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Easter Foolishness
Monday, April 1, 2013, 9:46 AM

 Easter FoolishnessThe juxtaposition yesterday and today between Easter in the West and April Fools’ Day is worth pausing to reflect on for a moment.

As the apostle Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The resurrection has always been the sticking point, so to speak, between the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the world: “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered…”

Many sermons yesterday included a call to live out our Easter faith in joyful hope. Remember this day after Easter, a fool’s day, that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”

Anderson v. Morgan and Orman on Marriage
Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 11:08 AM

Last night I caught the video of Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation and his discussion (debate?) with Piers Morgan and Suze Orman on Morgan’s CNN show. The whole clip is pretty amazing to watch for a variety of reasons.

As Denny Burk put it, this is a great example of how not to have a debate about gay marriage.

Considering the circumstances, Anderson comported himself admirably. The condescension of Morgan and Orman just permeates the discussion, as Orman begins her piece by calling Anderson “uneducated,” but later admits that he has all his “facts” together. All Morgan and Orman have, apparently, are bully tactics, appeals to the mob, and special pleading.

Orman also refers to Anderson as “sweetheart.” Some have commented on the fact that Anderson is placed in the audience during this exchange, while Morgan and Orman are up at the “big kids” table. The playing field is uneven in this and other ways, but at least since he wasn’t seated at the table Orman wasn’t simply able to cluck her tongue and pat Anderson on the head.

This conversation is what you get when natural-law arguments run into suppression of the truth in unrighteousness. I would expect the identity politics and ad hominems to simply escalate as the case that Anderson, Sherif Gergis, and Robbie George make (in this article and in their book) continues to get a hearing in the public square.

Rob Bell on Re-Defining Evangelicalism
Monday, March 18, 2013, 12:54 PM

rob bell author of what we talk about when we talk about god Rob Bell on Re Defining EvangelicalismThere’s perhaps not much new here other than making explicit what has heretofore merely been implicit.

But in a recent discussion at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Rob Bell responded to a question about same-sex marriage and evangelical political engagement:

I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. And I think the ship has sailed. This is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.

That last sentiment in particular is of special note, as Bell’s comments come within the context of his rebuke of what evangelicalism has come to mean in the American context. Before answering the question about same-sex marriage, Bell said, “The beautiful thing would be if ‘Evangelical’ came to mean buoyant, joyful, honest announcement about all of us receiving the grace of God and then together giving back to the make the world the kind of place God always dreamed it could be. Let’s reclaim it, all of us.”

The Blind Leading the Seeing
Tuesday, February 19, 2013, 2:19 PM

The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind The Blind Leading the SeeingJohn C. Pinheiro, a professor of history at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Mich., reflects on the nature of teaching religious history. He points to the still-often dominant paradigm in academia, which ignores religion as a category, preferring instead to consider “economic,” “ethnic,” or “social” history, categories that “subsume religion for the Marxian and secular humanist.”

There is a kind of myth of objectivity in such pursuits, but as Pinheiro points out “secular humanism is decidedly un-neutral. It is a substitute for religion, not the absence of a worldview. The militant variety wants to scrub the public square free of all vestiges of religion, not understanding the connection between religion and culture; or, perhaps understanding it all too well. Yet this is contrary to all of human experience, though it is the result of historical forces even predating the Enlightenment that historians and their students can study.”

He goes on to point out that “even today, only 2.5% of the world are atheists. In other words, 97.5% of humanity see meaning in life, believe in a god or Gods, and understand intuitively or through learning that there exists a metaphysical aspect to existence that is transcendent. This number would be even higher for much of the past.”

These observations reminded me of a point made by Abraham Kuyper in his reflections on the nature of scientific investigation and academic culture. Speaking of the myth of complete rational and secular objectivity, Kuyper says that when such a methodology dominates,

this means that the thinker with the most impoverished sense has framed the case, since he has denied all the richer content of the human consciousness while validating as truth only what he has agreed with. This is like an army moving under orders that the cavalry not advance any faster than the infantry, nor the infantry any faster than its slowest soldier. Even though within this position faith is indispensable for progress (no matter that it was no more than believing in one single axiom), nevertheless the outcome was that everyone who possessed richer faith ultimately had to go along with and adapt to the researcher with the least faith. From this it follows that all Christian researchers who allowed themselves to be pulled in this direction were required to place the far richer content of their own conscious faith outside the scientific domain, or even to surrender their faith or drift toward apostasy.

Thankfully to some extent as Pinheiro points out, there has been a “turn to religion” in various academic fields, including history. As Pinheiro writes, “To take religion seriously in our study of the past means first of all beginning with the assumption that people really believe what they say they believe. An intimate knowledge of our own human condition — sadly lacking among many in our unreflective, noisy society — is a necessity in this endeavor.”

