Friday, April 30, 2010

Not a tame God

From Eric Metaxa's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this in a letter to his brother-in-law:
If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New Testament but also in the Old Testament.
Thanks to John Starke for finding this.

Bonhoeffer and Where God is to Be Found - TGC Reviews

Good points

Justin Taylor posts a recent "tweet":
If Jesus answered all your prayers from the last 30 days, would anything change in THE World or just YOUR world.
Update: Another from the same blog, quoting Alan Jacobs:
There is no such thing as “spirituality.” Doesn’t exist, has no meaning. It’s just a name for “doing what I want to do and feeling that the universe somehow smiles on me for doing it.”
Your Prayer Life – Justin Taylor, “Spirituality” – Justin Taylor

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"The only kind of discipline that's out of bounds"

I just received my copy of The Loser Letters, and have read the first several chapters. I'm liking it. P.J. O'Rourke's blurb may be a bit over the top:
As a Christian humorist, Mary Eberstadt is the rightful heir and assignee of C.S. Lewis, and her heroine in The Loser Letters is the legitimate child (or perhaps grandchild) of "the patient" in The Screwtape Letters.
But the book, so far, is very good. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter. The "Brights" are, of course atheists [self-labeled] so Christians are the "Dulls." The author is a convert to atheism, but thinks its most prominent advocates need to improve their arguments if they wish to appeal to the young. This is part of what she advises they keep in mind about sex:
The bottom line is, after everything that's happened since the Sexual Revolution, I'm telling You that we Atheists really need to knock off all the happy talk about how fantabulously liberating sex is. Privacy, privacy, privacy is everybody's mantra — as if that word settles anything at all! It's messed up, isn't it, when You think of how otherwise puritanical our own times are, that the Church's notion of sexual discipline should seem so funny to so many people? After all, it's the only kind of discipline that's out of bounds! We all know that people who eat too much are pigs, people who drink too much are drunks, people who don't exercise are slobs and parasites on the body politic what with all their health costs, and people who smoke are just as disgusting as it's possible to be, like an old person crossed with a fat one wearing a fur coat and eating venison and cake at the same time or something — and the rest of us are all really put out at every single one of those kinds of people for being such slobs and so hard on our own eyes and wallets. You know?

Yet sex behind closed doors, just as the Dulls point out, has more serious consequences for the world than any of these other kinds of piggishness. It's those "private acts" outside of marriage that have sent illegitimacy soaring and put so many kids in the rough hands of Mom's rotating boyfriends. It's consenting adults who have turned AIDS and STDs into global health problems. All this is to say nothing of the consequences that are harder to measure of all those mature adults doing as they please "in private". And kids know all about those kinds of consequences, as You can see if You ever look at their music and movies and Facebook pages. There's a backlash out there that none of You seem to know about — one You might call Ozzie and Harriet, come back — all is forgiven! I would go even further, based on what I saw as a Dull, and say that this notion of sexual discipline and its importance is not only serious rather than unserious; it is also what pulls many of the Dulls into practicing or even turning to religion in the first place, because they feel somehow better about life when it's lived inside of those rules.

Please understand that I'm not criticizing here! Cheering for pornography and omnivorous sex and, by extension, broken homes and abused and screwed-up kids and all the rest of the Sexual Revolution's fallout may not be everyone's thing; but most of You new Atheist guys have definitely made it Yours. I respect all that! I'm just saying for now that we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that the believers' sexual codes are an unmitigated bad on them and a plus for us, when most evidence suggests it's quite the other way around. .... [the entire letter is online here]
The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism. By Mary Eberstadt.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"If I swell against Thee..."

I have acquired a new edition of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, my earlier copy having been damaged. It is identified as "The Elizabethan Prayer Book" because it was adopted early in the reign of Elizabeth I. It has been the basis for every edition of the prayerbook since. This edition includes a "History of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer," which explains Elizabeth's role in its adoption, including information about her Christian convictions. She was a rather learned lady who was able to read and write in English, French, Latin, Greek and Italian and apparently read from Erasmus's Greek New Testament every day. She wrote prayers in all of those languages. One of the English ones is quoted:
O Lord God Father everlasting, which reigneth over the Kingdoms of men, and givest them of Thy pleasure: which of Thy great mercy hast chosen me Thy servant and handmaid to feed Thy people and thine inheritance: so teach me, I humbly beseach Thee, Thy word, and so strengthen me with Thy grace, that I may feed Thy people with a faithful and a true heart; and rule them prudently with power.

O Lord, Thou hast set me on high, my flesh is frail and weak. If I therefore at any time forget Thee, touch my heart O Lord that I may again remember Thee. If I swell against Thee, pluck me down in my own conceit.

Create therefore in me O Lord a new heart and so renew my spirit that Thy law may be my study, Thy truth my delight: Thy church my care: Thy people my crown.


[John E. Booty, editor, The Book of Common Prayer 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book, University of Virginia Press, pp. 332-333.]

Above Suspicion

I spent an enjoyable ninety minutes last evening watching a newly acquired DVD from Warner Archive, Above Suspicion [1943] based, fairly faithfully, on Helen MacInnes 1941 bestseller. The book was MacInnes' first. It and the film came out during World War II but are set, mostly  in Germany and Austria, in 1939 just before the beginning of the war that September.

From an online review of the book by a D. Nowak:
Above Suspicion, the novel by Scottish author Helen MacInnes, is an entertaining, light yet surprisingly incisive spy thriller about a young British couple from Oxford, Richard and Frances Myles, who are enlisted as undercover agents at the onset of World War II. (MacInnes' own husband was a don at Oxford.) ...[T]hey are hired precisely because they appear “above suspicion,” although their mission is not without risk. ....  Like their film counterparts, Richard and Frances Myles have an enchanting, loving relationship with Frances matching her husband in brains, wit, nerve and athleticism. Their romance is pure champagne. (“[Richard] felt that wave of emotion which came to him when he looked at Frances in her unguarded moments; and he had the bleak horror which always attacked him then when he thought how easy it might have been never to have met her.”) The action builds to a great cat-and-mouse chase and satisfying conclusion. This novel ranks among the best of the World War II vintage novels I’ve read.

I enjoyed both the film and original novel. The film did a great job in capturing the flavor of the novel and its characters while adding many hokey yet fun MGM touches. The book affords a more realistic window into Europe at the early stages of Nazism with its grim implications, but both versions are fast-paced and escapist with courageous, charming protagonists.
I read the book long ago and re-read it last year, but don't remember ever having seen the film. Warner Archive is an on-demand producer of DVDs that Warner apparently doubts would be commercially viable otherwise. I've ordered several from them and have yet to be disappointed with either the movies or the quality of the DVDs. They are bare-bones, film only, and not digitally re-mastered.

