“Here Am I. Send Someone Else.”
Sunday, February 13, 2011, 7:29 PM

I have to give credit to my pastor, Ben Mandrell of Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, Tennessee, for this title and idea.  He plans to preach the sermon next week, but he couldn't help but give a preview in the form of a few examples.  Here are some approximations of what he said:

Lord, that family down the street seems really lonely.  Send someone to give them company and fellowship.

Father, that boy seems not to have a father.  Put someone in his life to fill that need.

Lord, that single mother in my Sunday school class appears to be in real financial distress.  A few hundred dollars would make a real difference for her.  Father, please provide for her need.

Probably most of you reading these examples are already smiling.  You see the problem, don't you?  The very fact that we have observed a real need in another person or group of persons likely means that WE ARE THE ONES GOD INTENDS TO MEET THE NEED.  

Can you be the one who invites the lonely family over to your house?  Can you offer to spend time with the boy who has no father?  Can you be the one who has the resources on hand to immediately and dramatically help the single mother in financial need?  Gut check time.  Can you do it even if you won't realize a tax deduction in the process?  

This is a spiritual challenge that we are generally not eager to accept.  If we decide to live our lives in such a way that we are very sensitive to God's promptings, we may end up giving more than we really want to give.  We may end up with lots of little incursions on our time or our money.   Maybe some big ones.

But do we seriously believe God can be pleased with us if we do not commit to exactly this way of life?  

 



The Omega Man
Monday, January 31, 2011, 11:39 AM

Saturday night I sat down with two physicists from Union University and watched Charlton Heston in The Omega Man.  The film is part of an unofficial apocalyptic trilogy which includes Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green.

First thought: Heston was still rocking his own hair in this film.  I like that.  One of the great improvements in today's Hollywood is that a guy like Bruce Willis is allowed to run around without a hairpiece.  Heston didn't need one with that great face of his.

Second thought: I have apparently never seen this film outside of running into it on cable.  Seeing it uncut on DVD is a whole new experience.  There are several scenes I don't recognize from previous viewings.

Third thought:  Though it obviously can't compete with the Will Smith remake (the third version of Richard Matheson's book I Am Legend) in terms of effects or heart-racing action, The Omega Man is a much more substantial film in terms of ideas.  Heston is holed up in his residence surrounded by artifacts of western civilization.  He is a scientist and a renaissance man.  Thanks to a last minute success, he is immune to the plague that has decimated the human population and left the overwhelming majority psychologically unstable, murderous, and mutated.  They live their waking hours at night under a cultic leader who rails against technology and progress.  Instead, he emphasizes a tribal sort of brotherhood in thrall to his own charismatic leadership.  The imagery is hard to miss.  Heston is the older, white man holding on at the apex of social achievement and trying not to fall off the mountain like the rest of the world has.  His antagonists, the Family, are a proxy for sixties radicals who want to chuck the entire civilizational project and embrace primitivism.  NEXT PARAGRAPH SPOILER . . .

The writers of The Omega Man do something interesting with the end of the movie.  Heston's character has been working successfully on a serum made from his  own blood.  Thanks to a reversal of the plague in one victim, it is clear that it works.  Heston is killed with a spear through the chest as he tries to save a young woman who is succumbing to the disease and to the siren call of the leader of the Family.  He slowly expires hanging cruciform on a fountain that turns red with his blood.  Daybreak comes and the last surviving humans come to him hoping to all leave together for the wilderness where they can start anew.  Heston's last act is to give them the serum.  They drive off, apparently saved by Heston's sacrifice.  So, Heston's character is clearly a Christ figure.  What is so intriguing is that his Christ figure is a man of science.  Faith and knowledge merge in the film's climax.

You don't get any of that in the Will Smith version which basically treats the mutated human beings as equivalent to zombies.  Again, Smith's performance is terrific, as is the entertainment and excitement value of the film, but the big ideas aren't there.

Also interesting is the fact that neither of the two big versions have run with the actual premise of Richard Matheson's book.  In Matheson's story, there is a last man remaining from civilization as we know it who spends all day every day locating the mutated humans and killing them.  He is grim in his determination to kill these creatures who now lurk in the night.  The great twist in that story . . .

SPOILER ALERT

. . . is that the man we have identified with as a hero throughout the book is finally captured.  He listens to how they talk about him and suddenly realizes that, in their view, HE is the monster.  His death will be like a kind of deliverance for them.  Quite a nice twist.  I wonder why Hollywood hasn't gone that way with the story?

