Blog Archives

Flotsam and jetsam (2/24)


Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.

Just as each writer must find her or his own voice, I believe each preacher must find her or his own way into the call of preaching. However, we don’t do it alone. The most healthy preachers know they are always in conversation with their congregation, their local community, the world, the books in their library, those closest to them, their own lives. They know that throughout these conversations, scripture winds its wisdom, prophecy, incongruities, humor, and stories.

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Jesus community is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word!

The study, as reported in a recent online Christianity Today article, reveals that the category evangelicals are most willing for the government to cut is economic assistance for global poverty. Fifty-six percent of evangelicals preferred to chop from the federal budget aid for the world’s poorest people. The next highest choice, at 40 percent, was economic assistance for the unemployed. As the CT article notes, evangelicals were more supportive of decreasing spending in these areas than were other Americans. Evangelicals were much more reticent, on the other hand, to cut terrorism defense and military defense. In fact, 45 percent of evangelicals favored increasing spending for military defense, a percentage well higher than non-evangelicals (28 percent).

Flotsam and jetsam (1/26)

Do you see it? We have an immense propensity to take the gospel and turn it into law. We love to take good and turn it into chains. Why do we do that?

If election were solely based on what God wanted and not anything in us that might differentiate the chosen from the un-chosen and thus account for why this one and not another, why didn’t God choose all? If he could have, why didn’t he?

While there is more we could expand on here, the question of the hour is this: If Satan is so evil and “anti-God” why did God put Satan in the Eden? While there is no way to know what would have happened had he not been present, it is evident from the narrative and the ensuing curse that Satan played a big part in the fall.

According to Leithart, water baptism has “virtually unbelievable powers” that makes someone a member of Christ instead of Adam, turns someone into a member of Christ’s body, and brings someone into acceptance with God.

Flotsam and jetsam (Labor Day edition)

To celebrate Labor Day, here are some of the more interesting recent blog posts from around the internet on the theme of work and labor.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/20)

Free market economics through the lens of sin, power, and human flourishing (Acton 4)

[Oops. I wrote this while I was at Acton, but neglected to publish it. So, before anyone comments, yes I know that 4 comes before 7.]

One of the consistent themes here at Acton has been the idea that economics is not a zero-sum game. Rather than trying to determine how to divide up a finite pie of economic resources (wealth re-distribution), we should be focusing on how the proper use of capital resources creates more capital and greater global wealth. And, the best way to allocate those capital resources properly is to allow local economies to flourish. Some centralization of governmental authority is necessary to ensure that market forces don’t get out of hand, but in general we should facilitate the development of free markets that can respond swiftly to market demands and tap the resources of creative individuals/communities.

An issue that often arises in these discussions is that of global poverty, particularly poverty in majority world countries. Applying these free market principles means that the best way to address poverty is through the development of free market economies that will facilitate the production of greater wealth. Although “aid” should be an important part of our response to crisis situations, continual aid leads to an unhealthy dependence that destroys local economies. So, instead of “aid”, we should be focused on supporting local, free market economies. This is the best way to address global poverty. And, the growing economies of China and India are often cited as case studies in the application of these principles.

Although I can appreciate a lot about this arrangement, I am still left with at least four questions. One of them, the impact of this free market approach on the environment, I’ll save for my next post. In this one I’d like to focus on the issues of sin, power, and human flourishing.

1. Sin. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s easy to talk about a “market” as an abstract force in society, and then discuss its potential for good in the world. That’s nice. But, when we realize that markets comprise the actions of individuals and communities which are themselves sinful and driven by sinful desires, the level of optimism should decrease significantly. And, Acton is fully aware of this problem. That’s why none of the lectures rejected a role for government in monitoring markets entirely (even though some of the rhetoric still pressed in this direction). But, their preferred answer to the problem of sin is the development of “virtuous” people and societies, who will then develop more “virtuous” markets. Unfortunately, “virtue” is one of those terms that never received adequate definition. Presumably they meant the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, etc.). But, since they’re not talking about evangelism per se, they must be talking about developing “Christian” virtues in non-Christian contexts. (In other words, for market purposes it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, as long as you’re trustworthy.) But, I’m still waiting for some discussion of what it means to develop Christian virtues apart from Christ, who gets to determine which virtues are necessary, and how they do that. So, in general, I’d still like to see more reflection on the nature of sin and how it impacts this appeal to free markets.

