ornament 22 April 2012 ornament

Chuck Colson, R.I.P.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I somehow ended up in my church’s lending library.  It was an improbable place for me to be not because I wasn’t active at the church (I was) or because I wasn’t a reader (I was), but because the holdings in that particular church library — like so many church libraries — weren’t what one might call “high caliber.”  This is to say that most of the volumes were fluff of one flavor or another: Christian pulp fiction, inspirational-motivational manuals, and light topical teachings.  There was even a series of 30-year-old filmstrip guides on how to be an effective church usher.  Not the sort of fare in which a thirsty Christian college student would be interested.

One book, however, did catch my eye.  There were actually two copies, which may have helped it find my attention.  They were yellow hardbacks (the dust jackets were long gone) with the title written on the spine in one of those typefaces that could only have come out of the 70s. The book was Born Again, by Charles Colson – the former Nixon hatchet man’s memoir of the Watergate scandal, his conversion to Christ, and his subsequent imprisonment. 

I had recently heard a speaker on campus reference Colson, so against what I thought at the time was my better judgment, I checked it out. It was the first spiritual biography I had ever read, and really the first Christian book outside of the Bible I had ever read. I was riveted.

Decades after Watergate, the term “born again” is most often used adjectivally to refer to certain kind of Christians — you know, the ones who teeter on the edge of fanaticism.  But in reality, being born again is the essence, not the adjective of Christian conversion. Colson’s faith and transformation seemed something that could only have been wrought of God.

Unless one is a slave to the bestseller list, a good reader of books follows the links from one good work to another.   While I can’t say Born Again was the most influential book in my formative years, reading Colson’s gripping, unapologetic biography started me down a path that has undoubtedly shaped my thinking and thus my actions today.

I saw him speak a few years ago, and the way he married his passion for Christ with intellectual acuity is a model for all in the service of the Kingdom.  May he rest in peace.

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ornament 22 September 2011 ornament

Names: they are a changin’

“…And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”
(Genesis 1:19, ESV)

Over at First Things, read my latest musings on a culture that changes its names:

This week, the Southern Baptist Convention announced it is launching yet another committee to examine changing its name. The goal is to better reflect the fact that, aside from folks who live at the North Pole, they’re not necessarily always geographically “Southern” anymore.  Whether or not the name change will go through is up in the air — this is the eighth attempt at renaming the organization.

But it isn’t just the Southern Baptists. Name change fever is in the water. The interwebs are abuzz with the announcement by Netflix this week that it’s changing the name of its DVD service to Qwikster — a name that conjures up images of oil changes and bunnies with chocolate milk. Campus Crusade for Christ, in a move which resulted in a public relations nightmare, recently announced it was changing its name to Cru (rowing teams or short haircuts, anyone?).

Read the rest here, before they change my name to a pseudonym.

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ornament 23 August 2010 ornament

Strangers in a Strange Land

[Cross-posted from Evangel]

In addition to a “royal priesthood” and a “holy nation,” the King James Bible speaks of Christians in 1 Peter 2:9 as a “peculiar people.” Modern translations dispense with the term, but it seems that to at least one sociologist, some Bible-belt Christians are so far removed from American culture that they’re deserving of studies to document their peculiarity.

Bernadette Barton, a sociology professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, recently took her class on several field trips to the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky — a trip that apparently struck fear in her students:

On her third trip to the museum, Barton took her undergraduate students, who found the visit unsettling. Several in the group were former fundamentalists who had since rejected that worldview. Several others were gay. In part because of these backgrounds, Barton said, the students were on edge at the museum. Particularly nerve-wracking were signs warning that guests could be asked to leave the premises at any time. The group’s reservation confirmation also noted that museum staff reserved the right to kick the group off the property if they were not honest about the “purpose of [the] visit.”

Because of these messages, Barton said, the students felt they might accidentally reveal themselves as nonbelievers and be asked to leave. This pressure is a form of “compulsory Christianity” that is common in a region known for its fundamentalism, Barton said. People who don’t ascribe to fundamentalism often report the need to hide their thoughts for fear of being judged or snubbed.

