Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Choose life?

It has seemed to me that "pro-choice" meant "pro-abortion." And this reaction tends to confirm that impression:
One might think that a license plate that emphasized choice would please the people who style themselves as “pro-choice”. Not in Virginia, though, as Democratic Governer and DNC chair Tim Kaine has discovered. ....

Many states now have specialty license plate programs that allow various groups to promote their mission. Kaine noted when he signed off on the Choose Life plate that Planned Parenthood could come up with its own, but that he had little choice but to approve the request on his desk. All they need is 350 people to prepay a $25 fee for a plate that says, “Kill your fetus,” and they’re good to go. [more]

And revenue from the plates will be used to persuade — that is, to assist choice:
The revenue from the specialty plates would go to crisis-pregnancy centers, which many abortion-rights backers believe proslyetize against abortion and encourage women to keep unwanted children.
Hot Air » Blog Archive » Pro-abortion groups freak out over license plates, DNC chair infuriates abortion backers - Andy Barr - POLITICO.com

Faith does not require blind acquiescence

Observing that "In recent years, [he has] noticed that many of the twenty and thirty-somethings in my circle ask very pointed questions about the accuracy of the biblical text", Trevin Wax approvingly reviews a book by Nicholas Perrin, Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus. The history teacher in me loved these words:
Perrin sees our refusal to engage in the historical debate as a backhanded denial of the truths at the very heart of Christianity. We must never suppress the historical truths surrounding the life of Jesus Christ presented in the Gospels. For Perrin, history and Christianity are inseparable because of the nature of the resurrection.
“I do claim that for historical reasons we can have a great deal of confidence in the scriptural record of Jesus’ words – and for that matter, his deeds as well. My own confidence may initially be born of biblical faith, but it is not a faith willfully oblivious to historical realities. Nor is biblical faith to be afraid of historical inquiry; rather, it seeks out such inquiry. If faith and history collide, it might make a pretty mess for a time. But the only worse mess is a stillborn faith that insists on fleeing history and, ultimately, the world in which we live. Never let it be said that the self-revelation of Jesus Christ demands blind acquiescence. Rather, it demands we ask questions when we’ve come to realize, once again, that we don’t yet fully understand the implications of that revelation.” (42)
The above passage forms the heart of Lost in Transmission. Perrin’s book attempts to demonstrate the need for us to do business with historical inquiry and to answer historical questions correctly. [more]
Sounds like something I want to read. Trevin Wax intends to post an interview with the author tomorrow at his blog, Kingdom People [which always has interesting stuff].

Update 4/1: The promised interview with Nicholas Perrin.

Do We Know What Jesus Said? « Kingdom People

"De-baptism"

Baptized atheists in England are seeking to be "de-baptized" and someone has figured out a way to make money out of it:
More than 100,000 Britons have recently downloaded "certificates of de-baptism" from the Internet to renounce their Christian faith.

The initiative launched by a group called the National Secular Society (NSS) follows atheist campaigns here and elsewhere, including a London bus poster which triggered protests by proclaiming "There's probably no God."

"We now produce a certificate on parchment and we have sold 1,500 units at three pounds (4.35 dollars, 3.20 euros) a pop," said NSS president Terry Sanderson, 58.

John Hunt, a 58-year-old from London and one of the first to try to be "de-baptised," held that he was too young to make any decision when he was christened at five months old.

The male nurse said he approached the Church of England to ask it to remove his name. "They said they had sought legal advice and that I should place an announcement in the London Gazette," said Hunt, referring to one of the official journals of record of the British government.

So that's what he did — his notice of renouncement was published in the Gazette in May 2008 and other Britons have followed suit.

Michael Evans, 66, branded baptising children as "a form of child abuse" — and said that when he complained to the church where he was christened he was told to contact the European Court of Human Rights.

The Church of England said its official position was not to amend its records. "Renouncing baptism is a matter between the individual and God," a Church spokesman told AFP. [more]
Those of us who believe in "believer's baptism" have a certain advantage since an atheist who decided personally to be baptized would have some difficulty blaming anyone but himself for the act.

"De-baptism" appears to be another instance of atheists believing that a religious sacrament has actual power. Why go to this trouble if they think the act was meaningless?

Following atheist trend, Britons seek 'de-baptism'

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hymns

I am no musician but, as anyone who has looked as these pages would know, I thoroughly enjoy good hymns. Doctrinally solid words wedded to the right music appeal to both mind and emotion. There are, no doubt, better sources of information than those I have almost accidentally accumulated, but, in any event, here are two more that I have found very useful:

Surely the best online source for information about hymns is The Cyber Hymnal ™, including lyrics, tunes, biographies of composers and authors, scores and midis of the music. I have very seldom failed to find the information I was looking for on that site.

Another source, one that I purchased some years ago in London, now seemingly out of print, is The Penguin Book of Hymns, edited by Ian Bradley. It emphasizes Anglican hymns, but as Bradley observed in his introduction:
...[O]ne of the greatest glories of Christian hymnody is that it is a truly ecumenical enterprise. Hymn-singing really does cross denominational barriers and unite Christians of every persuasion. Roman catholics happily sing the lyrics of Charles Wesley, while Baptists and Presbyterians equally happily sing the words of John Henry Newman.
The book includes one hundred fifty hymns "from the time of the early church to the 20th century.... Each hymn is accompanied by biographical details of the author, notes on the circumstances in which the hymn was written and variant versions." There are hymns familiar in American churches like "Abide With Me," "And Can It Be," "Holy, Holy, Holy," or "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" [The Battle Hymn of the Republic], and less familiar ones [to me, at least], like Newman's "Firmly I believe and truly", with music arranged by Vaughan Williams. It is a great hymn—even if I interpret verse four differently than Newman intended.
Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.


And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified;
And each thought and deed unruly
Do to death, as He has died.

Simply to His grace and wholly
Light and life and strength belong,
And I love supremely, solely,
Him the holy, Him the strong.

And I hold in veneration,
For the love of Him alone,
Holy Church as His creation,
And her teachings are His own.

And I take with joy whatever
Now besets me, pain or fear,
And with a strong will I sever
All the ties which bind me here.

Adoration aye be given,
With and through the angelic host,
To the God of earth and Heaven,
Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

"Death of deaths and Hell's destruction"

Written in the 18th century but usually sung to a 20th century tune, Cwm Rhon­dda, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" is perhaps the most famous hymn to come out of Wales. "I am weak, but Thou art mighty" is an essential confession if we are truly to depend on Him for guidance and deliverance and, ultimately, joyful eternity "on Canaan's side."
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.

Lord, I trust Thy mighty power,
Wondrous are Thy works of old;
Thou deliver’st Thine from thralldom,
Who for naught themselves had sold:
Thou didst conquer, Thou didst conquer,
Sin, and Satan and the grave,
Sin, and Satan and the grave.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and Hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.
From Frank Colquhoun's A Hymn Companion:
William Williams, the author, is the foremost figure in the story of Welsh hymnody. Converted as a young man through the preaching of the revivalist Howel Harris, he took holy orders in 1740; but three years later he left the Established Church and spent the rest of his life as an itinerant evangelist. By all accounts he was a great preacher; but he was an even greater poet and has deservedly been called the poet laureate of the Welsh revival.