Carl Henry and Christian Social Witness
Tuesday, January 22, 2013, 11:58 AM

IMG 5697 e1358877399739 226x300 Carl Henry and Christian Social WitnessToday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the evangelical great, Carl F. H. Henry. Justin Taylor has a roundup of links over at his blog.

I’d like to point to an essay from a couple years back by Richard Mouw in Christianity Today, in which Mouw describes how Carl Henry changed his mind about the church and social justice. The story takes place within the context of Henry’s role as editor of CT, and Mouw’s attempt to contribute. There is an editorial back and forth that Mouw describes, and here’s a key takeaway:

Here is what I need to say now about my youthful negotiations with Carl Henry: Henry was right and I was wrong. At the time I agreed to Henry’s revision of my draft, I only grudgingly accepted what I considered a less-than-fully satisfactory compromise arrangement. What I really wanted to say is that the church—in the form of both preaching and ecclesial pronouncements—could do more than merely utter a “no” to some social evils. There were times, I was convinced, that the church could rightly say a bold “yes” to specific policy-like solutions. I now see that youthful conviction as misguided. Henry was right, and I was wrong.

Mouw goes on to note the coherence between Henry’s position and that articulated by Paul Ramsey in his book, Who Speaks for the Church? As Mouw writes, “the issue for Ramsey was not just the sheer number of pronouncements, but also a methodology that flowed from a defective theology. Henry quotes Ramsey’s harsh verdict: ‘Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.'” These same concerns about the specificity and ideology of ecclesial pronouncements, inspired in large part by Ramsey, were a driving factor behind my engagement of ecumenical ethics and economics, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness.

Mouw goes on to make some important points about the role individual Christians and extra-ecclesial institutions have in working out the social implications of the gospel in concrete terms. As Mouw concludes, “I am not alone in owing a debt of gratitude to Henry for his pioneering—and courageous—efforts to encourage a more mature evangelical discipleship in the broad reaches of culture. I hope others will join me in continuing to learn from him how best to search out remedies for an evangelicalism that still suffers from an ‘uneasy conscience.'”

The Pope and the Prime Minister
Monday, January 21, 2013, 10:06 AM

My colleague Andreas Widmer passes along this video of Pope Leo XIII, purportedly the oldest known video footage of a bishop of Rome. The video dates to 1896, and also includes the oldest known audio recording from 1903 of the pope chanting the Ave Maria.

Andreas is the author of The Pope & The CEO, which relates the lessons he learned as a member of the Swiss Guards during the papacy of John Paul II. With respect to the video of Leo XIII, Andreas writes, “at the end of the video (after 1:04) you see the Swiss Guards behind him in their old uniform. The current uniform, which is often mistakenly attributed to being designed by Michelangelo, was actually designed by a commander of the Guards around the turn of the 20th century – just a few years after this video was taken. Like any other army, the Swiss Guards went with the military fashions of the time, so their helmet in the video are the kind of Kaiser Wilhelm Helmet that was popular in those days.”

As a Reformed theologian, my thinking of the papacy of Leo XIII always reminds me of Abraham Kuyper, in part because of the remarkable year 1891, in which the encyclical Rerum novarum was promulgated and the First Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam was held. Abraham Kuyper, who would later serve as Prime Minister of the Netherlands, opened the congress with a memorable speech, available in English translation as The Problem of Poverty.

With that in mind, I also pass along the only video of which I am aware to capture Abraham Kuyper, shortly before his death:

You can read more about Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper in the special issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality devoted to the proceedings of the “The Legacy of Abraham Kuyper & Leo XIII” conference held in 1998 at Calvin College, co-sponsored by the Acton Institute and Calvin Theological Seminary.

Religion, Revolution, and Reformation in Les Misérables
Friday, January 18, 2013, 8:49 AM

June Rebellion Religion, Revolution, and Reformation in Les MisérablesPraise has rightly poured in from nearly all quarters for the film adaptation of the musical Les Misérables, which is itself an adaptation of the massive masterpiece by Victor Hugo. Jonathan Merritt neatly captures the sentiment of many Christian commentators in his observation that “it is perhaps the most ‘Christian’ artwork I’ve seen in some time.”

Among the noteworthy sounds of discord, however, is this review over at Foreign Affairs by Charles Walton.

Adapted from the immensely popular musical version of Hugo’s classic (first performed in Paris in 1980), Hooper’s cinematic rendering is stunningly staged and brilliantly performed, but it cuts the author in half: it gives us the religious Hugo, not the revolutionary one. It tells the story of individual redemption through an odyssey of Catholic conscience, not of France’s collective redemption through political violence.

On the one hand, attaching blame to Hooper seems unfair, since he’s simply rendering on film the musical version spearheaded by Cameron Mackintosh.

