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.”



Watching the Watchmen of Civil Discourse
Thursday, October 4, 2012, 11:00 AM

256px Levy H L Herod s Wife Watching the Watchmen of Civil DiscourseThe Christian Post asked me to respond to the question, “Should There Be Rules on Labeling Hate Groups?” My brief response appeared yesterday. Here’s an excerpt:

If we understand rules to be moral norms and customs for civil discourse then there certainly ought to be rules for labeling hate groups. We do not, however, need special legal rules to determine the status of various institutions akin to what has been done to classify “hate crimes.” This does not mean that we do not need some element of consensus for what passes as legitimate and illegitimate activism and speech.

The occasion for the question was the controversy surrounding the decision of the Southern Poverty Law Center to include the Family Research Council on its list of “hate groups,” a decision which received renewed attention in the wake of a shooting at FRC headquarters this past August. For further reading on the SPLC and the FRC, I recommend Joe Carter’s post on the question, “Is the Christian Church a ‘Hate Group’?” “It’s important to note the caveat that the SPLC explicitly provides: “Viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.”

A corollary question remains, however, and this has to do with the clash of worldviews in the public square. Could it be that it is acceptable for a person or group of persons simply to consider monogamous heterosexual marriage as normative, for instance, but that it is not acceptable (according to the self-appointed watchmen of civil discourse) to institutionalize and publicly espouse that view? Is there a kind of secularism inherent in this admission, such that it is socially acceptable to have an opinion (religiously founded or otherwise), but not to proselytize on behalf of that view? Is this an instance of multicultural relativism, a “that’s fine for you to think, maybe, but don’t push your views on me or voice them in the public square” mentality?

As I write in the CP piece, “Any time authority is exercised over something it is worth asking the ancient question, ‘Who watches the watchmen?’ In this case, we might ask who evaluates the evaluators of hate groups. The answer, in the end, must rest with each one of us.”

Jim Kushiner raises a related point, that John the Baptist’s “especially his bold witness for moral integrity,” as in his public advocacy in protection of marriage and his denunciation of adultery, resulted in the highest penalty: his execution. “Nowadays,” writes Kushiner, “John would be accused of hate speech.” It would have certainly been safer for John to simply mentally disapprove of Herod’s relations with his sister-in-law rather than speak up.



Eric Liddell: Life after the Olympics
Friday, August 10, 2012, 11:29 AM

AbsoluteSurrender 300x300 Eric Liddell: Life after the OlympicsMy friend Eric Eichinger, a pastor in the LCMS and a former Division I track runner at my alma mater Michigan State, was inspired as a child by the story of Eric Liddell, the subject of the acclaimed film Chariots of Fire. After the 1924 Olympics Liddell “returned to China on the eve of World War II to join his family and continue his missionary work at tremendous personal sacrifice.”

Liddell’s life story inspired Eichinger, who spent some time of his own in China, and said,

While in China, I visited the hospital where Eric died serving the people he loved. It had a profound effect on me. I began researching his life and ultimately, wrote a screenplay entitled Absolute Surrender that reflects his journey after the Olympics.

Check out the feature below about the project to tell the story of Liddell’s life after the Olympics, including Eichinger’s recent trip to London, and keep up with the film project (on Twitter and Facebook):



Olympian Religion
Thursday, July 26, 2012, 10:31 AM

Chris Lisee of the Religion News Service (RNS) has a piece tracing similarities, differences, and developments in religion between the ancient and modern Olympic Games. David Gilman Romano, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona, says, “There are many similarities, but there are also differences. And one of the biggest differences is religion.”

Some of the specific issues facing modern athletes, for instance, have to do with religious observance, such as fasting during Ramadan.

But according to the scandalous accounts of carnal exploits alluded to yesterday, worship of the god of pleasure seems to be one of the constants between the ancient and contemporary worlds.



Some of the Perks of Being an Olympic Athlete
Wednesday, July 25, 2012, 1:45 PM

In addition to the record number of free condoms being provided for athletes, it looks like Olympians heading to London this week will also be able to get a free copy of the Bible. No word on whether 50 Shades of Grey is also being offered gratis.

In London, Olympic athletes offered free sports Bibles
ENI-12-0433

By Jo Siedlecka
25 July (ENInews)–Athletes competing at Olympic Games beginning on 27 July are being offered copies of the “Sports Good News Bible” and the “Sports Good News Gospel of Luke,” thanks to an initiative of the Bible Society.

These special editions, illustrated with line drawings by Swiss artist Annie Vallatton, use the Good News English translation and include an additional 40 pages connecting sport with faith through stories and reflections from a range of Christian ministries. Subjects include “What does sport have to do with the Bible?” and “Where does it talk about teamwork, training, setting goals and breaking records?”

“The Bible offers words of deep consolation, inspiration and challenge, themes which resonate with athletes from around the world,” said Matthew van Duyvenbode, head of advocacy at the Bible Society. “Having the opportunity to offer the scriptures in a format accessible for sports people is a strong statement that the Bible belongs at the heart of every aspect of life.”

Bible Society group chief executive officer James Catford said: “The achievements we gain on the outside are driven by the people we are on the inside–that’s what we discover in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus written by Luke and found within the Christian Scriptures.”

3,000 copies have been made available in English, and about 1,000 in other languages.


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