"Guide me, O thou great Jehovah" was published in Welsh in 1745. The English translation by Peter Williams (no relation) appeared in 1771. The imagery of the whole hymn is drawn from the story of the Exodus and the Israelites' journey through the wilderness to the promised land. Thus the `Bread of heaven' (v. i) refers to the manna (Exod. 16:4-18; John 6:30-36); `the crystal fountain' to the water from the smitten rock (Exod. 17:4-6). For `the fiery, cloudy pillar' see Exodus 13:21; and for `the verge of Jordan' see Joshua 3:14-17. Probably few people who sing the hymn realise that in the words `Death of death and hell's Destruction' Christ is being addressed. He himself is the destroyer of death, the vanquisher of hell (2 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 1:17-18).
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A clear line between good and evil

Tony Woodlief reminds us that Bram Stoker's Dracula was really evil — while the vampires in books and movies today are "like gays and lesbians — people just like you and me who are marginalized only because of their sexual tastes." In "Twilight Chic" at NRO, he argues that there is value in having genuinely unsympathetic and evil monsters in our entertainment:
.... We have fully reversed the symbolism of Stoker’s vampire, who represented a demonic assault on a virtuous community. Today’s vampire is the hip Other.... The modern vampire is in touch with his sexuality, but the community suppresses it. The modern vampire is coming to take away your girlfriend, and she kind of likes it. The modern vampire is the guy you wish you had been in high school, or the guy you wish you’d dated in high school....

The trouble with this evolution is that fictional monsters serve a valuable cultural purpose. They remind us that we live in communities, and that our communities must be defended from those who would rend them asunder. ....

By inverting the traditional vampire tale, so that the community is predatory and the monster an object of empathy if not admiration, we have found one more avenue along which to push the tired idea that community is, rather than a source of life and happiness, a locus of oppression. The Twilight series simply carries our modern love affair with the undead to its natural conclusion; the lovelorn vampire and the object of his infatuation get married and make a baby. ....

I’m all for multiculturalism, but this is too much. As Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Likewise, sometimes the Other isn’t a cool countercultural rebel who puts a thrill up your leg, he is a monster who wants to suck your blood or, if he is technologically savvy and has a religious ax to grind, blow up your kids’ school bus. I’m not worried that the modern vampire movie will lead filmgoers to agitate for reconciliation with Osama bin Laden just because the terror master of 9/11 is also pale, has a funny accent, lives in a cave, and is a bloodthirsty egomaniac. But I do think there is value in entertainment that draws a clear line between good and evil.

.... [M]aybe they could use reminding that creatures that prey on communities don’t often make cool boyfriends. Because there are monsters, Virginia, and sometimes they just need killing. [more]
Twilight Chic by Tony Woodlief on National Review Online

Friday, March 27, 2009

"Who do we welcome? Who do we leave out?"

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher who is on the faculty at the University of Chicago, is interviewed for Books & Culture about how we should think about those with physical and mental disabilities. Part of the interview:
.... Do you dismiss the claims of various would-be parents who report they decided to have an abortion not only out of concern for their own lives, but also out of concern for what the lives of their offspring would be like?

I think that's a very dangerous tender-heartedness, a misconstrued understanding of where compassion and empathy ought to lie. There's a wonderful discussion in Walker Percy's novel The Thanatos Syndrome of a Catholic priest's experiences in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, where he heard all the arguments put forward already then about how in the name of compassion we had to end the suffering of people with disabilities. "If you were them, you would want us to kill you," was the reasoning. The first Nazi programs to eliminate the "unfit" targeted people with disabilities rather than Jews.

The notion of aborting a Down syndrome pregnancy because of what the child would go through is an argument I'd strenuously resist. It suggests that one has no experience with or knowledge of people with Down syndrome who are brought up in families as participants in their communities. There was a story in The New York Times not long ago about a sister who spent her life with a brother with Down, whose parents were told he was a Mongoloid idiot who'd live to be ten. Well, he is now fifty. In the past, of course, children with Down often didn't live past ten, because they were put in horrible places and ignored.

People who live among us with multiple disabilities overwhelmingly are happy they're alive. If they didn't want to be here, you'd think there would be an unusually high rate of suicide among them, those who can think through that and are physically capable of it. But we don't see that. You can see mutual enrichment that comes from our encounters with them. And yet I think for some people there's a bit of a stigma attached: I'm not as perfect as I hope to be if the child I brought into this world has problems; it's embarrassing. I think some of that still lingers too.

What do you say to the argument that allowing people with disabilities onto this planet places an undue burden on society?

That's the old utilitarian calculation. It's entirely illegitimate because it suggests that the strong and able-bodied have more right to the things of the earth than those who are weak and not able-bodied. If you believe in the moral quality of persons, that's obviously not an argument you can credit. In practice, it's also a very dangerous argument because it's been made historically for warehousing people or euthanizing people. The Nazi programs had prudential utilitarian reasoning as well. Plus I suspect it's the powerful and the strong and the rich who use up more of the world's resources than the weak and the not-so-powerful. It's a matter of asking ourselves: Who do we welcome? Who do we leave out? Are we the kind of community whose members extend themselves in friendship and recognize the moral worth of beings who don't look like us and don't act like us and cannot achieve like us and who will have claims on our care for their entire lives? .... [more]

Who Counts? - Books & Culture

Aquinas and just war

Introducing a column about moral issues surrounding the war in Iraq, Keith Pavlischek cites just war theory:
Thomas Aquinas reflected on the question, “Whether it is always sinful to wage war?” in Summa Theologica Part II, Question 40. His short answer was “No.” A war would be just, he argued, if three conditions were met:
First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior....

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault....

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil....
When teaching the unit on theory in my high school International Relations class, I always included "just war theory" as one of the choices, along with pacifism and the "no rules apply" approach. The rules also include limits on what may be done during combat - even more difficult to apply in practice. Students, whether religious or not, generally agreed that moral limits of some sort were better than none. There were almost no consistent pacifists in the classes - although there were those who opposed every possible actual war.

Something like Aquinas' categories must be part of the thinking of any Christian who is not a pacifist — which would mean the vast majority of Christians.

First Things » Blog Archive » Thomas Ricks vs. Thomas Aquinas

"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed"

R.R. Reno writes about David Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies in the current First Things. Hart is concerned with "the preachers and 'tireless tractarians' of 'the gospel of unbelief'” and finds them lacking compared with earlier atheist champions. "'By comparison to these men,' writes Hart, referring to the serious atheists, 'today’s gadflies seem far lazier, less insightful, less subtle, less refined, more emotional, more ethically complacent, and far more interested in facile simplifications of history than in sober and demanding investigations of what Christianity has been or is.'" From the article:
In itself unbelief is not something to dismiss, and certainly many unbelievers compel attention and respect. “But,” as Hart writes.., “atheism that consists in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism.” ....

