Over at Christianity Today, Andy Crouch confronts modern society’s increasing skepticism toward institutional structures, arguing that without them, all of our striving toward cultural transformation is bound to falter:

t-root-systemFor cultural change to grow and persist, it has to be institutionalized, meaning it must become part of the fabric of human life through a set of learnable and repeatable patterns. It must be transmitted beyond its founding generation to generations yet unborn. There is a reason that the people of God in the Hebrew Bible are so often named as the children of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Like divine intervention in history, true cultural change takes generations to be fully absorbed and expressed.

Indeed, the best institutions extend shalom—that rich Hebrew word I paraphrase as “comprehensive flourishing”—through both space and time. Take one of my favorite institutions: the game of baseball. It is a set of cultural patterns that has lasted for several generations now, played at a professional level on several continents. A great game of baseball is mentally, physically, and emotionally taxing and fulfilling in the way that all deeply human endeavors are. It embodies the playfulness and competitiveness that reflects our God-given creativity and ambition for excellence. It is an institution, larger than any individual player.

But alas, such suspicion exists for a reason. As Crouch goes on to note, a competing temptation often prevails — that of “succumbing to institutionalism,” wherein we seek the perpetuation of institutions as ends in themselves. “If the biblical language of principalities and powers is taken seriously,” Crouch says, “it seems that human institutions can become demonic, opposed to the purposes of God.” (more…)

Figures 015 Melchisedec King of Salem blesses AbramThe folks at RELEVANT magazine wonder, “What would happen if the church tithed?”

The piece explores in some depth the point that tithing is really about the radical call to Christian generosity, pointing to the biblical example of the Macedonian church: “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)”

I was just reading from the Little House books last night to my son, and one of the chapters I read included the narrative of Laura’s missionary church in western Minnesota as the recipient of Christmas gifts from a church in the more established parts of eastern Minnesota:

There had never been such a Christmas as this. It was such a large, rich Christmas, the whole church full of Christmas. There were so many lamps, so many people, so much noise and laughter, and so many happinesses in it. Laura felt full and bursting, as if that whole big rich Christmas were inside her, and her mittens and her beautiful jewel-box with the wee gold cup-and-saucer and teapot, and her candy and her popcorn ball.

Giving can really mean the world to the recipient, and it is a significant spiritual exercise and discipline for the giver as well.

As to the RELEVANT question, Ron Sider offered his own answer in 2005, and the needs and possibilities identified have not substantially changed in the meantime:

If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.

As I’ve said before, seeing evangelism as something for “leftovers” isn’t quite right, but the point still stands that to whom much has been given, much is expected. And American Christians have certainly been given much.

Blog author: jcarter
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
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How early childhood intervention can help poor kids in developing nations
James Pethokoukis, AEI Ideas

These findings show that simple psychosocial stimulation in very early childhood in disadvantaged settings can have a substantial effect on labor market outcomes.

Internet freedom called vital facet of global religious freedom
Tom Strode, Baptist Press

Internet freedom is vital to religious freedom, and the United States should make greater efforts to breach the firewalls of repressive regimes, in the view of Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke.

No One Trusts the Government—and That’s Bad News for Libertarians
Nick Gillespie, The Daily Beast

What if distrust in government perversely drives demand for more government?

How the Gates Foundation Shapes State Higher-Education Policy
Katherine Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education

Over the past several years, lawmakers in dozens of states have passed laws restricting remedial college courses and tying appropriations to graduation rates. The changes have been advanced by an unusual alliance of private foundations and state policy makers who are shaping higher-education strategies in profound ways.

Blog author: jcarter
Monday, July 15, 2013
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how-the-newsConstantly in search of a sensational story, the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst once sent a telegram to a leading astronomer that read: “Is there life on Mars? Please cable 1,000 words.” The scientist responded “Nobody knows” — repeated 500 times.

I thought of that anecdote when I read Elise Hilton’s post earlier today in which she asks, “You remember ‘news’, don’t you? Every evening, a somber-faced reporter would come into your living room, and deliver the serious stories of the day.” She adds, “We seemed to have decided, as a nation, that ‘infotainment’ is more important to us than news.”

