Monthly Archives: June 2009

Social Programs and Sacred Callings

This is a modified e-mail I sent a friend who I’ve been visiting with about a Christian view of politics. They asked about how we should view social programs like Welfare and Social Security, which I think are complicated issues I’ve been pondering myself. Here are the three key questions I sent her that need to be under consideration; I’d love your thoughts if you have them.

1. What are these government programs? One of the challenges in talking about things like welfare is to avoid simple answers. While the classic Church and State/Cross and Sword dichotomy has value, the real world is much more complicated. Are government aid programs just exercises of the sword by an external political power? Simply put, no. Because of our republican government, they are also what could be termed “collective action” programs. That is, there is an element of cooperative problem-solving to them. This is what their proponents tend to argue for. Welfare and medicare are, in these peoples’ eyes, the result of a nation of people pooling their resources in order to combat social ills. Insofar as this is the case, it seems to me that the church can get behind and advocate them. However, it gets complicated because unlike other sorts of collective action, this one is backed up by the sword. If I decided to give my tax money that goes to social security to some other charity, I’d get thrown in jail. Because of this, the challenge is in determining how much of this is cooperative and how much is coercive. A Christian theology of politics has to make this distinction and base its support to some measure on whether the state is a helpful tool of organization or a substitute for the kingdom of heaven.

2. How effective are they? This needs to be a seperate question. For example, I agree with many of the younger, left-leaning Evangelicals I know that poverty and other social problems should be a huge priority for Christians. However, we have dramatically different political convictions because I think most of the remedies they recommend don’t actually work. This is where a lot of practical ground-level study needs to be made. Even if welfare and social security are judged to be more good than bad in theory, they are at present extremely ineffective programs. Working to reform, or even just to supplement these programs, should certainly be a Christian priority if they aren’t doing well. The same thing applies to questions of political aid versus private giving. They might be equally permissible in a Christian framework, but if one is more helpful or efficient than the other, it makes sense for us to focus resources on this area. After all, God has structured the world in certain ways, and we are responsible to live in the world has He has made it. In this regard, study of political theory, law, and economics are invaluable. I’m not arguing for simple pragmatism, but we must be practical as we implement Christ’s calling because the goal is to actually help people, not simply go through the motions to satisfy our own consciences.

3. How can the church live out its calling in a broken world? This is where I think a lot of political thought, including some that I myself have recommended, needs to spend more time than it does. Too often, we as Christians go looking for the perfect solution to a social problem, the one untainted by sin and fallenness. Of course, no such solution exists. For some, this perfectionism ends up being paralyzing. They can’t do anything because everything has issues. For others, and I’d say the majority live here, it breeds blindness to the weaknesses of the position you’re backing. In a very real sense, every political choice is the lesser of two evils. Then again, it’s also the greater of two goods. Much like the humans that create them, no political system or social program is completely good or thoroughly wicked. Our calling is to be God-loving realists who seek to see his kingdom come little by little in the world. When we try to make it happen faster, it usually ends in disaster.

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Deconstruction Tastes Like Marlboro Lights

On a related note to some of what I said yesterday, I think that for some of us a fascination with “newness” and “relevance” often manifests as a love of “wrongness” – that is, the idea that we and everyone who has come before got it wrong. Nothing appeals to me more than to be told that I’ve completely missed the point.

It’s like a narcotic. Or, more accurately, it’s like some bizarre pain-addiction. Nothing compares to the thrill of learning some truth that casts our understanding of things in a whole new light. In that moment when the walls come crashing down and I realize that there is more to the world than I ever suspected, I get a rush I can only compare to something like smoking your first cigarette. And this is the root of the problem.

I’m all for gaining new insights about Jesus and the Christian story. I think there are plenty of wrong things that the church has tolerated for too long and which need to be challenged. That said, like cigarettes, it’s easy to get hooked. Before long, I’m not interested in truth anymore at all, just in the thrill of seeing it challenged.

This is only worsened by our cultural myth of the courageous hero standing against the evil system. The rush I get when I see the status quo broken, the admiration I feel when someone criticizes the reigning paradigm – these have more to do with the lone cowboy heroism of our cultural mythology than with the normal workings of the Church.

Left unchecked, I often end up mistaking ballsiness for holiness. I remember hearing a sermon in college by a guy who will remain nameless, but who I immediately fell in love with because I thought he was “speaking the hard truth.” In addressing a crowd of Southern Baptist kids, he basically made a point, and when they applauded, told them to shut up because they were the ones headed to hell. Wow, I thought, that was courageous.

It took me about 6 months to notice that maybe this wasn’t such an admirable thing. After all, according to this preacher, the reason these kids were going to hell was their TV-watching habits. Really? I didn’t agree with that. Funny, how I missed that part because I was so in love with the image of this man shouting down the masses. I inhaled the sweet smoke of beliefs burning, and it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t igniting them because they were wrong, but only because of the rush I got as they became glowing cinders.