Hart goes on to show how...cartoonish pictures of Christian persecution, intolerance, and lust for religious warfare cannot stand up to judicious historical analysis. To these topics he adds some very important observations about our supposedly modern, rational, and progressive age. “We live now,” he writes, “in the wake of the most monstrously violent century in human history, during which the secular order (on both the political right and the political left), freed from the authority of religion, showed itself willing to kill on an unprecedented scale and with an ease of conscience worse than merely depraved. If ever an age deserved to be thought an age of darkness, it is surely ours.” ....

We live in a culture eager to put Christianity behind it. What does this augur? By David Hart’s reckoning, we can see nothing terribly promising. .... [A]s Hart notes, “the highest ideals animating the secular project are borrowed ideals,” that is to say, borrowed from the Christian culture out of which modernity sprang. ....

What happens when the borrower denounces the lender? Hart contemplates an answer at the end of the book, in a passage worth quoting at length:
I am apprehensive, I confess, regarding a certain reactive, even counter-revolutionary, movement in late modern thinking, back to the severer spiritual economies of pagan society and away from the high (and admittedly “unrealistic”) personalism and humanism with which the ancient Christian revolution colored - though did not succeed in wholly forming - our cultural conscience. Peter Singer’s meltingly “reasonable” advocacy of prudential infanticide, for instance, naturally reminds one of the ancient world’s practice of exposing supernumerary infants (though lacking the ancient piety that left the ultimate fate of the abandoned child to the gods). It seems to me reasonable to imagine that, increasingly, the religion of the God-man, who summons human beings to become created gods through charity, will be replaced once again by the more ancient religions of the man-god, who wrests his divinity from the intractable material of his humanity, and solely through the exertions of his will. Such a religion will not in all likelihood express itself through a new Caesar, of course, or a new emperor or Führer; its operations will be more “democratically” diffused through society as a whole. But such a religion will always kill and then call it justice, or compassion, or a sad necessity.
.... [more]
FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » For Christ and For the World

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"I don't care nothin' about none of those people"

Bob Dylan, with Tom Petty, sings about his hero:

When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
Did they knew He was the Son of God, did they know that He was Lord?
Did they hear when He told Peter, "Peter, put up your sword"?

When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When they came for Him in the garden, did they know?
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?

Nicodemus came at night so he wouldn't be seen by men,
Saying, "Master, tell me why a man must be born again."
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?
When He spoke to them in the city, did they hear?

When He healed the blind and crippled, did they see?
When He healed the blind and crippled, did they see?
When He said, "Pick up your bed and walk," why must you criticize?
"Same thing My Father do, I can do likewise"

When He healed the blind and crippled, did they see?
When He healed the blind and crippled, did they see?
Did they speak out against Him, did they dare?
Did they speak out against Him, did they dare?

The multitude wanted to make Him king, put a crown upon His head.
Why did He slip away to a quiet place instead?
Did they speak out against Him, did they dare?
Did they speak out against Him, did they dare?

When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
He said, "All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth."
Did they know right then and there what that power was worth?

When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
When He rose from the dead, did they believe?
Thanks to Ray Ortlund for the reference. Update 3/27: In the Clearing posts another performance from the same concert, "When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky." YouTube - Bob Dylan & Tom Petty - In the Garden, Bob Dylan - In The Garden Lyrics

"He'l fear not what men say"

One of my favorite hymns is "He Who Would Valiant Be," Percy Dearmer's reworking of John Bunyan's poem, set to Vaughan William's Monk's Gate. I was browsing through Frank Colquhoun's A Hymn Companion, came across his description and was reminded that the original words were a bit different:
Who would true Valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will Constant be,
Come Wind, come Weather.
There's no Discouragement,
Shall make him once Relent,
His first avow'd Intent,
To be a Pilgrim.

Who so beset him round,
With dismal Storys,
Do but themselves Confound;
His Strength the more is.
No Lyon can him fright,
He'l with a Gyant Fight,
But he will have a right,
To be a Pilgrim.

Hobgoblin, nor foul Fiend,
Can daunt his Spirit:
He knows, he at the end,
Shall Life Inherit.
Then Fancies fly away,
He'l fear not what men say,
He'l labour Night and Day,
To be a Pilgrim.

Part of what Colquhoun says about the hymn:
It comes from the second part of Pilgrim's Progress, 1686, and is connected with Mr Valiant-for-Truth. This brave man tells Greatheart about his pilgrim life, of the trials he has met with, of the battles he has fought and won. At this point in the story Bunyan inserts the song. It is important to note that the words are not put into the mouth of Valiant, as though he were boasting of his valour and pointing to himself as an example. The words are not his but Bunyan's. Before proceeding with the story the author directs the reader to `come hither' and take a good look at Valiant so as to see in him a picture of a courageous and victorious pilgrim.

This is the purpose of the song. The first stanza stresses the need for constancy in the face of discouragements; the second describes the fearless spirit with which the pilgrim must meet and conquer his foes; and the third points to the goal of the journey, the life eternal which is the pilgrim's heavenly inheritance.
I have accumulated several books recounting the origins of hymns. This one, now apparently out of print, is one of my favorites.

Sabbath Recorder, April 2009

The April, 2009, Sabbath Recorder is available online here as a pdf.

This Sabbath Recorder has several articles about Baptist and Seventh Day Baptist history. The occasion is the celebration of the generally recognized anniversary of the appearance of Baptists as a distinct group among other English Protestants. Two articles describe some of the issues surrounding that event as well as describing the "Landmark" Baptist position. Another view of Baptist origins was previously noted on this blog here.

Continuing the historical emphasis, there are articles describing the 175th anniversary of the Hebron, PA, SDB church and the 300th anniversary of the oldest, continuously existing American Seventh Day Baptist congregation, The First Seventh Day Baptist Church of Hopkinton in Ashaway, RI.

This Recorder also includes:
  • a biography of Rev. Alexander Campbell by Don Sanford
  • an argument for keeping the "Baptist" name by Rob Appel
  • the monthly column by President Ed Cruzan
  • and much more.
The Sabbath Recorder is the magazine of the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference and has been regularly published in some form since 1844.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

No substitute for monogomy and fidelity

Benedict XVI has been widely criticized for his opposition to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa. It doesn't seem to occur to the critics that his opposition has little to do with the Catholic opposition to artificial contraception in marriage. British Jesuit Michael Czerny explains:
In Europe and North America, where condoms are culturally accepted by many, people ask incredulously, ‘Why on earth does the Church oppose their promotion?’ Some with muddled thinking have even accused Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI of presiding over an AIDS genocide. ....