 



Jordan Ballor on Ecumenical Babel
Monday, January 24, 2011, 3:35 PM

Books on the church and economics are not all that common, so I was eager to talk to the Acton Institute's Jordan Ballor, who edits the Journal of Markets and Morality, about his new volume Ecumenical Babel.

Writing a book is serious undertaking that requires a lot of motivation.  What was it that inspired you to write Ecumenical Babel?

A number of years ago I first became closely aware of the kinds of advocacy that was going on by officials at ecumenical organizations. In the meantime, while pursuing graduate work and various duties at the Acton Institute, I kept an eye on ecumenical affairs, and when the 2010 Uniting General Council of the soon-to-be-formed World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) was announced I had the idea to write something engaging the social teaching of the various ecumenical groups. The WCRC was going to be formed at a meeting here in Grand Rapids at Calvin College, so I thought that this was an event that was perfect for the launch of a project that would later become Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness. (The less-colorful working title was Ecumenical Ethics & Economics: A Critical Engagement.) As I say in the book, given my denominational background, including my current membership in the Christian Reformed Church (a member denomination of the WCRC), I have a real theological as well as spiritual interest in ecumenism, which I believe is of utmost importance in contemporary Christian life. The real promise and challenge of authentic ecumenism is undermined to a great extent by the kinds of frivolous and downright irresponsible pronouncements coming out of the mainline ecumenical groups, and this is a tragic state of affairs that I feel needs some ongoing response. Building on a line of criticism I find in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Ramsey, and Ernest Lefever, Ecumenical Babel is an opening statement in what I hope will be a renewed conversation.

Part of your argument, as I understand it, is a complaint against the practice of left-wing economics tied to the Christian faith.  You would prefer that denominational confabs leave matters of economic policy undeclared and advert to prudence, instead.  Is that a fair representation?  And if so, does your book cut into the efforts of many Christian thinkers to encourage the integration of faith with a variety of fields?

It is a fair representation, provided that it is balanced with my similar discomfort at particularly right-wing economics coming from pulpits as well as denominational and ecumenical offices. What I hope is that my book interrupts the efforts of many Christians to bring their faith to bear on public life in a facile and superficial way. I do believe that the Christian faith is relevant for all of human life. It is a vigorous and comprehensive faith. As Jesus says, he has come that we may have life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). I take this to refer to the “bigness,” the comprehensiveness and complexity, of the Christian life in this fallen world. But it is typically not the case that there is a single Christian position on particular economic or political questions, and I find that there is all too often a kind of ideological imposition on the church and its social witness. This happens both on the left and the right, but in this case I focus particularly on the ecumenical movement where the problem is largely left-wing brands of economic and political ideology. Carl Trueman has written a book, Republocrat, that focuses on a rather different context, that is, socially and theologically conservative or confessional Presbyterianism in the United States, where he finds the problem to be an unduly close connection between conservative theology and conservative politics. Insofar as our objects of critique are different (and indeed our sensibilities are rather different regarding the prudential questions of economic and politics), then our respective criticisms are on one level quite radically opposed. But this opposition is particularly in the application, not in the principle, which is that we both write against the ideological interpretation of the Christian faith along particular economic or political lines.

This book was published by the Acton Institute where you have worked for a number of years now.  In a nutshell, can you make their case for "religion and liberty?"  And can you tie that mission to your book's message?

The focus of the Acton Institute is to promote a society characterized by both freedom and virtue. The thesis, you might say, is that true freedom is only possible and realized within the context of virtue, the kind of virtue you get from a biblical account of God and his creation. The two must go together; you don’t get lasting or vigorous freedom in society without a virtuous people, and you don’t get a virtuous people without the institutional and structural freedoms that minimally allow, and maximally promote, such virtue. My book’s message relates to this in that it engages a particular set of voices that undermines this rather tenuous balance that holds freedom and virtue in harmony. The mainline ecumenical movement has been advocating for decades now for a kind of social, political, and economic transformation that I think would have deleterious consequences, and they have done so in a way that overreaches the mandates and responsibilities of the Christian churches as institutions in social life. One of the founding motivations for the Acton Institute was to present religious leaders with some introduction to economic ideas, so that their proclamation of the Gospel might be informed by some familiarity with what is involved with entrepreneurship, vocation, and business. The recent statements of the mainline ecumenical movement display the kind of ignorance of economics and un-nuanced rejection of economic realities that the Acton Institute has been working to dispel for the last two decades.