From an early review of the film in The New York Times:
...[I]t recounts the misadventures of a professor and his bride, to whom is given an errand for the British Secret Service just as they are departing for a honeymoon on the Continent. Arriving in Paris, they are at once involved in a shadowy search and just as shadowy threats that follow them. The maid in the hotel is a vaguely disturbing creature, a phrase about roses brings them a guide-book with a mysterious message in code, a torn page from a Liszt concerto provides a clue to the assasin of a German bully, a collection of chessmen leads on to the ultimate goal. And after threading through a labyrinth of clues and hints a trap is sprung, and the chase comes into the open with cars roaring down the road toward the Italian frontier.

It is all carried off very deftly, thanks to the cagey direction of Richard Thorpe and to a neatly constructed script. From the very beginning, the director has managed to create and to sustain the suspense of an innocent young couple entering a world where no one is to be trusted and where friend and foe are apt to act alike. Once or twice he makes the audience his confidant a little too quickly, but for the most part he keeps a sure hand on the progress of the plot. All the actors do well. Fred MacMurray carries off his role with the quiet ease of a long-experienced actor, and Joan Crawford, after a couple of pretentious roles, is a very convincing heroine. The late Conrad Veidt must have enjoyed this sabbatical from his portraits of thin-lipped villainy; here he plays a sort of underground Robin Hood who bobs up in various guises just when the professor needs him most. Basil Rathbone, Reginald Owen, Johanna Hofer and others do admirably in lesser roles. Among them, they have made a sound and completely entertaining thriller. [T.S., N.Y. Times. August 6, 1943]
Above Suspicion, Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Too much information

In the world of my parents, and still in the society in which I grew up, reticence was a virtue. Recently, more than once, I have found it necessary to explain why I was not exhibiting more emotion in circumstances where others thought I really should. When, and with whom, should one "share" personal information? Christine Rosen on "The Death of Embarrassment":
...[O]ne young Manhattan resident recently complained in the New York Times, "Everywhere I go, people are fondling each other as if the entire city were a cheap motel room." At work, over-sharing is becoming as vexing an office problem as gossip. Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Bernstein wrote recently of the challenge of erasing from her mind the image of a colleague who, in pursuit of his bicycling hobby, described "shaving his entire body to reduce aerodynamic drag." We have even devised an acronym - TMI, or "Too Much Information" - to capture the uncomfortable experience of listening to people natter on about their personal problems.

What ever happened to embarrassment? Why are an increasing number of us comfortable bringing our private activities - from personal hygiene to intimate conversation - into public view? Bernstein and others place some of the blame on the desensitization wrought by reality television and social networking sites like Facebook, both of which traffic in personal revelation. ....

.... Pier Forni, who founded The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University thirteen years ago, recently told Obit magazine, "We are more and more concerned with our own pursuit of personal goals. As we engage in a mad rush for the attainment of our personal goals, we don't seem to have the time or see the point of slowing down for the purpose of being kind to others." Nor have we yet found the right balance between connecting with others and TMI. So the next time you feel like sharing the details of your upcoming bunion surgery with your coworkers, resist. You will not only avoid potential personal embarrassment, but you might just make one small step toward improving civility for us all. [more]
The Death of Embarrassment — Features — In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues by the John Templeton Foundation

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Loser Letters

The Loser Letters
Paul Mirengoff liked The Loser Letters. I think I might, too. Mirengoff:
The Loser Letters consists of letters written by A.F. (A Former) Christian to the leading atheists of our time. As her name suggests, Ms. Christian, a confused 20-something, is a former believer who has become an atheist. She fancies herself as atheism's only convert. The idea here (pretty much true, I think) is that people generally don't convert to atheism, as they convert to religion, but instead drift into it.

As a convert, Ms. Christian wants above all to be helpful to her new cause. Thus, her letters take the form of advice to atheism's leading lights - men of a certain age - about how atheism can win converts among her generation and among women generally. She focuses in particular on those arguments raised by believers that she thinks are the major obstacles to consigning "The Loser" (God) to the rubbish heap.

This premise enables Eberstadt to argue the key issues in the debate over atheism in the tragicomic tones of 20-something female-speak. Consequently, The Loser Letters never becomes didactic (and certainly not metaphysical in the bad sense). The touch is simultaneously light and profound - more profound because of the touch of lightness.

To those who enjoy books that debate the existence of God, I recommend The Loser Letters. To those who are skeptical about such books, I recommend The Loser Letters.
Power Line - "The Loser Letters" -- a winner

Cowardice and rot

I am not a fan of South Park precisely because it is so offensive. I would prefer a society with a certain reluctance about giving offense - enforced by a culture of civility, not by government. Ross Douthat nails the real problem with the Comedy Channel's censorship:
...[E]ven Parker’s and Stone’s wildest outrages often just blur into the scenery. .... Our culture has few taboos that can’t be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.

Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.

This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that “bravely” trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.

...[I]f a violent fringe is capable of inspiring so much cowardice and self-censorship, it suggests that there’s enough rot in our institutions that a stronger foe might be able to bring them crashing down. (emphasis added) [more]
Ross Douthat - Not Even in South Park?

"A bold and uncompromising witness"

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyJustin Taylor interviews Eric Metaxas, author of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and gets some clarification about "religionless Christianity":
What he meant by that is completely and shockingly different from what people have said he meant! This is another reason I’m so excited about people reading my book. For decades this has been misunderstood, and it’s muddied his legacy. What Bonhoeffer meant was that the German church had failed. Hitler’s rise and the horrors that attended that rise—especially in the Holocaust—were proof of that. Bonhoeffer was saying that the Church must really be the Church, must be a bold and uncompromising witness to Jesus. But what they had mainly been up to that point was merely “religious” in the negative sense. The difference between the dead religion of the German churches and the “religionless Christianity” of real faith in Jesus Christ is the difference between fig leaves (“dead religion”) and the Blood of Jesus Christ. One was a sham that did nothing. It certainly didn’t fool God. The other was the only thing that could stand against evil. “Religionless Christianity” was true faith and obedience to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in every sphere—not just some circumscribed “religious” sphere, but in every sphere of life. People have gotten this so wrong it’s staggering. I hope that will change once and for all when they read my book.
An Interview with Eric Metaxas on Bonhoeffer – Justin Taylor

Sunday, April 25, 2010

When we are in error...

From the 1559, or Elizabethan, Book of Common Prayer:
ALMIGHTY God, which showeth to all men that be in error the light of Thy truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness: Grant unto all them that be admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion, that they may eschew those things that be contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as be agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
Collect for the Third Sunday after Easter, Book of Common Prayer, 1559.

"Disregard your feelings; trust his promise..."

From Basic Christianity by John R.W. Stott:
Are you a Christian? A real and committed Christian? Your answer depends on another question - not whether you go to church or not, believe the creed or not, or lead a decent life or not (important as all these are in their place), but rather this: which side of the door is Jesus Christ? Is he inside or outside? That is the crucial issue.

Perhaps you are ready to open the door to Christ. If you are not sure whether you have ever done so, my advice to you would be to make sure, even if (as someone has put it) you will be going over in ink what you have already written in pencil.