At one point, Barton reported in her paper, a guard with a dog circled a student pointedly twice without saying anything. When he left, a museum patron approached the student and said, “The reason he did that is because of the way you’re dressed. We know you’re not religious; you just don’t fit in.” (The student was wearing leggings and a long shirt, Barton writes.)

Having never visited the Creation Museum (do they sell replicas of Adam’s rib at the gift shop?), I can’t relate to the oppressive fear that these students must have felt. One can only imagine the displacement felt by the professor and her students during their expedition. After all, they endured the nearly two and a half-hour journey from the cosmopolitan venues of Morehead, Kentucky to the wilds of the Greater Cincinnati Metro Area — only to be accosted by a canine and almost conscripted into “compulsory Christianity” had their disguises been slightly less effective.

All ribbing aside, while the absurdity of this account reveals how out-of-touch with their own surroundings the Morehead expedition was, it reminds us of the reality that Christian beliefs are increasingly cast by the world as quaint eccentricities — even when the numbers may not validate such a view. At this, we Christians shouldn’t be as shocked as our professor on her field study.

Whether or not the Creation Museum is a proper touchstone of twenty-first century Christianity is certainly debatable , but it is of little importance. For any Christian who believes that a dead man got up out of his grave two thousand years ago, there is an ever-increasing gulf with those who do not — a fact which no amount of cultural hipness can overcome. We will be found weird, wanting, and ripe for ridicule. We will be painted with a broad brush, and the temptation will be to say “that’s not me — I’m not like those Christians.” It would be better — when the occasion arises — if we instead pointed to Christ and lamented how unlike him we are. Better yet if we pointed out how unlike us he is.

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ornament 29 January 2010 ornament

Top 8 short-lived TV shows of the 80s

Ah, the 80’s. It was a time when TV shows wrapped everything up by the end of the show, nobody got killed (think The A-Team), and episodes were filmed before a live studio audience. If it wasn’t the golden age of television, it was at the very least bronze.

But the 80’s were also a decade of trial and frequent error. For every Cosby Show, there were a dozen other shows than never made it past two seasons. Below, in no particular order, I’ve compiled the top eight of these short-lived 80’s wonders:

Continue reading…

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ornament 30 September 2009 ornament

The Roman Polanski case gets frantic

Much has been written about film director and child rapist Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland. The reaction is a rather bizarre moment of agreement between both cultural conservatives and liberals who, by and large, agree that Polanski’s pending extradition is well-deserved.

More bizarre is the small group of voices who are calling for Polanski’s release. Mostly associated with the film industry, this group of Polanski devotees have even begun a petition to express their outrage — a petition that insists that the future of Franco–American depends upon Los Angeles prosecutors dropping the case:

On September 16th, 2009, Mr. Charles Rivkin, the US Ambassador to France, received French artists and intellectuals at the embassy. He presented to them the new Minister Counselor for Public Affairs at the embassy, Ms Judith Baroody. In perfect French she lauded the Franco-American friendship and recommended the development of cultural relations between our two countries.

If only in the name of this friendship between our two countries, we demand the immediate release of Roman Polanski.

The petition signatories —like Woody Allen, Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Monica Bellucci, and handful of French crew members — are smart enough, however, to know what possible imprisonment might mean for the now ex-fugitive Polanski:

Roman Polanski is a French citizen, a renown and international artist now facing extradition. This extradition, if it takes place, will be heavy in consequences and will take away his freedom

Apparently, the signatories are now deeply concerned about justice?

As the great philosopher Brad Paisley says, “When you’re a celebrity, it’s adios reality.”

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ornament 19 August 2009 ornament

Washington D.C., where the killing is reasonable

Below is the front page headline of today’s Washington Times:

D.C. POLICE SET HOMICIDE BAR AT 100

That’s right: after 100 murders, you can breathe easy when visiting the nation’s capital.

Think 100 is too high, or too low? Nonsense, says D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier:

“Fewer than 100 homicides is reasonable,” Chief Lanier told The Washington Times. “We’re targeting for under 100, and I think we can do it if we give everything we’ve got.”