Finally, this book is the first publication of a renewed Christian's Library Press, which was purchased and put back to work by Acton.  Why did Acton buy the press?  And what are Acton's plans for the press going forward?

The Acton Institute’s acquisition of Christian’s Library Press was part of the institute’s reception of the literary and intellectual estate of Lester DeKoster, who passed away in 2009. Along with DeKoster’s books, notes, and unpublished manuscripts, the Acton Institute became the steward, you might say, of the publishing imprint that DeKoster began with his friend Gerard Berghoef and their families in 1979. Over the following decades Christian’s Library Press put out a number of important and valuable books on stewardship, discipleship, and Christian leadership that got some significant, albeit limited, circulation in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. One of the things Acton is committed to doing with CLP is to update and bring some of these texts back into circulation, introducing some of them for the first time to the broader evangelical world. So, for instance, we published DeKoster’s book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life—A Christian Perspective, in a second edition last year. This is a little book that captures well, in an accessible and popular way, a core understanding of the value of work and its meaning in the Christian life. Moving forward we have plans to expand the imprint as we make available some of the CLP backlist in new editions as well as publishing new books in the broad area of Protestant social thought.

 



Christians Debating Secularism
Wednesday, January 19, 2011, 2:37 PM

Jonathan Malesic and I debated the value of secularism for Christians on Radio Free Acton.  You can hear it here.

Jonathan thinks the church should go private for our own sake.  Get his book here.  And, I, of course, see things a bit differently since I'm the author of a book arguing the exact opposite course.

If you prefer to see us duel in print (a separate debate with different content), you have to subscribe to the Journal of Markets and Morality or at least wait until the current issue goes into the free archive.



Judging People in the Way of the World
Tuesday, January 18, 2011, 11:15 PM

I recently came into possession of a book titled Anatomy of a Great Executive by John Wareham.  Wareham was a successful executive headhunter who published several big-selling books on assessing talent and achieving success.

Success books have interested me since I got married and my father-in-law showed me his massive collection of what he referred to as America's wisdom literature.  He didn't offer the label uncritically as he is a Wheaton grad from way back and a serious student of the genre.

Working my way through the volume in question over lunch, I found a profile of an executive designed to show you how to get to know whether a person is really oriented toward success.  There were a number of valuable attributes listed in the profile, but the one that caught my eye was one that noted the executive in question did not have a high standard of living and thus his need for money was low.  This fact about the person was a NEGATIVE.  You see, the person does not NEED to succeed financially because he doesn't have an enormous mortgage and a Bentley.

Now, through Christian eyes we would look at a person living below his means and think that the individual is probably a good steward, prioritizes the right things, isn't materialistic, and maintains financial margin so as to be able to follow God wherever He leads.

Not so in the anatomy of a great executive.  The man who buys a gorgeous estate and two Mercedes-Benzes is sending a message that is reassuring to the world system.  "I MUST succeed in order to satisfy my appetites.  And I have the confidence to incur significant debts because I KNOW I WILL do it."

One of the most valuable things Intervarsity Christian Fellowship ever taught me as a college student was NOT to think this way.  And it has served me well throughout my adult life.  When I speak to young people, I invariably warn them against acquiring golden handcuffs (as a man "wearing" them once described them to me).

But I warn you, friends.  The world may not view your independence as a positive indicator.  "Success"-oriented individuals may think you are a bad bet because of the modesty of your hunger.

 



A Great Way to Connect with Grandparents
Saturday, January 15, 2011, 8:49 PM

 A Great Way to Connect with Grandparents

I took my family to visit my 94 year old grandmother in Columbia, Tennessee last night and today. After we ate (she’s still a great cook) and the kids went to bed, we stayed up looking through all her old photo albums.

In the process, I realized how little I knew about the family in which she grew up and about my grandfather’s family. I was able to ask questions about relatives and friends of the family.

She enjoyed the opportunity to talk about her life. I felt blessed to still have a grandmother to talk to about her life now that I’m finally old enough to care deeply about the answers she has to give.