I suggest that you get away and alone to pray. Confess your sins to God, and forsake them. Thank Jesus Christ that he died for your sake and in your place. Then open the door and ask him to come in as your personal Saviour and Lord.

You might find it a help to echo this prayer in your heart:
'Lord Jesus Christ, I acknowledge that I have gone my own way. I have sinned in thought, word and deed. I am sorry for my sins. I turn from them in repentance.

I believe that you died for me, bearing my sins in your own body. I thank you for your great love.

Now I open the door. Come in, Lord Jesus. Come in as my Saviour, and cleanse me. Come in as my Lord, and take control of me. And I will serve as you give me strength, all my life. Amen.'
If you have prayed this prayer and meant it, humbly thank Christ that he has come in. For he said he would. He has given his word: 'If any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him....' Disregard your feelings; trust his promise; and thank him that he has kept his word.
John R.W. Stott, Basic Christianity, William B. Eerdmans, 1974, p. 129

Walking in the will of God

St. Augustine wrote “Love God and do as you please” because as you grow in love for God what pleases Him will become what pleases you. A portion of the last chapter from Kevin DeYoung's Just Do Something:
The will of God isn’t a special direction here or a bit of secret knowledge there. God doesn’t put us in a maze, turn out the lights, and tell us, “Get out and good luck.” In one sense, we trust in the will of God as His sovereign plan for our future. In another sense, we obey the will of God as His good word for our lives. In no sense should we be scrambling around trying to turn to the right page in our personal choose-your-own-adventure novel.

God’s will for your life and my life is simpler, harder, and easier than that. Simpler, because there are no secrets we must discover. Harder, because denying ourselves, living for others, and obeying God is more difficult than taking a new job and moving to Fargo. Easier, because as Augustine said, God commands what He wills and grants what He commands.

In other words, God gives His children the will to walk in His ways–not by revealing a series of next steps cloaked in shadows, but by giving us a heart to delight in His law.

So the end of the matter is this: Live for God. Obey the Scriptures. Think of others before yourself. Be holy. Love Jesus. And as you do these things, do whatever else you like, with whomever you like, wherever you like, and you’ll be walking in the will of God.
The Whole Duty of Man – Kevin DeYoung

Friday, April 23, 2010

Religionless Christianity

Joseph Loconte reviewed a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. The review suggests that some of those who admire Bonhoeffer have misunderstood just where he stood: "...he made unreserved obedience to Jesus—in every realm of life—the mark of authentic belief. 'If we worry about the dangers that beset us, if we gaze at the road instead of at him who goes before, we are already straying from the path.'" More from the review:
In April 1933, during the early months of Nazi rule in Germany, the "Aryan Paragraph," as it came to be called, went into effect. A new law banned anyone of Jewish descent from government employment. Hitler's assault on the Jews—already so evidently under way in his toxic rhetoric and in the ideological imperatives of his party—was moving into a crushing legal phase. German churches, which relied on state support, now faced a choice: preserve their subsidies by dismissing their pastors and employees with Jewish blood—or resist. Most Protestant and Catholic leaders fell into line, visibly currying favor with the regime or quietly complying with its edict.

Such ready capitulation makes the views of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian in Hitler's Germany, all the more remarkable. Within days of the new law's promulgation, the 27-year-old pastor published an essay titled "The Church and the Jewish Question," in which he challenged the legitimacy of a regime that contravened the tenets of Christianity. The churches of Germany, he wrote, shared "an unconditional obligation" to help the victims of an unjust state "even if they [the victims] do not belong to the Christian community." He went further: Christians might be called upon not only to "bandage the victims under the wheel" of oppression but "to put a spoke in the wheel itself." Before the decade was out, Bonhoeffer would join a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and pay for such action with his life. ....

Since the 1960s, some of Bonhoeffer's admirers have seized upon a phrase from one of his letters—"religionless Christianity"—to argue that he favored social action over theology. In fact, Bonhoeffer used the phrase to suggest the kind of ritualistic and over-intellectualized faith that had failed to prevent the rise of Hitler. It was precisely religionless Christianity that he worried about. After a 1939 visit to New York's Riverside Church, a citadel of social-gospel liberalism, he wrote that he was stunned by the "self-indulgent" and "idolatrous religion" that he saw there. "I have no doubt at all that one day the storm will blow with full force on this religious hand-out," he wrote, "if God himself is still anywhere on the scene." .... [more]
Book review: Bonhoeffer - WSJ.com

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tulips and blue sky

Experimenting with a new camera. This is the Wisconsin capitol building on a beautiful spring day.

"When true simplicity is gained..." it can be expensive

Charlotte Allen discovers the simplicity movement, which seems to complicate rather than simplify life. Its devotees do, however, get to feel morally superior to the rest of us, while spending a lot more money. From "Not Really Simple" in In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues:
.... Welcome to the simplicity movement, the ethos whose mantras are "cutting back," "focusing on the essentials," "reconnecting to the land" - and talking, talking, talking about how fulfilled it all makes you feel. Genuine simple-living people - such as, say, the Amish - are not part of the simplicity movement, because living like the Amish (no iPod apps or granite countertops, plus you have to read the Bible) would be taking the simple thing a bit far. Modern simplicity practitioners like Jesus (although not quite so much as they like Buddhist monks, who dress more colorfully) because he wore sandals and could be said to have practiced alternative medicine, but they mostly shun religious movements founded in his name. Thus, simplicity people are always eager to tell you how great the Amish are, growing their own food (a highly valued trait among simplicity people), espousing pacifism (simplicity people shy away from even just wars), and building those stylishly spare barns (aesthetics rank high in the simplicity movement), but really, who wants to have eight kids and wear those funny-looking hats? ....

Hunting is usually taboo in the simplicity movement because it involves guns (hated by the professionally simple) and exploitation of animals (ditto). However, if you're hunting boar in the upscale hills ringing the San Francisco Bay so as to furnish yourself a "locally grown" boar paté, as does Berkeley professor and simplicity movement guru Michael (The Omnivore's Dilemma) Pollan, or perhaps to experience an "epiphany," as another well-fixed Bay Area boar hunter recently told the New York Times, you're doing a fine job of returning to the simple life. ....

Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that's dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound - plus UPS shipping. At farmer's markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of "artisanal" gelato.

Wealthy and well-born people admiring - and sparing themselves no expense in convincing themselves that they're cultivating - the virtues of humble folk is nothing new. Two millennia ago, Virgil, in his Georgics, heaped praise upon the tree pruners and beekeepers whom he likely could see toiling in the distance while he sipped wine on the veranda of his wealthy patron, Maecenas. .... [more]
Not Really Simple — Observation — In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues by the John Templeton Foundation

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Debate

Dave Branch ("Twig") and I started the debate club in my high school. There had never been a debate team in Milton [at least for many years] and our adviser didn't have a clue. In our first debate all our speeches were entirely written out. We soon learned better with a little tutoring from experienced and generous debaters from  Whitewater High School. The debate topic, as best I can recall, was whether Medicare should be adopted. That was in 1962. This account in a recent book seems to indicate that some things may not have changed very much:
In the world of high-school debate, the nerd can be king. A face full of pimples, a black three-piece suit and an encyclopedic knowledge of this week's Economist might be more than enough to condemn a 15-year-old to a lonely existence in the school cafeteria, but if combined with a quick mind and a sharp tongue those are the trappings of royalty at a high-school debate tournament. Belonging to the debate team even provides a certain refuge in the rough-and-tumble of high school itself.