On the other, however, Walton’s review is a worthy reminder of the complexity of Hugo’s vision, and the limits of adaptation and different genre. I’m not sure it’s a fair criticism of the film-musical to say that Hugo’s optimistic vision of revolution is not fairly depicted; the novel is more than 1,000+ pages, and a 2 or 3 hour production simply can’t do justice to everything.

You might get the sense from Walton’s review that religion is somehow less relevant to the contemporary world than revolution, however, and that the film-musical does us a disservice in emphasizing the former rather than the latter: “Hugo’s novel speaks to the twenty-first century in ways that Hooper’s film does not. That these opportunities were missed — that Christianity rather than revolution prevails as the means of redemption — is not surprising.”

One way in which the film-musical might reconcile the two, although in a way perhaps slightly differently than in Hugo’s original, is in the theme of reformation and conversion that runs throughout the film. In a recent piece I examine just one of the episodes of Valjean’s moral and spiritual development. There are many others, and it would be profitable to juxtapose a vision of violent revolution with a vision of social reformation.

The Blame Game
Thursday, November 8, 2012, 1:08 PM

One of the angles of reaction coming from the election earlier this week is that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, specifically the Bishops’ conference in the US, is increasingly marginalized and ignored by the laity with respect to political matters. Thus, as one observer puts it, “the results do indicate the political impotency of a Catholic hierarchy that has become very strongly identified with politics.”

Meanwhile, it seems evangelicals went for the GOP at a brisk 4:1 clip.

But, as Abp. Chaput pointed out on Election Day in a review of Brad Gregory’s work, The Unintended Reformation, it’s all the fault of the Reformation: Yes, not just for climate change, but perhaps for Catholics ignoring their bishops as well.

My review of Gregory’s book is available here. One of the takeaways, I think, both from Gregory’s book and from Tuesday’s election, in history as well as in politics, is that the blame game is pretty unproductive.

Good, Enduring Reformation
Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 7:02 AM

HermanBavinckBig Good, Enduring ReformationToday is Reformation Day, and I wanted to pass along a quote that I have found to embody a valuable perspective about the imperative to always be seeking reform of one’s own life and manners, without needing to tarry for broader social or political change.

The quote appears in the newly-published translation of a work by the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family, which originally appeared in 1908.

The point of departure is his exploration of the institution of the family and its social significance, but Bavinck’s words apply equally as well to efforts for improving other spheres as well:

All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one’s own heart and life. If family life is indeed being threatened from all sides today, then there is nothing better for each person to be doing than immediately to begin reforming within one’s own circle and begin to rebuff with the facts themselves the sharp criticisms that are being registered nowadays against marriage and family. Such a reformation immediately has this in its favor, that it would lose no time and would not need to wait for anything. Anyone seeking deliverance from the state must travel the lengthy route of forming a political party, having meetings, referendums, parliamentary debates, and civil legislation, and it is still unknown whether with all that activity he will achieve any success. But reforming from within can be undertaken by each person at every moment, and be advanced without impediment.

Abortion is Social
Monday, October 15, 2012, 10:05 AM

Ahead of last week’s vice presidential debate, MC contributors Hunter Baker and I wrote as Protestants in praise of Catholic Social Teaching (a version of the piece also appeared over at the Patheos Evangelical channel):

Commentators are already busy parsing the partisan divide between the co-religionists Biden and Ryan, but having Roman Catholics represented in such prominent positions in this campaign and particularly in tonight’s debate is also likely to catapult another player into the national political consciousness: Catholic Social Teaching (CST).

For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture.

The debate itself pretty much ended up being a disappointment, particularly with regard to any hopes of elevating the level of our public discourse.

The one question that ended up explicitly touching on the matters of faith and public life in the debate was the final query about Catholicism and abortion. A point that should be reiterated again and again is that Roman Catholic teaching on the dignity of unborn human life should be considered to be a part of and not separate from the broader contours of Catholic Social Teaching. Manfred Spieker made this point quite well in an article that explores Caritas in Veritate not in the first place as an encyclical about globalization but rather about bioethics.

As Spieker concludes, “The defense of the right to life from the beginning until the end of life must be the central consequence for the social doctrine of the Church in its efforts to realize human development.” He points out, too, the artificial truncation of CST on this point:

Evangelium Vitae is a central social encyclical, but in the general public it is not perceived in that way. It is considered to be an important encyclical but an encyclical of moral theology, rather than a social one. In the presence of the social and political changes since the 1970s, that is a reduction of its content. It is a social encyclical but is missing in nearly all collections of social encyclicals.

Indeed, and by contrast, the social and political implications of a claim like this should be obvious: “The right to life, the most basic of all human rights, must be protected by law.”

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