Christianity and Daily Life: The Unhappy Haircut
Friday, January 14, 2011, 10:38 AM

I was recently part of a group of Christians visiting together and passing the time with stories.  One fellow told a story about how he had to get a haircut for the first time in years.  He usually uses clippers and buzzes his head.  But his wife asked him to let it grow and then get a professional cut.  He complied.

Having no habit of getting his hair cut by professionals, he drove around until he decided to wander into J.C. Penney's salon.  He did not inquire as to price.  He also did not give a lot of guidance about how he wanted his hair trimmed.

The woman who cut his hair proceeded to use the clippers at the nape of his neck.  He protested with annoyance in a belated fashion when it was too late to change course.  She finished the haircut, using scissors on top and clippers around the back and sides.

As they walked to the counter for payment, he was feeling somewhat surly.  She then announced the price would be $30.  He was flabbergasted and let her know through his attitude that he thought the price was ridiculous.  She asked if he wanted to add a tip.  He said, "No."

Now, the way he told the story, a number of people in the class were amused.  I have to admit, his telling was colorfully rendered.

But my question to you is this:  Did he conduct himself in the right way?  Would you have wanted the woman at the salon to know he is a Christian?

 



The Mega-Selling Christian and Conservative Novelist
Sunday, December 19, 2010, 11:38 PM

This has nothing to do with the Left Behind books by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye.

Nor am I referring to writers behind recent surprise hits like Facing the Giantsor Fireproof.

In fact, the individual I mean to talk about isn’t considered part of the Christian subculture at all.

He has sold over 400,000, 000 books.  According to his website, the number is growing by about 17 million a year globally.  He has made a reputation writing about evil, but his most popular character is one of the finest fictional human beings you can imagine.

Who am I talking about?  Who has those kinds of sales figures and yet sets forth a philosophy which embraces the Christian faith, tradition, and a generally conservative philosophical viewpoint?

(more…)



The Midnight Diner
Tuesday, December 14, 2010, 2:01 PM

 The Midnight Diner Several weeks ago, I received a copy of a literary magazine called The Midnight Diner.  Over a period of days it sat on my nightstand waiting to be read.  I knew little about it or its creators.  Having now made my way through the issue, I think it deserves attention.  I believe it was actually referred to me by MC's own author-in-residence, the great Lars Walker (if you've not read his books, order now, right now, you won't be sorry).

How to describe this publication?  Well, imagine if The Twilight Zone had been written by Christians.  No, that's not quite on target.  Better still to reference The Outer Limits (you know, "We control the horizontal.  We control the vertical . . .), the version of the series which aired much to my entertainment in the late 1990's.  

The stories are unpredictable and relate back to the Christian faith in strange, but interesting ways.  Though I began perusing with low expectations, I found myself excited to get to my evening reading ritual so I could discover the next tale.  

At some point, the magazine's editors will need to collect their best stories into book.  In any case, The Midnight Diner would be perfect for the Kindle or other e-readers.  

Regrettably, their web presence is pretty limited.  It looks like interested parties will need to use the web contact form or the contact email address to purchase copies.  Visit and ask how you can get the magazine.  



A Clarification of the “Christian Muslim” Post . . .
Wednesday, December 8, 2010, 5:24 PM

It has come to my attention that my earlier post titled "On Not Being a Christian Muslim" has caused offense.  The perception by at least one person and maybe a number of others was that I was calling Calvinists "Christian Muslims" or something of that nature.  If that was an inference some drew, I apologize because I did not intend my comments to be taken in that way.

In the story I told about my book group, the person who dismissed "evidential apologetics" also happened to be a very strong Calvinist.  My point was not to impugn Calvinism (or the Biblical doctrine of grace as some prefer to call it), but instead to defend the importance of evidence as part of our essential witness as Christians.  I contend that Paul appealed to the resurrection before the men of Athens for a reason.  He clearly thought it important to emphasize that God had furnished evidence by raising Jesus from the dead.

I have no doubt there are many Christians who are not Calvinists who could just as easily dismiss "evidential apologetics" as my fellow group participant did.  I am equally aware that many Calvinists would ardently emphasize the importance of apologetics as a new friend from Southern Seminary did at a Christmas party last week!

Just to sum up, then, I did intend to suggest that those who dismiss the importance of Christian evidences are engaging in a type of belief more suitable to the Muslim faith.  I did not intend to say that Calvinists are Christian Muslims.


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