"Debaters are not, cannot be cool. Even at an elite, academically competitive school, the most popular kids are never debaters," says Mark Oppenheimer in "Wisenheimer," the cheerfully immodest account of a young smart aleck who escaped social ostracizing for his lack of cool by joining others of his kind on the debate team. ....
The picture is from the Debate Club page in my Junior yearbook. I'm on the right with my debate partner Dave Branch.

Book review: Wisenheimer - WSJ.com

In the year of Our Lord...

Sometimes political correctness is simply an exercise in futility. That would seem to be the case with the likely removal of a phrase from diplomas awarded by Trinity University in San Antonio. After reviewing how private colleges and universities, once religious, become thoroughly secularized, Albert Mohler explains why this solution solves nothing — the year on the diploma will still be indicated by a number, after all.
.... The second important dimension of the controversy is the insanity of thinking that the removal of the words “in the year of our Lord” will accomplish anything. Sidra Qureshi complains that the words are “directly referencing Jesus Christ, and not everyone believes in Jesus Christ.” Well, if those words offend anyone, how can they not be offended by the name of the university itself? Some have tried to explain the name in terms of the fact that the school had three predecessor institutions and was located in three Texas locations, but no one is denying the central fact that the word “Trinity” is a direct reference to the central Christian belief about God — and about Jesus Christ.

And what would the removal of the words “the year of our Lord” accomplish? That system of calendar dating can be traced back to Dionysius Exiguus, an abbot who in the year 525 constructed a new chart of Easter tables, changing the numbering of the years from the year one starting in 284, the year that Emperor Diocletian ascended to the throne, to what Dionysius calculated to be the year of Christ’s birth. Dionysius referred to the years after the birth of Christ as anni Domini nostri Jesu Christi (the years of our Lord Jesus Christ).

Thus, even when modern secularists try to change the language and dating customs from “A.D.” to “C.E.,” for “common era,” the date itself remains fixed with reference to the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead of “B.C.” for “before Christ,” these new agents of “tolerance” prefer “B.C.E.,” for “before common era.” But, once again, this does nothing to remove the fact that the number of the year points directly to the assumed date of the birth of Christ. ....
Update 4/22: Common sense prevails. San Antonio News:
The Trinity University Board of Trustees voted Thursday to keep the words “in the year of our Lord” on its diplomas, according to a news release from the university.

The trustees approved a resolution acknowledging the institution’s heritage and culture and affirming a campus environment that fosters respect for differing opinions, including differences in religious beliefs and practices, the release stated.

“The Board’s decision reflects its desire to continue a Trinity tradition, and the words ‘in the year of our Lord’ are appropriate for the diploma given Trinity’s history and heritage,” said Walter R. Huntley, vice chairman of the Trinity Board of Trustees.
Thanks for the update, Tom.

AlbertMohler.com – “The Year of Our Lord” — Diploma Trouble in Texas

Monday, April 19, 2010

The shot heard 'round the world

Today in 1775, at Lexington and Concord, the first shots were fired in the War for Independence.


Jules Crittenden on Patriots Day

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The "so what" question

Walter Russell Mead, an Episcopalian, addresses the question "Where Did The Mainline Go Wrong?" One of the reasons he gives seems to me the most fundamental reason any church will fail, whether mainline or evangelical, Catholic or Protestant, or any other Christian permutation.
.... The mainline churches do not seem to have thought through some of the basic conditions that allow religious organizations to thrive. Religion will not long prosper as a luxury good; it is not primarily a way that comfortable people who are basically happy with their lives can make their lives even richer and more rewarding. A sustainable religion must convince people that it is necessary to life, health and spiritual coherence. A church cannot be one club among many or one leisure activity among many; it must present itself as a bedrock necessity. Not all of its members will take the church at this estimate, but unless a critical mass of its members and leaders feel this way, a denomination (or a congregation) will be entirely dependent on outside cultural and economic forces for its health and even in the long run its survival. A successful church is not one whose pastors and other leaders think a life in church is one calling among many; a critical mass must deeply believe that this vocation is so critical that they would do it, if need be, for nothing — that they would do it if actively persecuted and flogged from town to town.

A ‘comfortable’ church can survive comfortably enough if the general social environment supports church membership and church pledging. In Eisenhower’s America, it was the ‘done thing’ to belong to church, and people went, pledged and participated. Moreover, the generation of people born around 1920 lived through the Great Depression, World War Two and the terrifying opening years of the Cold War before they turned thirty around 1950; these were serious people by and large who brought some strong convictions into the church. They were a generation who sought order and were willing to pay a price to build orderly institutions. But times changed, and the confident, affluent mainline of the 1950s has never managed to adapt.

The great question for fundamentalist and evangelical religion is the relationship of revelation to modern science. The great question for modernist and mainline religion is the 'so what' question. If members are not sinners being saved from the flames of Hell, if Christianity is not the one path of salvation offered by a merciful God to a perishing world, if a relationship with God is not the only means to surmount the challenges of each day much less to meet the great tests of life — why go to church? Why pledge? Why have the kids go to Sunday school rather than soccer practice?

If all religions are more or less true (and, presumably, therefore, all more or less false), why pay particular attention to any one of them? If the churches develop their ethical standards (sex before marriage, divorce, homosexuality, racial justice, political ideas) from secular society and the general American consensus, why go to church for anything except weddings, funerals and Christmas carols? What do you learn in church that you can learn nowhere else? What kind of relationships do you form in church that you can form nowhere else?

Why is churchgoing so important to you that you will not only go there no matter what — but that you will do everything in your power to encourage your friends and neighbors to join you? Why is church the daily bread you must have, not a lovely garnish on an already full plate?