Once again, the answer here is to be suspicious of novelty. It is a very good thing to seek truth, and sometimes this requires challenging our reigning paradigms. But most of the time, the right approach is to listen to the past. Saints for the last two thousand years have believed things for a reason. If I find myself continually chasing after the ways they got it wrong, it may be that I instead am addicted to the drug of deconstruction rather than the sweet taste of truth.

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Relevance, Rehoboam-style?

I grew up in a tradition that had an unhealthy infatuation with youth. As an emotionally-unbalanced 16-year-old, my hormone-induced zeal was held up as a model of Christian virtue and commitment. I was one of the poster boys for what many in my denomination believed: that we needed revival, and that such revival would come for the young, so those of past generations need to get out of the way. My parents and grandparents were sometimes even portrayed as the enemies of God’s work in the world, and I needed to ignore their counsel in order to advance the kingdom.

While I am now in a less youth-focused denomination, I still feel the effects of this way of thinking. In particular, I often find myself seeing older, more experiences saints as the enemies of what God is doing in the world now. The more I recognize this proclivity in my heart, the more worried I am. I don’t want to look at the church this way, but it seems to be in the water. For whatever reason, I fail miserably to respect those older than me, or at least am very selective with that respect.

One of the biggest causes of my sin in this area is my constant obsession with the “new” and the “relevant.” For whatever reason, we Evangelicals have become convinced that the reason we’re losing the spiritual war in America is because we are out of touch. We don’t have the latest, shiniest weapons of our culture with which to fight for the cause of Christ, and hence we’re doomed to loss by attrition.

This is nonsense, for any number of reasons. In the first place, it doesn’t matter to Jesus how behind-the-times you are culturally. If you have the good news of Christ’s resurrection and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, you are far better-armed than any philosopher of this age.

What’s more, the cause of Christ is never served by mere hip-ness. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t speak in language people can understand or apply the truths of Christ to contemporary currents in society. Of course we should. However, our failure in these areas (if there has been one) is probably not themain cause of Evangelicalism’s decline. Our problem historically has not been irrelevance, but isolationism. Much of what we see as being “culturally relevant” is simply mimicking the culture around us while still living in isolation from it. Instead, we need to take the radical re-ordering of the world’s priorities which Jesus causes and then live out these new priorities before the world.

This is where reconnecting with the older generation is so important. In our talk of relevance, we have left them behind. As one younger preacher points out, how can we talk about “relevance” without our 75-year-old elder hearing that he isn’t. What’s more, we live in a culture that hates old age. While I don’t think it has been intentional, many of us have used cultural engagement as a clever disguise for hiding the elderly away where they can’t embarrass us.

One of the most critical things we must be doing as churches if figuring out ways to reconnect wise and mature saints with younger people, both Christian and not, who can benefit from their years of walking with the Spirit. In the biblical picture of the church it is the feeble 80-something who, having walked with Christ throughout life, occupies the place of honor. He is the man we should be looking to for wisdom, rather than our postmodern spiritual trendsetters with their soul patches and trendy glasses.

Of course those of us who are younger have something to offer, and as the church lives out the mission of God, it will be important to recognize this fact. I am far better equipped to talk with college students about how the movies and music they love shows forth the splendor of Christ than my parents. But the fact that they have never listened to Radiohead or Jay-Z is a paltry thing next to the lifetime of insight they can offer about living out Christ as a spouse, or an employee, or a parent. The fact that it is Radiohead rather than real spirituality that is at the center of our approach to Christianity shows just how desperately we need older generations.

I’ve been married for two years now. I have a number of friends around the same age who are also married, and we often discuss the experiences we’re sharing. However, I can honestly say that I have learned almost nothing about being a good spouse from these friends. They offer good support and sympathy, but have very little advice (and most of what they do have is bad). Every important lesson I keep returning to was taught by my parents, or a pastor, or one of the several older, godly men who has invested in me over the years.

Such is life in the world God has made. As long as Rehoboam takes counsel from those his own age, the kingdom will keep on dividing. We desperately need to get over ourselves. I am incredibly young. Thank God that he doesn’t wait for us to grow up and figure it all out to use us for His purposes. That said, you and I are fools if we take up this calling without also availing ourselves of the wise counsel of those who have gone before. And maybe as we seek these relationships, we’ll learn that it’s not just the 20-somethings for whom God has remarkable big plans.

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Not Just Over the Line – In Another Universe

The official blurb from Amazon:

“THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.”

This is just too much. I can’t take it anymore. This sort of patridolatry is inexcusable. If I try to comment on this nationalistic blasphemy, I’m going to have to delete this post, so I’ll just link to a review by Greg Boyd.

If you really want a taste of this baby, check out the promo video.

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Like or As

Analogy: a little proof
that mystery still remains
breathing in between worlds like
motes of solar dust and civilization,
an empiricist’s dream of dark matter,
a starry world-serpent, slithering similes across the void
Truth and metaphor, my baby and me
Swinging around the crowded floor
To the tune of “Really Meaning It (This Time)”

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