...[A]ccording to prevention experts, a condom, when it is correctly used, can reduce the risk of HIV-infection during an act of intercourse, and individuals who use condoms consistently are less likely to give or get HIV. When a man and woman have sex before, within or outside marriage, public health is unconcerned with the morality of what they do in the privacy of the bedroom. Culturally and legally, in Europe and North America, there is considerable acceptance for sexual behaviour as long as it is consensual, that is, provided the two individuals both agree. In this context, the condom seems common sense. Western opinion makers and media really want the Church to approve of extramarital sex, which is against the religious faith and traditional cultural values shared by millions throughout the world.

.... Doing something wrong might be safer with a condom but safety doesn’t make the act right. The Church cannot encourage ‘safer’ without suggesting that it is somehow right. To say, ‘Do not commit adultery but, if you do, use a condom’ is tantamount to saying: ‘The Church has no confidence in you to live the good life.’

A man and woman, not married to each other, who have consensual intercourse are disregarding the Church’s teaching. They hardly need the Pope to tell them to use a condom. What they badly do need is for the Church to help them live a respectful and responsible sexuality. ‘Abstinence and fidelity are not only the best way to avoid becoming infected by HIV or infecting others, but even more are they the best way of ensuring progress towards lifelong happiness and true fulfilment.’ [more]

Thanks to Insight Scoop for the reference.

Moreover, as an interview in Christianity Today with Edward C. Green, described as "one of the world's leading field researchers on the spread of HIV..." and "director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project," demonstrates, promoting condoms isn't even effective if the moral concerns are disregarded:
Is Pope Benedict being criticized unfairly for his comments about HIV and condoms?
This is hard for a liberal like me to admit, but yes, it's unfair because in fact, the best evidence we have supports his comments — at least his major comments, the ones I have seen.
What does the evidence show about the effectiveness of condom-use strategies in reducing HIV infection rates among large-scale populations?
It will be easiest if we confine our discussion to Africa, because that's where the pope is, and that is what he was talking about. There's no evidence at all that condoms have worked as a public health intervention intended to reduce HIV infections at the "level of population." .... Major articles published in Science, The Lancet, British Medical Journal, and even Studies in Family Planning have reported this finding since 2004. I first wrote about putting emphasis on fidelity instead of condoms in Africa in 1988. ....
Is there any country in Africa with a high HIV infection rate that has implemented new programs and seen infection rates fall? If so, what strategies are being followed?
I'm glad you asked this. We are seeing HIV decline in eight or nine African countries. In every case, there's been a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners. Ironically, in the first country where we saw this, Uganda, HIV prevalence decline stopped in about 2004, and infection rates appear to be rising again. This appears to be in part because emphasis on interventions that promote monogamy and fidelity has weakened significantly, and earlier behavior changes have eroded. There has been a steady increase in the very behavior that once accounted for rates declining — namely, having multiple and concurrent sex partners. There is a widespread belief that somehow Uganda had fewer condoms. In fact, foreign donors have persuaded Uganda to put even more emphasis on condoms. .... [more]
A human and spiritual wake-up call [Thinking Faith - the online journal of the British Jesuits], Condoms, HIV, and Pope Benedict | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"The what..., not the how"

Ariel James Vanderhorst, in the current Touchstone [subscribe here], notes some controversy about what C.S. Lewis thought about the Atonement. [If you are a Lewis admirer, you will want to read it all.] I've quoted a few paragraphs below, beginning with Lewis from Mere Christianity:
We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.
Doggedly, Lewis emphasized the what of the Cross, not the how. ....

In The Way into Narnia, Peter Schakel writes that “as he constructed the episode of Aslan’s death, Lewis inevitably found himself dealing with the question, ‘Why did Aslan die?’” In every way, Aslan’s death and return to life is the climax of the story. When the great lion appears, joyous and alive, the gruesome stone table breaks in half, and Lucy and Susan ask Aslan what it all means:
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge only goes back to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”
The poetic beauty of this scene has caused tears to flow from thousands of Evangelical eyes, and rightly so: The death and shocking resurrection of Christ is pictured with a clarity and originality that defies convention. But as Jacobs queries in The Narnian, “Really, what sort of explanation is that? Why should things be this way? How does the death of the ‘willing victim’ take the traitor from the clutches of the Witch? And how can the magic that frees the traitor be older than the magic that condemns him?” Instead of questioning Aslan’s explanation, Lucy and Susan immerse themselves in his presence. And Jacobs notes, this is because “it is not the explanation that matters: it is the sacrifice itself—and the new life it brings.” ....

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be the sterling example of Lewis’s distinctive Atonement position. Not content to define Christianity with theories or to subscribe to any one of them, Lewis attempted to tap the “mythic” qualities he found in the true story of Christ. ....

Lewis himself saw “theories,” as such, as dispensable; he did not subscribe to penal substitution as it is set forth in Evangelical circles today. However, if the name-calling and precipitate adoption of Lewis into various theological circles is any indication, he succeeded in his central purpose: to display a romping Aslan, a mythic dying God who really returned to life—and to make the image stick.

"I am not accustomed...."

Trevin Wax, a Baptist, has been reporting on his attendance at a Catholic mass. Today, he reflects on what he thought positive and negative about what he experienced. One of the positive aspects:
The Scripture readings formed the high point of the service for me. I am not accustomed to hearing so much Scripture read aloud in church. The first man read a passage from Isaiah which foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ.

The second person to read was an elderly woman. She read from Philippians 2, about Christ humbling himself and then being raised and exalted by God. A woman sang a spine-tingling rendition of Psalm 22, complete with repetitive “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” lines.

Finally, we read the entire Passion narrative from Mark’s Gospel, beginning with Mark 14 and continuing all the way to Christ’s burial at the end of Mark 15. A man to the right of the stage read the narration, the priest said the words of Jesus, the woman to the left of the stage read the other voices in the narrative, and whenever the crowd in the passage spoke, so did the entire audience. This was a creative way to read the Passion narrative. I felt as if I were there, in the crowd, shouting “crucify him” and “come down from the cross.”
And from one of the comments:
It is my impression that we in evangelical circles treat the Word of God as if it cannot stand on it’s own - it must be expounded in order to be useful. We would deny that but we arrange our services as if it’s true. I am thankful for the preached and taught Word, but there is also a vital place for the Word being read and sung. This is one thing that we can and should learn from the Catholics.
It could also be learned from Anglicans, Lutherans, and many others. In my lifetime the use of Scripture in Baptist worship has actually diminished. Responsive and unison readings have disappeared from the service. There is something wrong when we quite properly elevate the importance and authority of Scripture, but at the same time it increasingly disappears from public worship.