A sustainable religion must have answers to these questions. Otherwise it will slowly fade away. .... [more]
Faith Matters: Where Did The Mainline Go Wrong? - Walter Russell Mead's Blog - The American Interest

Animal Farm

I find almost everything Chistopher Hitchens says about religion annoying if not positively offensive, but I still read him. The things he writes that I enjoy most — and often learn the most from — are essays about authors and their books like this one in The Atlantic, "The Dark Side of Dickens." Yesterday, in The Guardian, he returns to one of his favorite authors, George Orwell, and probably Orwell's most influential book, Animal Farm. Written during World War II and almost unpublished because of hostility from both the right and the left, it may be his most lasting achievement. Hitchens:
.... Probably the best-known sentence from the novel is the negation by the pigs of the original slogan that "All Animals Are Equal" by the addition of the afterthought that "Some Animals Are More Equal than Others". As communism in Russia and eastern Europe took on more and more of the appearance of a "new class" system, with grotesque privileges for the ruling elite and a grinding mediocrity of existence for the majority, the moral effect of Orwell's work – so simple to understand and to translate, precisely as he had hoped – became one of the many unquantifiable forces that eroded communism both as a system and as an ideology. Gradually, the same effect spread to Asia. I remember a communist friend of mine telephoning me from China when Deng Xiaoping announced the "reforms" that were to inaugurate what we now know as Chinese capitalism. "The peasants must get rich," the leader of the party announced, "and some will get richer than others." My comrade was calling to say that perhaps Orwell had had a point after all. Thus far, Animal Farm has not been legally published in China, Burma or the moral wilderness of North Korea, but one day will see its appearance in all three societies, where it is sure to be greeted with the shock of recognition that it is still capable of inspiring.

In Zimbabwe, as the rule of Robert Mugabe's kleptocratic clique became ever more exorbitant, an opposition newspaper took the opportunity to reprint Animal Farm in serial form. It did so without comment, except that one of the accompanying illustrations showed Napoleon the dictator wearing the trademark black horn-rimmed spectacles of Zimbabwe's own leader. The offices of the newspaper were soon afterwards blown up by a weapons-grade bomb, but before too long Zimbabwean children, also, will be able to appreciate the book in its own right.

In the Islamic world, many countries continue to ban Animal Farm, ostensibly because of its emphasis on pigs. Clearly this can not be the whole reason – if only because the porcine faction is rendered in such an unfavourable light – and under the theocratic despotism of Iran it is forbidden for reasons having to do with its message of "revolution betrayed". .... [more]
What I like about Hitchens is the quality he shares with Orwell: an unremitting hostility to political oppression.

[The book cover is from the edition I first read]

Christopher Hitchens re-reads Animal Farm | Books | The Guardian

Saturday, April 17, 2010

"A day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer"

American legislative bodies have, since before the Republic was established, asked Americans to pray for their country. In times of crisis and times of peace and prosperity Presidents from Washington to FDR to Obama have issued calls to prayer. This one was from Abraham Lincoln in 1863:
...[W]hereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord.

And, insomuch as we know that, by His divine law, nations like individuals are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole People? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!

It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this my proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th. day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer. ....
But, responding to a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in my hometown, a Federal District Court Judge has found, after all these years, that a national day of prayer is unconstitutional:
A federal judge in Wisconsin declared Thursday that the US law authorizing a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

US District Judge Barbara Crabb said the federal statute violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion.

She issued a 66-page decision and enjoined President Obama from issuing an executive order calling for the celebration of a National Day of Prayer. ....
Americans United for Separation of Church and State is happy. The Baptist Joint Committee [with which my denomination is still unfortunately affiliated] is happy. This is another absurdly extreme application of the extra-constitutional "wall of separation" doctrine. Nobody can ever be compelled to pray. Hearing a prayer is not praying. No one's liberty is is compromised by hearing or reading. This is an effort, once again, to shove religion into the closet.

Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day, Federal judge: National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional / The Christian Science Monitor - CSMonitor.com

Friday, April 16, 2010

Freedom to associate

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer whose organization has filed a brief in the case, describes what is at stake in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez which will be argued before the Supreme Court on Monday. One hopes the Ninth Circuit opinion will be rejected unanimously. Silverglate:
Can a public university force a Christian student group to accept as leaders students who explicitly reject core tenets of the group's faith? ....

The facts in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez are straightforward. The Christian Legal Society (CLS), an evangelical Christian student group, accepts all students at its functions but requires voting members and leaders to sign a Statement of Faith. The statement endorses "biblical principles of sexual morality," and it makes clear that a student who "advocates or unrepentantly engages in sexual conduct outside of marriage between a man and a woman" isn't eligible to vote for or become a group leader. ....

...[L]ast year the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals broke the trend and endorsed Hastings' exclusion of the CLS. The fallout was immediate, as Boise State University and the University of Montana de-recognized Christian organizations. Many more public colleges will follow their lead if the high court rules for Hastings. ....

If the Supreme Court decides that public colleges may deny religious groups the same rights as any other group on campus, the result will be less, not more, genuine diversity on campus. .... [more, behind a subscription wall]
One of those commenting asks:
What would stop a group of Christian students from joining a school's Muslim association and voting all Christians as leaders?
The real danger, already apparent in countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, is that anti-discrimination laws will be used to punish those who express what Christianity has always taught and what many sincerely believe the Bible teaches. Liberalism has moved a long way from "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Harvey Silverglate: Public Colleges Undermine Religious Student Groups' First Amendment Rights - WSJ.com

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Unforgivable sins

In the course of one of his diatribes about Roman Catholic hypocrisy, Christopher Hitchens, noted atheist, demonstrates his sophisticated understanding of Christian theology:
.... Yet here is an ancient Christian church that deals in awful certainties when it comes to outright condemnation of sins like divorce, abortion, contraception, and homosexuality between consenting adults. For these offenses there is no forgiveness, and moral absolutism is invoked. ....
Via Ramesh Ponnuru at NRO

Rabbi or Lord?

Anthony Sacramone:
In a recent sermon, entitled “The Judas Chromosome,” Barnes calls out a small detail in the Last Supper. Recounting the different explanations for Judas’ betrayal—greed, disappointed political ambitions—Barnes says:
Notice that when Jesus announced to the disciples that one of them was going to betray him, most of the disciples say “Surely not I, Lord.” Except Judas. Judas says, “Surely not I, rabbi,” which means “teacher.” Was that the deal? Is it that Judas thought of Jesus only as a teacher but not the Lord of his life? We don’t actually know… What we do know is that for some reason Judas took 30 pieces of silver to betray the Lord Jesus Christ.
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by that rabbi/Lord distinction. You cannot have Jesus as teacher if you don’t have him as Lord. Jesus’ teaching not only carries no authority—it doesn’t even make sense, unless it is coming from the lips of the Lord and Giver of Life. The earliest written gospel, Mark, presents Jesus as a man who forgives sins. Good luck with that if you’re not always the offended party. And who alone could always be the offended party but the one who has final authority over your life. You cannot have Jesus the Rabbi without Jesus the Lord—anymore than you can have him as just the Savior. Jesus will not be rent apart according to the peculiar emotional or psychological or professional needs of individuals.
[the Barnes he quotes is M. Craig Barnes, whose books Sacramone highly recommends.]

Jesus for Sale » Evangel | A First Things Blog

The perfect as enemy of the good

I have argued that it is not the failure to live up to an ideal that constitutes hypocrisy, but pretending to one you don't believe. Any person with moral convictions will often fail to achieve them. Should that fact mean the ideal ought to be abandoned? In a column commenting on "empathy" in judicial decision-making Jonah Goldberg makes a  related point with a broader application:
.... As former Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman put it last year: “I’ve never been sure why Lady Justice wore a blindfold as part of her permanent wardrobe. Yes, it’s supposed to be a symbol of impartiality. But it does limit her vision a bit.” For Goodman, the best judges reject the “myth” of impartiality.

