a break from the private sector have to face up to the real-world employment situation. You reap what you sow.