Visiting a Catholic Church 2 « Kingdom People

Monday, March 23, 2009

Impact

Shaun Groves reports on what Phil Vischer concluded after the collapse of his company:
After the financial collapse of Phil‘s company Big Idea Entertainment, makers of Veggie Tales, Phil explained the belief system that had driven him to make the motion picture that caused it all:
God would never call us from greater impact to lesser impact! Impact is everything! How many kids did you invite to Sunday school? How many souls have you won? How big is your church? How many videos/record/books have you sold? How many people will be in heaven because of your efforts? Impact, man!
He began questioning this belief system:
The more I dove into Scripture, the more I realized I had been deluded. I had grown up drinking a dangerous cocktail - a mix of the gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American dream… The Savior I was following seemed, in hindsight, equal parts Jesus, Ben Franklin, and Henry Ford. My Eternal value was rooted in what I could accomplish.
He eventually concluded that the Christian life “wasn’t about impact; it was about obedience.”
The quotations are from The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity

Thanks to Jared Wilson for the reference.

The NEW ShaunGroves.com - Shlog

Sunday, March 22, 2009

For the little guy

In the 1970s Richard John Neuhaus was an anti-war, pro civil rights, Great Society liberal. By the time he died, liberals were labeling him "neo-conservative." Robert P. George explains that when abortion became a defining issue in American politics, and later, when it seemed that liberals wanted to drive religion out of the "public square," it was liberalism that had changed far more than had Neuhaus.
.... It is important to remember that in those days it was not yet clear whether support for “abortion rights” would be a litmus test for standing as a “liberal.” After all, the early movement for abortion included many conservatives, such as James J. Kilpatrick, who viewed abortion not only as a solution for the private difficulties of a “girl in trouble,” but also as a way of dealing with the public problem of impoverished (and often unmarried) women giving birth to children who would increase welfare costs to taxpayers.

At the same time, more than a few notable liberals were outspokenly pro-life. In the early 1970s, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, for example, replied to constituents’ inquiries about his position on abortion by saying that it was a form of “violence” incompatible with his vision of an America generous enough to care for and protect all its children, born and unborn. Some of the most eloquent and passionate pro-life speeches of the time were given by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. In condemning abortion, Jackson never failed to note that he himself was born to an unwed mother who would likely have been tempted to abort him had abortion been legal and easily available at the time.

The liberal argument against abortion was straightforward and powerful. “We liberals believe in the inherent and equal dignity of every member of the human family. We believe that the role of government is to protect all members of the community against brutality and oppression, especially the weakest and most vulnerable. We do not believe in solving personal or social problems by means of violence. We seek a fairer, nobler, more humane way. The personal and social problems created by unwanted pregnancy should not be solved by offering women the ‘choice’ of destroying their children in utero; rather, as a society we should reach out in love and compassion to mother and child alike.”

So it was that Pastor Neuhaus and many like him saw no contradiction between their commitment to liberalism and their devotion to the pro-life cause. On the contrary, they understood their pro-life convictions to be part and parcel of what it meant to be a liberal. They were “for the little guy”—and the unborn child was “the littlest guy of all.” [more]

FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » He Threw It All Away

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Nothing to lose but our chains?

Roger Scruton misses the old humanism of his parents' generation, at least in comparison to the new humanism of Richard Dawkins and the London bus slogan: "There probably is no God; so stop worrying and enjoy life." At least the old humanists believed in virtue and self-discipline.
.... Like so many modern ideologies, the new humanism seeks to define itself through what it is against rather than what it is for. It is for nothing, or at any rate for nothing in particular. Ever since the Enlightenment there has been a tendency to adopt this negative approach to the human condition, rather than to live out the exacting demands of the Enlightenment morality, which tells us to take responsibility for ourselves and to cease our snivelling. Having shaken off their shackles and discovered that they have not obtained contentment, human beings have a lamentable tendency to believe that they are victims of some alien force, be it aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, capitalism, the priesthood, or simply the belief in God. And the feeling arises that they need only destroy this alien force, and happiness will be served up on a plate, in a garden of pleasures. .... [more]
The American Spectator : The New Humanism

Beyond the Wild Wood ....

Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind in the Willows, was born 150 years ago this March. Meghan Cox Gurdon wonders whether the book still holds up as one to read aloud to young children:
I think it is fair to say that The Wind in the Willows remains a genuine classic, without which no one can emerge from childhood with complete cultural literacy. It’s not so fundamental as a fairy tale; Toad’s deceits, funny as they are, don’t rank alongside Cinderella or Rapunzel for resonance or durability. Nor does it mark a child an ignoramus not to know that it was Ratty who famously said there is “nothing—absolute nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Yet Kenneth Grahame’s idyll nonetheless belongs in that quirky canon of books that are essential furnishings in the mind of the educated child.

On the same shelf you would find, inter alia, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It’s no crime to dislike any of them, but not to know them is to have gaps in one’s knowledge. ....

Half the pleasure of Grahame’s story is the way he writes it; his descriptions of nature, at their best, get at its beauty with delightful precision. Much loved and quoted, for example, is this early passage in which Mole throws off spring cleaning, strikes out on a walk, and suddenly finds himself at the edge of a river: “Never in his life had he seen a river before—this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again.” ....

For those families who read aloud and often, there is no real question: Of course you must read The Wind in the Willows, and if you happen to skip the odd elaborate descriptive paragraph, well, who’s to know? ....
And if you don't have young children, read it again yourself. It is one of those "children's" books that can be enjoyed as much, or more, by adults. And, for my money, the best illustrator was Ernest H. Shepard who also created the definitive illustrations for the Pooh books.

National Review, April 6, 2009, pp.45-47.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Heresies

My introduction to the distinction between Christian orthodoxy and heresy came when, still a teenager, I came across Modern Heresies: A Guide to Straight Thinking About Religion by John M. Krumm in the Milton College Library where I worked part time. I read it, then bought it, and it has been in my personal library ever since [the image is of my copy]. Krumm, later an Episcopal bishop, was at the time [1961] chaplain at Columbia University. He stated his purpose in the preface:
...Modern Heresies sounds as if we purposed to pillory by name the major perversions of Christianity which flourish today as modern cults and to denounce them roundly and warn the faithful against their perils. That has not been the intention, and the author apologizes for any betrayal of the readers' hopes. Our aim has been rather to justify the fundamental notion of orthodoxy and heresy and to show why some such distinction is inevitable if one is to speak and think about Christianity in a way that does not do violence to the fundamental Christian experience of salvation in Christ. To make orthodoxy reasonable and to show the basic inconsistency involved in the major heresies of the faith, especially as they appear in our own time, has been the author's ambition. ....
It was a good primer for me at that point in my life. Some of the excerpts used on the dustcover give a sense of why it was as enjoyable to read as it was informative:
  • Perhaps our experience with democracy has misled us into thinking that God is not so much the eternal King of creation as just a candidate seeking that office.
  • The heresy which lurks behind the otherwise welcome revival of Christian healing is the unwillingness to accept the inevitability of death.
  • Isn't Deism in its image of an uncommunicative and withdrawn God open to the charge of imagining God as a Person fit only for radical psychoanalysis?
  • A friend of mine once compared the modern world's attitude toward God to the kind of deference which a parish priest pays to a rector emeritus—it is pleasant to have the old fellow about, and on ceremonial occasions he graces the head table.
I still enjoy dipping into it.