I don’t often disagree with Elise, but I have to register my dissent on this topic – a perennial theme of mine – for the news has been a form of infotainment in America for at least a hundred years (and possibly much longer). And when it comes to the medium of television, news cannot be anything other than infotainment.

As the late media theorist Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death,

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A mere recital of the economic policies of governments all over the world is calculated to cause any serious student of economics to throw up his hands in despair. What possible point can there be, he is likely to ask, in discussing refinements and advancements in economic theory, when popular thought and the actual policies of governments…have not yet caught up with Adam Smith? – Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson.

These words continue to echo in the District of Columbia as legislators and activists once again choose to listen to their well-intended intuition over the lessons of basic economics.

6858535588_84f27f81ca_bOn Wednesday, D.C. Council approved the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), a bill which requires “big-box” retailers to pay their employees a minimum wage of no less than $12.50 an hour. The bill is backed by labor activists and some religious leaders who claim that employees who are paid the city’s minimum wage of $8.25 (a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage) are not being paid a ‘living wage.’ Should the LRAA be signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and pass a congressional review period, all D.C. retailers that work in a space of 75,000 square feet or more and exceed $1 billion in corporate sales will be forced to pay their employees this higher minimum wage.

Wal-Mart has warned the city that the company will abandon plans for three planned stores in the district should the bill be passed into law. Such a statement is being taken as an ultimatum by labor activists.  Among the most outspoken is Rev. Graylan Hagler, a senior pastor of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and a leader of Respect DC – a local activist group that fights for what they call living wages.  In response to Wal-Mart’s proposal, Hagler stated, “If you allow a bully to bully you, it’s never going to end. There will be something else. There will always be another agenda. We’ve got some work to do.” (more…)

Blog author: ehilton
Monday, July 15, 2013
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You remember “news”, don’t you? Every evening, a somber-faced reporter would come into your living room, and deliver the serious stories of the day. There was the body count from the Vietnam War, or the Watergate scandal. From an earlier era, the family might gather around the radio to hear the BBC report with the latest from the war on London. We’d hear reports of protests, politicians debating bills, breathless accounts from foreign correspondence.

Now, we get updates on celebrity baby names and how Twinkies are making a comeback. (more…)

aa-bookIn a sermon to the class of 1864, Williams College President Mark Hopkins addressed the intimate and inevitable relationship between character and destiny, “Settle it therefore, I pray you, my hearers, once and forever, that as your character is, so will your destiny be.”

Within the academy, this basic prescription for earthly happiness, says Lewis M. Andrews, reigned supreme for almost three centuries, from Harvard’s founding in 1636 until the early twentieth century.

The typical centerpiece of the moral curriculum was a seminar, taught by the college president, that took up most of the senior year for undergraduate students and was designed to show them how to apply their newly acquired knowledge within a Christian context. University presidents of all denominations focused on the importance of good character and the dangers of vice and immorality.

Problems that are now thought of, at least to some extent, as mental health conditions — depression, discouragement, fear, loneliness, self-doubt, addiction, anxiety — were viewed in large part as consequences of the moral character of the students. Pursuing vengeance will depress us; a willingness to tell white lies leaves us anxious; manipulating others makes us lonely; and guilt can only be assuaged through some form of amends or atonement. Conversely, the college presidents taught their students that the proper application of moral and spiritual principles would enable them to build character and lead emotionally fulfilled and happy lives. While these principles were consistent with Christian theology, and their teaching often drew from the Books of Psalms and Proverbs, or the parables of Jesus, they were reinforced with similar observations by classical philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Plotinus.

But students learned also that even though adherence to moral principles leads to real happiness, the immediate pleasures or advantages that come from compromising one’s values can blind us to how such actions often leave us miserable and unhappy in the end. Everybody is tempted to believe that some things are so worth having that unethical choices are justified to achieve them. By an act of great self-deception, the perceived gains overshadow the real losses.

Andrews explains how these university presidents were pioneers of what we would now call mental health care, and why the history of spiritually based therapy is largely unknown:

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