Last year, the city marked 100 homicides before the end of July, but police in the District and several other major U.S. cities are seeing declining or steady homicide totals this year.

As it turns out, murder is quite out of fashion this year across the land:

Los Angeles has recorded a 14 percent decrease in homicides from 234 last year to 201 this year. New York is at 281 killings, a 14 percent decline from 326 last year. Chicago has an 11 percent reduction at 258 homicides, down from last year’s 290. Philadelphia’s homicide total has declined by 10 percent, from 204 to 189. Baltimore is at 140 homicides – the same as this time last year.

But the decline of 25.4 percent in the District – which approached 500 killings in 1991 at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic that spawned gunbattles between rival gangs of drug dealers – is larger than the reductions in those cities.

Good to see we’re getting down to more reasonable numbers.

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ornament 25 June 2009 ornament

Family destruction as spectacle

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, p. 1

In the past two weeks, America has seen no fewer than three highly public announcements of family failure. Last week, it was Senator John Ensign’s admission of an extra-marital affair. Earlier this week, the media circus that is Jon & Kate Gosselin announced their divorce in cliff-hanger fashion on their TLC reality show. And if one thought it couldn’t get any more bizarre, enter Wednesday’s weird, rambling press conference by South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who revealed that his Appalachian Trail hiking trip had taken a South American detour into unfaithful territory.

What to make of all this? Well, Tolstoy was correct in one sense — the Ensign, Gosselin, and Sanford families’ situations are each filled with their own complexities. However, the way in which each went public has a lot to say about the current state of our national sensibilities.

Of the three announcements, Senator Ensign’s was handled most deftly. It was brief, to the point, and details were kept to a minimum. By no means should he be given kudos. This was a preemptive strike to control the message. Classic, by-the-book PR tactics.

Message: “I screwed up, but I told you about it before the media could, so the public should still trust me.”

The Gosselin divorce announcement probably deserves its own essay-length treatment, but to do so would in some ways be playing into its own grand media plan. Rather than give up the show in which everyone gives stuff to their family, they’ll press on (how could they evict the children from the set?). No, the Gosselins, who deplore everyone peering into their business (those evil paparazzi!), keep — as their business — everyone peering into their business. You can find out all about their divorce on their show — every Monday at 9pm EST on TLC, and, by the way, you should also buy some Crooked Houses® and any other of the many fine products the Gosselin family gets for free.

Message: “We’re doing all this so our kids can see the videos and remember, as our family’s brains can only process events that happen on TV. Even if the marriage can’t, the show must go on.”

Finally, Gov. Sanford. Presidential hopeful, conservative stalwart in public if not so much in private. The staggering detail he gave at the presser, along with the fact that he accepted questions from the media shows that he is a fool in love (lust?) who threw caution to the Argentine wind long ago. Sanford knows that publicly, he is a dead man walking, and he doesn’t care.

Message: “I’m just gonna throw it all out there. Even if you don’t ask about it, I’ll tell you. My political career is toast, my wife kicked me out, so if I can make you all understand that it’s all about ‘that spark’ one gets with a dear, dear friend — maybe y’all won’t hate me so much.”

Spectacle like the above only fuels the fire of cynicism at the ebb and flow of our national conversation. Whence humility?

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ornament 23 June 2009 ornament

The great humanitarian scandal

The current financial crisis elicits explanations, excuses, and blame from the full breadth of the political spectrum. There are no shortages of would-be saviors to our pallid pocketbooks, and none loom as large as government–sponsored humanitarianism. It’s a view in which the gap between the rich and poor, widened by the abuse of power, must be eradicated by government’s strong hand. Well-meaning humanitarianism is fraught with many dangers, and Herbert Schlossberg’s description of what it really does to us still applies today:

It exalts categories of weakness, sickness, helplessness, and anguish into virtues while it debases the strong and prosperous. In the country of ontological victimhood, strength is an affront. Denying the possibility of strength for the weak keeps them weak. Being freed from dependence would bring the victim back into the human family, responsible for himself and others. How much better to remain a victim, shielded from trouble and responsibility by altruism. Imposing a load of false guilt on the strong, ressentiment elicits a countering resentment that blinds them to the need of repentance for their real sins. Both poor and rich need to be made whole, but nobody can be made whole with a humanitarian understanding of his life. Poor and rich need to be reconciled, but altruism accentuates the self-righteous hypocrisies of both.

(Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture, p.70)

Times like ours are ripe for making weakness into a virtue. The problem with this, of course, is that if weaknesses are seen as virtues, they have little need to be overcome.

Weakness should be seen as something to dispense of in favor of growing stronger, but the humanitarian impulse thrives upon weakness and is out of a job without it. In light of so many Americans being out of jobs themselves, we would do well not to feed the humanitarian monster. Blessed are the poor, indeed. But if poverty was really virtuous, the poor wouldn’t need blessing, would they? Better to strengthen through struggle than to keep down through luxury.

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ornament 22 June 2009 ornament

The changing meaning of hate

Swift on the heels of the new definition of tolerance, the meaning of hate is being slowly eroded by the tides of cultural abuse.

Take, for example, this recent report in the San Francisco Chronicle (emphasis mine):

In papers filed Thursday night in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office argued that Proposition 8 was motivated by hatred of gays and lesbians and violates their constitutional right to be free of discrimination.

Although sponsors of the November ballot measure said they were trying to promote traditional marriage and protect children, “excluding same-sex couples from marriage does nothing to advance those goals,” Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart said in the 49-page brief.

Prop. 8’s “real aim (was) harming gays and lesbians and expressing moral disapproval of them,” Stewart said.

Clearly here “hatred” is equated with “moral disapproval.” Don’t get me wrong, moral disapproval can certainly be present alongside hatred. The problem is that hate and moral disapproval are mutually exclusive. Moral disapproval can exist without hate (I morally disapprove of people using “Jesus” as a curse word, and might even ask them to refrain, but that doesn’t mean I hate them). Likewise, hate can exist without moral disapproval (think of hatred caused by envy).

The irony created here by the abuse of the term is thick. While condemning Californians who supported Prop. 8 as acting out of hatred, the plaintiffs are expressing moral disapproval at their actions. A move which could — if their own advice be taken — be labeled as hatred. Go figure.

If hate is diluted to the point of simply meaning mere moral disapproval, the true, more dangerous nature of hatred is masked. Better the biblical take on hatred, which allows for moral disapproval while keeping hatred at bay:

You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him. (Leviticus 19:17, NASB)

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ornament 22 May 2009 ornament

Leon Kass’s grand tour of humanity

Last night’s 2009 National Endowment for the Humanities Lecture with Leon Kass was, unsurprisingly, superb. Kass, who among other things assembled the first President’s Council on Bioethics, is the epitome of a renaissance man due to his diverse background of study, gave a lecture entitled, “Searching for an Honest Man: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist.”

The lecture followed the motif of the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who walked the streets endlessly with a lantern “looking for an honest man.” Kass notes that what Diogenes is really looking for is better translated as a “true human being.” The search for the true human being — and just what it means to be a human being — made up the bulk of the lecture.

Like Harvey Mansfield’s Jefferson lecture two years before, Kass noted that modern science has — to its fault — abdicated the humanities. No longer does medicine look at health, but to emerging technologies. Modern science looks intricately at the parts, but often fails to observe the whole. It can describe what chemical processes take place in the eye for vision to occur, but it cannot explain “seeing.” The humanities are needed for such endeavors — and they are likewise needed when dealing with decisions that involve whole human beings.

Kass has found progress in his own search for the true human in sources such as the Aristotelian view of the soul, the Hebrew Bible, and through books and companions along the way. Kass, more so than many other public intellectuals, is on the right track in viewing humanity as the sum of its parts, a unified psyche and soma.

The only thing that I might add (if I dare!) to Kass’s grand tour of true humanity is to note the Christian view of true humanity’s culmination — namely the True Human Being: Jesus of Nazareth. Fully God, Jesus was the true human being — the only human who was and is fully human.

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