Today Scott McKnight has begun blogging his way through a recent book, Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe. He describes the book as:
...an edited collection of readable, brief, and incisive chapters on various heresies: Arianism, Docetism, Nestorianism, Eutychianism, Adoptionism, Theopaschitism, Marcionism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Gnosticism, Free Spirit, and the book closes with a study of Bibical Trinitarianism and the purpose of being orthodox. ....

One of the editors of this fine book is Ben Quash, an Anglican priest, a professor at King's in London, and the canon theologian at Coventry. The other editor is Michael Ward, an Anglican priest and writer and former chaplain at the coolest college in Cambridge: Peterhouse. Quash wrote the Prologue.

He opens with a definition: "A heretic is is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith"....
Sounds interesting for some of the same reasons Modern Heresies was—I've ordered it.

I belong to a denomination that doesn't hunt heretics. We are "non-creedal." Our Statement of Belief is intended to be descriptive of what most of us actually believe rather than prescriptive. When our last doctrinal statements were adopted about a generation ago, I recall having a conversation with a pastor who was upset that the statement on God was trinitarian. He said we were "reading him out of the denomination." I assured him that we were not—that, in fact it was up to him to decide whether he wanted to associate with a bunch of people with whom he fundamentally disagreed. He wouldn't [couldn't] be kicked out. Orthodoxy is important—whether enforced by some central authority or not. I am pleased that our Statement falls within those boundaries. I would be as uncomfortable among a people who could not affirm the faith as he apparently was among those who could.

Our Collective Faith and Heresies 1 - Jesus Creed

Infant baptism, sin, and honest ecumenism

The only immediately controversial statement in Mark Dever's "What I CAN and CANNOT Live With as a Pastor" [see the previous post] was what he said about baptizing infants:
Infant baptism. I cannot live with infant baptism. Having said that, if I were the pastor of the only church allowed in Mecca, maybe… But even then, I simply lack the authority to admit someone to the Lord’s Table who has not been baptized. It is, as one said not too long ago, “above my pay-grade.” I have many dear paedo-baptists friends from whom I have learned much. Yet I see their practice as a sinful (though sincere) error from which God protects them by allowing for inconsistency in their doctrinal system, just as he graciously protects me from consistency with my own errors.
There were those who thought "sinful" much too strong a term. This caused Dever to respond and expand on his position:
That statement, much to my surprise, has caused concern among some. That a Baptist thinks infant baptism is wrong was no news to earlier generations of paedobaptists. Today, it seems to be a surprise. Now, the truth is out, all of these years, I have been cooperating with those I take to be sinners—Ligon Duncan, Peter Jensen, Phillip Jensen, Philip Ryken, J. I. Packer and many others too numerous to name—sinners specifically on this point of infant baptism. ....

Some may think that such a "wrong" should not be called a sin. I understand a sin to be disobedience to God (regardless of intent). When I read Numbers 15:29-30 and Hebrews 9:7 I certainly see that Scripture presents some sins as being deliberate, and others as being unintentional. I certainly do not think my paedobaptist brethren are intentionally sinning in this. In fact, they even think that they are obeying God so, short of them changing their understanding of the Bible's teaching on this, I can't expect any "repentance," because they lovingly but firmly disagree with the Baptist understanding of this.

Nevertheless, as I understand the words of Christ in Matt. 28:18-20 Christians are commanded to baptize and to be baptized, and the practice of infant baptism inhibits the obedience of what I take to be a quite straightforward command. I understand explanations that have been given about the practice of infant baptism (Orthodox/Roman, Lutheran and Reformed) but am sincerely persuaded that none of them line up with God's own Word. This does not cause me to doubt the sincerity of my reformed paedobaptist brethren, nor even their judgment in general. It is simply that on this point they've got it wrong, and their error, involving as it does a requiring of something Scripture does not require (infant baptism), and the consequence of a denying of an action Scripture does require (believers baptism) is sinful (though unintentionally so). ....

Of course, my paedobaptist brethren may very well think that I am in sin in withholding from children the sign of God's gracious covenant. I understand and regret the disagreement, but am well used to it by this point, and look forward to heaven, where all our disagreements will be composed. .... I see no inconsistency in working with others who hold precious the same Gospel, regardless of what other disagreements we may have. [more]
An unoffended believer in infant baptism responds.

Update: Abraham Piper:
.... Dever also believes that these "unrepentant sinners" can be our brothers in Christ (even though they are not permitted in our fellowship). He points out that he is going to have both an Anglican and a Presbyterian in his "Baptist pulpit" in the next few months.

It seems that Dever has a category for an unrepentant Christian. But what about 1 John 3:8?
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.
The words "unrepentant sin" can come across as relatively benign, but the Apostle John wants to make perfectly clear what they mean: if you are unrepentantly sinful, you are "of the devil." And there is no such thing as a Christian who is of the devil.

What does this mean for those who are wrong about baptism?

It means just that—they're wrong. But being wrong and being an unrepentant sinner are not the same. If they were, everybody with an imperfect theology (all of us) would be lost. But instead of going to hell, a believer can come before God with humility and repentance and say, "I'm weak-minded and fallible. I'm sorry that I do not understand you like I should. Please help me to know you more.".... [more]
What I CAN and CANNOT Live With as a Pastor - 9Marks, Church Matters: The 9Marks Blog, Are Paedobaptists Unrepentant? :: Desiring God

Truth and readiness

At Church Matters, Mark Dever addresses "What I CAN and CANNOT Live With as a Pastor." Actually, he is considering how a pastor should decide what he can tolerate in the church he serves. It isn't either prudent or wise to take on every issue in the same way.
Something can be true, yet we can decide as pastors that our congregations are not ready to act tomorrow in a way they might be ready to act in a year. Jesus himself declined to answer all the questions the disciples put to him, for the reason that they could not yet bear some truths.

I’m not suggesting that you be deceptive, but simply that you explain things to your congregation as they are ready to hear them.

So, given that long warning, what things can I and can’t I live with as a pastor? Let me throw out a bunch of different examples that are relevant to my particular situation: organs, female elders, universalism, altar calls, humor, multi-site campuses, drums, the KJV, stained glass, racism, infant baptism, no formal membership, sermons limited to 10 minutes, large and high pulpits, TV studio-like acoustics. My goal in what follows is not to give you a sacrosanct playbook, but to illustrate how I go about thinking through practical matters. Let’s take each one in order.
And he does then proceed to give his take on each issue - and they are issues in many churches. At the end of the post he indicates the criteria that should be applied in deciding whether and how to take something on.
.... Here are three questions we as pastors should always ask. First, is the matter biblical? I can live with practices that are commanded or exampled in the New Testament church. I’ll start asking hard questions about practices that are not. ....

Second, does the matter deny or confuse the gospel? I cannot live with things that explicitly deny the gospel, things that threaten the gospel, or things that blur it. Admittedly, it's not always clear how big of a threat something is to the gospel. Most people don't think polity is something that's relevant to the gospel. I do. ....