Of course impartial justice is an abstraction, but it isn’t so much a myth as an ideal. Since we are all designed from the crooked timber of humanity, we can only approximate perfect justice.

What I don’t understand is why we should abandon an ideal simply because it is unattainable. If I can’t be a perfect husband, should I get a divorce? If an umpire can’t call each game flawlessly, should he stop trying? Maybe for 95 percent of pitches the ump should call ’em straight, but for the other 5 percent he should give the black or gay batters the benefit of the doubt? ....
Empathy and the Supreme Court - Jonah Goldberg - National Review Online

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Books

We didn't have a lot of books in the house when I was growing up, but Dad read to us and we could see that he enjoyed reading to himself. We did have a combined college/village library to which I was taken from an early age. When I was in fourth grade we moved across the street from it. I read my way through the children's books, then adult fiction, and then the history section. I bought books whenever I could afford them — on trips to Madison, where I spent hours in Paul's second hand bookstore, and at auctions around town. So this study makes a lot of sense to me. The ability to read is essential to any education — the ability to read well is the result of practice — and the availability of books encourages that practice.
.... After examining statistics from 27 nations, a group of researchers found the presence of book-lined shelves in the home — and the intellectual environment those volumes reflect — gives children an enormous advantage in school.

“Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics,” reports the study, recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books. ....

In most nations, survey participants (a total of more than 73,000 people) were asked to estimate the number of books in their parents’ home when they were 14 years old. The scholars compared that figure with other factors influencing educational achievement, including the education levels of one’s parents.

“Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to a home library helps the children get a little farther in school,” they report. “But the gains are not equally great across the entire range. Having books in the home has a greater impact on children from the least-educated families. It is at the bottom, where books are rare, that each additional book matters most.”

Evans and her colleagues contend the number of books at home is an excellent reflection of a family’s “scholarly culture,” which they describe as a “way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read and enjoyed.” An early immersion in such a culture “provides skills and competencies that are useful in school,” and/or engenders “a preference for and enjoyment of books and reading that makes schooling congenial, or enjoyable,” they conclude. .... [more]
Thanks to Joe Carter for the reference.

Home Libraries Provide Huge Educational Advantage

It isn't the weapon that matters

Richard Fernandez, commenting on the non-proliferation summit, points out that what matters isn't the weapon, it is who possesses the weapon.
.... About 740,000 assault rifles and pistols are stored in Swiss homes or in private possession. Nobody knows the exactly how many firearms are in circulation, but there may be up to 1.3 million firearms in Switzerland. Despite this you are more likely to be murdered by knife than by gun. “Police statistics for the year 2006 records 34 killings or attempted killings involving firearms, compared to 69 cases involving bladed weapons and 16 cases of unarmed assault. Cases of assault resulting in bodily harm numbered 89 (firearms) and 526 (bladed weapons)”

.... The country with the largest known deposits of uranium, which tested 7 nuclear devices on its soil in the 50s and whose head of government isn’t even going to attend President Obama’s nonproliferation summit won’t keep statesmen up at night. It’s Australia. ....

The danger posed by weapons is crucially dependent on their human modifiers. Guns in the hands of the Swiss are not the same as guns in the hands of a Sudanese militia. Enriched uranium in Australia is no worry; but uranium in the hands of Kim Jong Il is. ....
Belmont Club » The Third Nuclear Age

Monday, April 12, 2010

"The past isn't dead..."

Walter Russell Mead, a son of the South, reflects on the significance of the Civil War [War of the Rebellion?] still today:
It was 149 years ago today that deeply misguided Confederate hotheads rejoiced as they began the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. The Confederate cabinet in Montgomery had determined on the attack, overriding the prescient advice of Secretary of State Robert Toombs that to fire the first shot “will lose us every friend at the North. You will wantonly strike a hornet’s nest…. Legions now quiet will swarm out and sting us to death. It is unnecessary. It puts us in the wrong. It is fatal.” ....

...[T]he catastrophe unleashed by the attack on Fort Sumter still reverberates through American life today; its consequences, good and bad, are still shaping our politics and perceptions.

The latest sign that the guns still echo came last week as the governor of Virginia failed to include any reference to slavery while proclaiming April “Confederate History Month” in the state. A minor league brouhaha ensued; Governor Bob McDonald industriously backpedaled. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour couldn’t let bad enough alone, confiding to the nation that the whole flap was “a nit, it’s not significant“.

Governor Barbour is, of course, wrong. The failure to handle the memory of the most tragic and transformative event in American history with due diligence and care is a significant failure. Whatever the political consequences, serious politicians still need to approach anything having to do with the Civil War with a sensitivity and intelligence that shows they understand and respect this ordeal in its many dimensions.

The past isn’t dead, Faulkner once wrote. It isn’t even past. .... [more]
The Guns of the Civil War Still Echo In Our Heads - Walter Russell Mead's Blog - The American Interest

Stop cursing the darkness

I've always been, for good and ill, a big consumer of popular culture. I love movies. I watch a lot of TV. My musical tastes have been heavily influenced by the age in which I live. But when it comes to the Church I am inclined to be a traditionalist. An important part of the reason for that is that when Christians do modern we tend to be imitative, mediocre, and weird — while in the past Christianity actually had excellence in the arts, and that quality affected the broader culture.

Unless the faith influences the culture we are only talking to ourselves. Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, a screenwriter:
I am a political animal in many ways. It's a big hobby for me. But I have, with the rest of my generation, almost completely lost confidence that real good in society can be achieved through politics. I don't think that's the pathway to lasting good. I think that politics can clear the field for good to be done, but I don't think it actually achieves anything. I think culture is what creates good in the world. That's the realm of the artist: the storyteller, the musician, the poet.
Andrew Klavan, another screenwriter and also a novelist:
... The idea, as far as I’m concerned, is not to reshape the pop culture landscape into one of sentimental patriotism and faith or limit artists to the creation of squeaky clean family entertainment. I merely want to see more art that represents the moral universe as it is ....

But we can’t win back the arts unless we love them. Too many conservatives boast of their philistinism. “I haven’t seen a movie in years,” they brag, as if that were some sort of achievement. Too many others seek to clip the wings of artistic imagination, demanding that artists turn away from anything disturbing or violent or sexual, which is to say from much of life itself.

Artists work for love—more than they do for money—and unless we learn to celebrate and nurture what’s good in our culture, it will not grow. .... [more]
Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, again:
.... The Church, which had been the primary teaching voice in human history, has lost its voice of authority. It's just another competing voice out there now — and to tell you the truth, because the Church has shunned using the modern media, it's not even a very compelling voice.

So if you're not going into a Church, you're not hearing the Church's voice. But the Church used to be an authority that would stand up in the culture and say to you, "This is what virtue is. This is what meaning is. This is what the point of your life is. This is good and this is bad."