Third, is the congregation ready? That is, are they mature enough to follow where you lead? If not, you may only do more damage by quickly “leading” in that direction. Truly leading an immature congregation might mean moving very, very slowly. How many young pastors, feeling convicted of conscience to “lead” immediately, do in fact fail to lead because they don’t first take the time to understand and love the ones they mean to lead! ....
Often the most divisive issues in a church are those regarding worship because everyone experiences it. So I was particularly interested in how Dever approaches those topics. For instance:
  • Organs. I can live with an organ. I can live without an organ. I can even live with an organ that’s too loud. But I don’t want to! Organs are not in the Bible. Congregational singing is. Any accompaniment which smothers and thereby discourages congregational singing should be reformed or eliminated. Given the financial and emotional commitments that are represented in organs, movement for change here should be slow.
  • Altar calls. I can live with altar calls. This is a longer conversation, but you must first realize how your congregation views them. If they are lightly invested in them, you can probably remove them fairly soon and easily. If they are the emotional highpoint of the service, then you probably need to spend some time changing the language you use about them, and then, over time, educate the congregation that Jesus called people to repent of their sins and to trust in him. The physical motion to which he called them was not walking down an aisle but taking up the cross.
  • Drums. I can live with drums. Like organs, if they are overpowering and actually discourage congregational singing, then I would prefer not to live with them for long. No instrument should discourage the biblical practice of congregational singing. But here, as in so many other places, teach before you act, and certainly before you call the congregation to act.
  • Stained glass. I can live with stained glass, stone buildings, cross-shaped narthexes and wooden pews. In fact, all of the traditional European style churchy architecture has both pros and cons. You should never assume your building is necessary for the mission that God has given your congregation, but neither will an aspect of the building normally prohibit you from fulfilling that mission.
  • Sermons limited to 10 minutes. I can live with this. For a while. Though it would be an ill sign of that congregation’s health. Or telling about the previous pastor’s ministry. I would certainly like to see the church’s appreciation of and desire for God’s preached word to grow.
  • TV-studio-like acoustics. I can live with acoustics which increase the sound from the front (a.k.a. “stage”) and muffle the sound of the congregation (a.k.a. “audience”), but I don’t want to! Everything this communicates about the assembly is wrong. But this is how they build church auditoriums in these highly amplified days. Natural light is gone! Video projection is in! ARGH!! A living community of people loudly singing and hearing each other is one of the greatest means of edification on this side of eternity. Come to think of it, it’s so good that, unlike the video clip, it keeps being used over on the other side as well!
The biggest controversy over this post by Dever was about infant baptism. That next.

What I CAN and CANNOT Live With as a Pastor - 9Marks

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Red letters

Mark Bertrand on the origin of putting Our Lord's words in red letters in the Bible and the not necessarily beneficial implications:
The red letter edition doesn't go back as far as you might think. .... [A] guy named Louis Klopsch came up with the idea. ....
On June 19, 1899, the now Dr. Louis Klopsch was writing an editorial for the Christian Herald when his eyes fell upon Luke 22:20 and the words: "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you." Dr. Klopsch realized that these were the words of our Saviour when he instituted the Lord's Supper. Reasoning that all blood was red, he asked himself, "Why not a red letter Bible with the red words to be those of our Lord?" Dr. T. Dewitt Talmadge, pastor of the Brooklyn Temple where Louis and his father worshipped, encouraged him greatly by saying, "It could do no harm, and it most certainly could do much good."
.... Printing Christ's words in red ink is a pious and helpful thing to do, since it calls the reader's attention to the really important parts of the Bible. Well, yes and no. Depending on your view of inspiration, that dichotomy between the best bits and the rest can be truly unhelpful. If you believe that all Scripture is equally inspired, and that instead of opposing one passage to another, it's necessary to read them in harmony, then privileging the red letters above the rest is a tricky thing to do. You end up reinforcing the idea that the red sections teach something essentially different than all the others.

Now, obviously, if you believe the words of Christ are more authoritative than the rest of the Bible, and even at odds with other parts, then a red letter edition makes perfect sense. ....[more]
Bible Design and Binding

Power not bound by any laws

For much of the world the Twentieth Century was ghastly. The two incredibly destructive world wars weren't even the worst of it. Utopian regimes like Mao's China, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union killed far more people than all the wars in the name of making a better world. In a review of a book about research in Stalin's archives, Gary Saul Morson helps us understand the "idealism" of the totalitarian.
During a famine, Lenin ordered his followers not to alleviate but to take advantage of mass starvation:
It is precisely now and only now when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy.
“can (and therefore must)”: Leninist and Soviet ideology held not just that the end justifies any means, but also that it was immoral not to use the utmost cruelty if that would help. And it was bound to help in at least one way—intimidating the population. From the beginning, terror was not just an expedient but a defining feature of Soviet Communism. ....

Trotsky was simply voicing a Bolshevik truism when he rejected “the bourgeois theory of the sanctity of human life.” In fact, Soviet ethics utterly rejected human rights, universal justice, or even basic human decency, for all concepts that apply to everyone might lead one to show mercy to a class enemy. In Bolshevism, there is no abstract justice, only “proletarian justice,” as defined by the Party. ....

In his copy of Lenin’s works, Stalin underlined his predecessor’s descriptions of the dictatorship of the proletariat:
The dictatorship is power depending directly on force, not bound by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is power won and supported by the force of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, power not bound by any laws.
The Great Purges have puzzled scholars because they seemed to be directed at no particular group; local officials were given arrest quotas to fill as they saw fit. But precisely because of their senselessness, the Purges served the function of letting everyone know that no law would ever protect them. One usually thinks of a repressive regime as one that deals ruthlessly with dissenters, but in Soviet Russia no one was ever safe. ....

Marxism-Leninism claims to be materialist, but, in fact, it is governed by ideas. It is the idea of social constructionism—certainly not empirical reality—that led Stalin and so many since to treat people as the wholly redesignable products of their environment, as so much sausage.

Stalinism was idealist in another, even more terrifying sense: it aimed at controlling from within the very thoughts we think. In a toast delivered on November 7, 1937, at the height of the Terror, the Great Helmsman swore to destroy every enemy:
Even if he was an old Bolshevik, we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!
Even the worst of the tsars never thought of punishing relatives for a criminal’s acts. But what is truly remarkable about this toast is the promise to murder people and their kin for thoughts. One must live in continual fear of one’s own mind. ....
And yet there are those who think it cool to wear the hammer and cycle or an image of Che.

Update 3/21: From the April 6 issue of National Review:
Adidas has been marketing a hat showing the hammer and sickle. How do they sell you the hat? They say, “Show your love for the former USSR during training time.” Yeah, feel the burn, show your love—for a brutal system that killed tens of millions and immiserated many more. Well, at least Adidas has given us something to wear with our Che shirts.
The lingering stench: airing Stalin’s archives by Gary Saul Morson - The New Criterion

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Duke

John Nolte reports on the results of a poll asking "Who is your favorite movie star?":
No, it’s not any of those celebrities we’re told are stars. DiCaprio and George Clooney didn’t even make the top 10. Neither did Ashton Kutcher, Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, Seth Rogen, Matt Damon, Will Farrell, or Tom Cruise.