Where do people find those things now? They listen to television and the movies. ....

The saddest realities to look at are not Hustler magazine and Big Love. Much more tragic is what you find on EWTN and CBN, because these things are devoid of creativity and devoid of respect for the audience. They are banal. They may be produced with the best of intentions, but they have no sense of the appropriateness of the art form, of using the medium to its full potential. ....

The Church does not believe in talent anymore. We think the most important thing is that everyone feels welcome. So we sit at church and suffer through Doris and Stan, who can't sing, because we don't want to be mean. They would never get a job in Hollywood, because Hollywood has integrity about the beautiful. Or if it's not "the Beautiful" in the classical sense, at least, they value the non-lame.

So when you speak of a tension of values, well, there is the value of the Beautiful, which Hollywood understands and the Church does not, and then there are the values specifically of what is good for human beings. What is it that leads them to their fulfillment, their ultimate destiny, fulfilling their nature? Those things are missing, content-wise, in what you're seeing in a lot of the media. ....

If you're young enough, I would ask: "Why don't you throw your hat in the ring and get the best training you can get in the field you're interested in?" You need to discern if you have talent, and what level your talent puts you at. Maybe you're a talented singer, but you're only in the top 15%, so that means you should sing in Denver. If you're in the top 10%, you can sing in New York or Chicago. And then if you're in the top 5%, you can sing in Broadway. It's the same thing in the movie business. This is the major league out here, but there are many places to be an actor, and you want to become as good as you can. So find the top school you can get into, and get yourself in there.

I would also say to get your act together first, spiritually and morally. This is a very competitive, demanding field. Creative people can ask you to make choices that will define you, in a way that working for an insurance company may not. Where you have a lot of power, you're going to have requisite dangers and temptations. But this is no reason for us not to be in the middle of it. We need to get rid of the fear. Let's stop cursing the darkness and make something beautiful for the people of our time. That will go a long way. [more]
Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, who has experience in Hollywood engaged in the industry, is affiliated with Act One, which describes itself as "a community of Christian professionals for the entertainment industry who are committed to excellence, artistry, and personal holiness...."

An interview with Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, Celebrating What's Good in the Arts

Skeptical of skepticism

Christianity Today has published several responses to the Scot McKnight article, "The Jesus We'll Never Know," that I quoted at some length last Friday. McKnight argues that attempts to "get behind" the gospels to discover the real historical Jesus have reached a dead end. The responses are from other scholars in the field: N.T. Wright, Craig Keener, and Darrell Bock. They are convincing to me, perhaps because I read and taught history for so long. But also because books like F.F. Bruce's The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable? did for me what Craig Keener says here:
.... While historical methods do not answer theological questions or compel faith, I can testify that in my much younger days as an unchurched atheist, they would have invited me to consider it. ....

For example, historians would normally take very seriously biographies written within a generation or two of their subjects. I contend that if skeptics really treated the Gospels as they treat other historical documents, they would be less skeptical. Using standard historical methods, we can challenge many skeptics' doubts about Jesus. .... [more]
Thanks to Joe Carter for the references.

Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, Jesus Studies Matter | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Morbid experimentation

Anthony Sacramone asks "What’s the difference between Jack Kevorkian and Josef Mengele?" and answers "One of them’s dead."  Sacramone links to Wesley J. Smith's reminder of certain facts about Kervorkian. That post  is occasioned by the upcoming HBO film about Jack Kevorkian, You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino in the title role, which Smith anticipates will neglect  "key aspects of Kervorkian's 'career.'" Three of them:
1. Before assisting the suicides of disabled, terminally ill, and the non sick despairing, Kevorkian went to most prisons where executions are conducted asking to experiment on condemned prisoners.

5. Kevorkian did not care much about alleviating the suffering of patients, (he once said he couldn’t remember their names) but rather called it “a first step, an early distasteful professional obligation” toward obtaining a license to engage in human experimentation, writing further:
What I find most satisfying is the prospect of making possible the performance of invaluable experiments or other beneficial acts under conditions that this first unpleasant step can help establish–in a word, obitiatry–as defined earlier.” [Kevorkian liked to coin terms. Obitiatry is the word he invented to describe experimenting on people as part of the practice of human euthanasia.)
6. Kevorkian wanted to experiment on the brains and nervous systems of people he was euthanizing, writing in his 1991 book Prescription Medicide:
If we are ever to penetrate the mystery of death–even superficially–it will have to be through obitiatry…But knowledge about the essence of human death will of necessity require insight into the nature of the unique awarness of consciosness that characterizes cognitive human life. That is possible only through obitiatric research on living human bodies, and most likely by concentrating on the central nervous system. [more]
Commentary » Blog Archive » Strange Herring, They Don’t Know Jack » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Jesus we would prefer

Scot McKnight writes in Christianity Today "The Jesus We'll Never Know," about the limits of historical methodology in the quest for the historical Jesus, beginning by describing an exercise he does with his students:
On the opening day of my class on Jesus of Nazareth, I give a standardized psychological test divided into two parts. The results are nothing short of astounding.

The first part is about Jesus. It asks students to imagine Jesus' personality, with questions such as, "Does he prefer to go his own way rather than act by the rules?" and "Is he a worrier?" The second part asks the same questions of the students, but instead of "Is he a worrier?" it asks, "Are you a worrier?" The test is not about right or wrong answers, nor is it designed to help students understand Jesus. Instead, if given to enough people, the test will reveal that we all think Jesus is like us. Introverts think Jesus is introverted, for example, and, on the basis of the same questions, extroverts think Jesus is extroverted.

Spiritual formation experts would love to hear that students in my Jesus class are becoming like Jesus, but the test actually reveals the reverse: Students are fashioning Jesus to be more like themselves. If the test were given to a random sample of adults, the results would be measurably similar. To one degree or another, we all conform Jesus to our own image. ....
McKnight, himself a scholar in the field, says that historical Jesus scholars do the same thing his students do.
Historical Jesus scholars construct what is in effect a fifth gospel. The reconstructed Jesus is not identical to the canonical Jesus or the orthodox Jesus. He is the reconstructed Jesus, which means he is a "new" Jesus.

Furthermore, these scholars by and large believe in the Jesus they reconstruct. During what's called the "first quest" for the historical Jesus, in the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders's Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan's Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg's Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright's Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion. We could go on, but we have made our point: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was really like and orient their faith around that reconstruction.

This leads to a third point, one that needs renewed emphasis today: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct Jesus in conscious contrast with the categories of the evangelists and the beliefs of the church. Wright is the most orthodox of the well-known historical Jesus scholars; I can count on one hand the number of historical Jesus scholars who hold orthodox beliefs. The inspiration for historical Jesus scholarship is that the Gospels overdid it, and that the church more or less absorbed the Galilean prophet into Greek philosophical categories. The quest for the historical Jesus is an attempt to get behind the theology and the established faith to the Jesus who was—I must say it this way—much more like the Jesus we would like him to be.

One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian's genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise. ....

.... James D.G. Dunn, in both the hefty Jesus Remembered and the slender A New Perspective on Jesus, argues that the furthest we can get behind the Gospels is to the underlying strata of Jesus as his earliest followers remembered him. That is as far as we can go. That is the Jesus who gave rise to the Christian faith, and that is the only Jesus worth pursuing. In Dunn's view, the "remembered" Jesus contains the faith perspective of the earliest followers of Jesus, and behind that faith perspective we cannot go. ....
McKnight concludes
...As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can't. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. .... [more]
The Jesus We'll Never Know | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Put not your faith in ...

One of the first books I read that influenced my political thought was Conscience of a Conservative. I read and re-read my paperback copy. I learned later that it was actually written by Brent Bozell [William F. Buckley's brother-in-law], rather than by Barry Goldwater — my introduction to the idea of the "ghost-writer." [JFK didn't write Profiles in Courage, either.] Goldwater ran for President in 1964 when I was a college freshman and like a lot of young conservatives that was the first time I supported a candidate with enthusiasm, and my disappointment in his loss was severe [I've gotten over it]. I don't think Goldwater had read his book. In any event, he didn't know what conservatism is. David Mills reminds us that he was actually a certain variety of libertarian — if he was reflective about political principles at all.
While searching the web for something, I came across the Planned Parenthood site and followed a link to a group of theirs called “Republicans for Choice.” It included as a pull-out quote these words from Barry Goldwater:
A lot of so-called conservatives today don’t know what the word means. They think I’ve turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That’s a decision that’s up to the pregnant woman, not up to the pope or some do-gooders or the religious right. It’s not a conservative issue at all.
It is impossible for me to think well of someone who could say something so morally cretinous, whatever else may be said in his favor. If protecting the life of the unborn is not conservative, I don’t know what would be—or, alternatively, why anyone would care to be a conservative. And if “do-gooder” is an insult in this case, the man doesn’t know what the good really is. He has taken a position the man of basic, of normal and merely human, moral awareness does not take. ....
Goldwater and the Do-Gooders » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

Context, contradiction, and human error

"Inerrancy" has always been a rather difficult concept for me, at least partly, no doubt, because I simply don't understand what is meant by it. So when I come across a clearly written explanatory essay, like this one by Michael S. Horton, I am inclined to read it. It was helpful, and what I have understood as the authority of scripture draws much closer to what Evangelicals have defined as its inerrancy. Most of the article is a summary of points made in Inspiration, by A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield [1881]. Two of them:
First, they point out that a sound doctrine of inspiration requires a specifically Christian ontology or view of reality: "The only really dangerous opposition to the church doctrine of inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God's relation to the world, of his methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process." Just as the divine element pervades the whole of Scripture, so too does the human aspect. Not only "the untrammeled play of all [the author's] faculties, but the very substance of what they write is evidently for the most part the product of their own mental and spiritual activities." Even more than the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox were sensitive to the diverse means used by God to produce the Bible's diverse literature. This awareness has only grown, Hodge and Warfield observe, and should be fully appreciated. God's "superintendence" did not compromise creaturely freedom. In fact, "It interfered with no spontaneous natural agencies, which were, in themselves, producing results conformable to the mind of the Holy Spirit." Just as the divine element pervades the whole of Scripture, so too does the human aspect.

Far from reducing all instances of biblical revelation to the prophetic paradigm, as critics often allege, Hodge and Warfield recognize that the prophetic form, "Thus says the Lord," is a "comparatively small element of the whole body of sacred writing." In the majority of cases, the writers drew from their own existing knowledge, including general revelation, and each "gave evidence of his own special limitations of knowledge and mental power, and of his personal defects as well as of his powers....The Scriptures have been generated, as the plan of redemption has been evolved, through an historic process," which is divine in its origin and intent, but "largely natural in its method." "The Scriptures were generated through sixteen centuries of this divinely regulated concurrence of God and man, of the natural and the supernatural, of reason and revelation, of providence and grace." ....

Fifth, the claim of inerrancy is that "in all their real affirmations these books are without error." The qualification "real affirmations" is important and deserves some elaboration. The scientific and cultural assumptions of the prophets and apostles were not suspended by the Spirit, and in these they were not necessarily elevated beyond their contemporaries. Nevertheless, that which they proclaim and affirm in God's name is preserved from error. For example, critics often point to Matthew 13:32, where Jesus refers to the mustard seed as "the smallest of all seeds." From the context it is clear that Jesus was not making a botanical claim but drawing on the familiar experience of his hearers, for whom the analogy would have worked perfectly well. If every statement in Scripture is a propositional truth-claim, then there are obvious errors. A reductionistic view of language is implied at this point both in many of the criticisms and defenses of scriptural accuracy. It is unlikely that in his state of humiliation, in which by his own admission he did not know the day or hour of his return, Jesus had exhaustive knowledge about the world's plant life. Whatever contemporary botanists might identify as the smallest seed, if it were unknown to Jesus' hearers, the analogy would have been pointless. We have to ask what the biblical writers are affirming, not what they are assuming as part of the background of their own culture and the limitations of their time and place. .... [more]
Modern Reformation - The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Basically a good person

Several of my favorite films were made by the Coen brothers: The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and Miller's Crossing among them. I find those and several others eminently re-watchable — and I'll watch anything they make at least once. The most recent of their efforts I've seen is A Serious Man, and it took a few viewings before I began to appreciate it. This review, by Sonny Bunch, helped:
Many of the critiques of the latest Coen Brothers film, A Serious Man, began by comparing the struggles of protagonist Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college physics professor in the midwest, with those of Job. The New York Times' A.O. Scott, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, and the Washington Post's Anne Hornaday, among others, made reference to the Book of Job and poor Larry's varied predicaments: His wife is leaving him, a South Korean student named Clive is attempting to bribe him (and then threatens to sue Larry for defamation for pointing out that he is under an ethical obligation to report the bribe), and his world is just generally falling apart.

The point that the critical corps was making is relatively simple, that Larry is a good man who has been made to suffer a seemingly endless series of trials for no apparent reason. God, it would seem, is testing our hero. ....

As events in the film later show, however, appearances can be deceiving. An absence of bad is not the same thing as the presence of good, and herein is Larry's problem. He's so passive and so unable to take charge of his own life that it is easy to understand why such a wave of misfortune is now rolling over him. ....

It says something about the nature of our culture that so many people have simply gone along with the idea that Larry is a fundamentally decent guy and, therefore, good. It is especially shocking considering the things we actually see Larry do as the film progresses. We live in a time where the absence of evil is treated as a good unto itself, where paying your taxes, staying loyal to your spouse, and treating people decently — things that are all expected of us but not particularly praiseworthy in and of themselves — are all it takes to be considered good. It's the bigotry of soft expectations writ large, a sign that our expectations are so soft they're practically butter. .... [more]
If you've seen the film, read it all. If you intend to watch it, wait.

A Serious Man? — Review — In Character, A Journal of Everyday Virtues by the John Templeton Foundation