Every year for about 15 years now, Harris Interactive has conducted a nationwide poll and asked a very simple question: “Who is your favorite movie star?” And every year since the taking of the poll one particular individual has placed in the top ten — 13 of those years in the top 3.

This year, 2,388 U.S. adults were surveyed and this star rose three places to tie Will Smith for third. Only Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood rank as more popular. ....

Here’s the 2009 rundown:
Denzel Washington
Clint Eastwood
John Wayne
Will Smith
Harrison Ford
Julia Roberts
Tom Hanks
Johnny Depp
Angelina Jolie
Morgan Freeman
.... Wayne was the most popular and enduring star while alive and remains so today because he also represents honesty, justice, truth, liberty, America, fighting for what you believe in, integrity, chivalry, and most importantly in this awful era of the metrosexual, Wayne represents good ole’ give-a-punch/take-a-punch/have-a-drink-and-laugh-about-it-later masculinity. .... [more]
Big Hollywood » Blog Archive » Guess Who’s the Third Most Popular Movie Star in America Today?

A God Who suffers with us

Christianity in its theological variety is growing rapidly in Africa. Unfortunately, one of the fastest growing varieties is the "health and wealth" prosperity gospel that John Piper so forcefully denounced as a false gospel here. Today Benedict XVI, on his way to Cameroon, responded to a question about that kind of "gospel."
We, unlike some of them, do not announce a Gospel of prosperity, but Christian realism. We do not announce miracles, as some do, but the sobriety of Christian life. We are convinced that all this sobriety and realism which announce a God Who became man (therefore a profoundly human God - a God Who also suffers with us) gives meaning to our own suffering. .... The announcement of prosperity, of miraculous healing, etc., may do good in the short term, but we soon see that life is difficult, that a human God, a God Who suffers with us, is more convincing, truer, and offers greater help for life.
He, of course, does not deny that God does miracles. But a "prosperity gospel" is just as materialistic and earthbound as any secular utopian panacea. The gospel is much more than that.

Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: Benedict XVI answers questions on way to Cameroon

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Family, community, vocation, and faith.

What is it that causes a person to decide that his life was worth living? And what happens to a culture when its people don't look beyond self-interest—narrowly understood—for that sense of purpose? Charles Murray, in "The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism", thinks Europe demonstrates the answer and that we, led by our elites, are following the same path.
.... I start from this premise: A human life can have transcendent meaning, with transcendence defined either by one of the world’s great religions or one of the world’s great secular philosophies. If transcendence is too big a word, let me put it another way: I suspect that almost all of you agree that the phrase “a life well-lived” has meaning. That’s the phrase I’ll use from now on.

And since happiness is a word that gets thrown around too casually, the phrase I’ll use from now on is “deep satisfactions.” I’m talking about the kinds of things that we look back upon when we reach old age and let us decide that we can be proud of who we have been and what we have done. Or not.

To become a source of deep satisfaction, a human activity has to meet some stringent requirements. It has to have been important (we don’t get deep satisfaction from trivial things). You have to have put a lot of effort into it (hence the cliché “nothing worth having comes easily”). And you have to have been responsible for the consequences.

There aren’t many activities in life that can satisfy those three requirements. Having been a good parent? That qualifies. A good marriage? That qualifies. Having been a good neighbor and good friend to those whose lives intersected with yours? That qualifies. And having been really good at something—good at something that drew the most from your abilities? That qualifies. Let me put it formally: If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes.

It is not necessary for any individual to make use of all four institutions, nor do I array them in a hierarchy. I merely assert that these four are all there are. The stuff of life—the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships—coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness—occurs within those four institutions.
Does the European-style social welfare state weaken these institutions? Murray [along with others] argues that it does. The loss of meaning and purpose in life has literally dispiriting consequences.
...Last April I had occasion to speak in Zurich, where I made some of these same points. After the speech, a few of the twenty-something members of the audience approached and said plainly that the phrase “a life well-lived” did not have meaning for them. They were having a great time with their current sex partner and new BMW and the vacation home in Majorca, and saw no voids in their lives that needed filling.

It was fascinating to hear it said to my face, but not surprising. It conformed to both journalistic and scholarly accounts of a spreading European mentality. Let me emphasize “spreading.” I’m not talking about all Europeans, by any means. That mentality goes something like this: Human beings are a collection of chemicals that activate and, after a period of time, deactivate. The purpose of life is to while away the intervening time as pleasantly as possible.

If that’s the purpose of life, then work is not a vocation, but something that interferes with the higher good of leisure. If that’s the purpose of life, why have a child, when children are so much trouble—and, after all, what good are they, really? If that’s the purpose of life, why spend it worrying about neighbors? If that’s the purpose of life, what could possibly be the attraction of a religion that says otherwise?

The same self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When life is a matter of whiling away the time, the concept of greatness is irritating and threatening. What explains Europe’s military impotence? I am surely simplifying, but this has to be part of it: If the purpose of life is to while away the time as pleasantly as possible, what can be worth dying for?

I stand in awe of Europe’s past. Which makes Europe’s present all the more dispiriting. And should make its present something that concentrates our minds wonderfully, for every element of the Europe Syndrome is infiltrating American life as well.

We are seeing that infiltration appear most obviously among those who are most openly attached to the European model—namely, America’s social democrats, heavily represented in university faculties and the most fashionable neighborhoods of our great cities. We know from databases such as the General Social Survey that among those who self-identify as liberal or extremely liberal, secularism is close to European levels. Birth rates are close to European levels. Charitable giving is close to European levels. There is every reason to believe that when Americans embrace the European model, they begin to behave like Europeans. ....
If we are not to go the way of the Europeans, we need to attend to those aspects of American culture that made us different.
...Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a famous book describing the nature of that more fundamental exceptionalism back in the 1830s. He found American life characterized by two apparently conflicting themes. The first was the passion with which Americans pursued their individual interests, and made no bones about it—that’s what America was all about, they kept telling Tocqueville. But at the same time, Tocqueville kept coming up against this phenomenal American passion for forming associations to deal with every conceivable problem, voluntarily taking up public affairs, and tending to the needs of their communities. How could this be? Because, Americans told Tocqueville, there’s no conflict. “In the United States,” Tocqueville writes, “hardly anybody talks of the beauty of virtue…. They do not deny that every man may follow his own interest; but they endeavor to prove that it is the interest of every man to be virtuous.” And then he concludes, “I shall not here enter into the reasons they allege…. Suffice it to say, they have convinced their fellow countrymen.”

The exceptionalism has not been a figment of anyone’s imagination, and it has been wonderful. But it isn’t something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away. .... [more]
Murray says much more in an important argument. Read it all.

The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism — The American, A Magazine of Ideas