2. Power. This one is similar to the last, but nuanced in a particular way. In one discussion this week, someone pointed to the problem of malaria in the majority world as an example of a situation that free markets seem poorly positioned to address. According to him, Malaria has the greatest impact on poor children in the majority world. Since such children have no capital resources, large pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in affordable malaria medications. An example like this powerfully demonstrates the problem of unequal power distribution in the world and its impact on free markets. It would seem that as long as such inequities exist, there will be a tendency for free markets to cater to the needs and desires of those already powerful and wealthy. Granted, as someone points out, it’s actually in the best interests of the market to bring people out of poverty because it creates a larger and wealthier market. But, to hope that the market (i.e. the sinful people making economic decisions) will take such a long-range view, often against its own short-term interests, is a little more than I can manage.

3. Human Flourishing. And, we’re back to this one again because I think it’s at the center of so many of these issues. At the very end of one session someone asked why it is that so many people look at the growing economy of China and worry about what that economic growth is doing to the overall well-being of the people. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss this one because I thought it raised a great question. If we’re not careful, this approach would seem to run the risk of equating human flourishing with economic well being, albeit virtuously economic well-being. So, we end up with a more Christian version of the homo economicus. I think the concerns people raise about rapid economic development are based on an almost unconscious realization that human flourishing involves so much more. So, a discussion of economics has to be grounded in an understanding of (at least) what makes for human flourishing in the world so that we can determine when economic growth does or does not serve that greater end.

One of the consistent themes here at Acton has the idea that economics is not a zero-sum game. Rather than trying to determine how to divide up a finite pie of economic resources (wealth re-distribution), we should be focusing on how the proper use of capital resources creates more capital and greater global wealth. And, the best way to allocate those capital resources properly is to allow local economies to flourish. Some centralization of governmental authority is necessary to ensure that market forces don’t get out of hand, but in general we should facilitate the development of free markets that can respond swiftly to market demands and tap the resources of creative individuals/communities.

An issue that often arises in these discussions is that of global poverty, particularly poverty in majority world countries. Applying these free market principles means that the best way to address poverty is through the development of free market economies that will facilitate the production of greater wealth. Although “aid” should be an important part of our response to crisis situations, continual aid leads to an unhealthy dependence that destroys local economies. So, instead of “aid”, we should be focused on supporting local, free market economies. This is the best way to address global poverty. And, the growing economies of China and India are often cited as case studies in the application of these principles.

Although I can appreciate a lot about this arrangement, I am still left with at least four questions. One of them, the impact of this free market approach on the environment, I’ll save for my next post. In this one I’d like to focus on the issues of sin, power, and human flourishing.

1. Sin. As I mentioned in the previous post, it’s easy to talk about a “market” as an abstract force in society, and then discuss its potential for good in the world. That’s nice. But, when we realize that markets comprise the actions of individuals and communities which are themselves sinful and driven by sinful desires, the level of optimism should decrease significantly. And, Acton is fully aware of this problem. That’s why none of the lectures rejected a role for government in monitoring markets entirely (even though some of the rhetoric still pressed in this direction). But, their preferred answer to the problem of sin is the development of “virtuous” people and societies, who will then develop more “virtuous” markets. Unfortunately, “virtue” is one of those terms that never received adequate definition. Presumably they meant the Christian virtues (love, joy, peace, etc.). But, since they’re not talking about evangelism per se, they must be talking about developing “Christian” virtues in non-Christian contexts. (In other words, for market purposes it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, as long as you’re trustworthy.) But, I’m still waiting for some discussion of what it means to develop Christian virtues apart from Christ, who gets to determine which virtues are necessary, and how they do that. So, in general, I’d still like to see more reflection on the nature of sin and how it impacts this appeal to free markets.

2. Power. This one is similar to the last, but nuanced in a particular way. In one discussion this week, someone pointed to the problem of malaria in the majority world as an example of a situation that free markets seem poorly positioned to address. According to him, Malaria has the greatest impact on poor children in the majority world. Since such children have no capital resources, large pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to invest in affordable malaria medications. An example like this powerfully demonstrates the problem of unequal power distribution in the world and its impact on free markets. It would seem that as long as such inequities exist, there will be a tendency for free markets to cater to the needs and desires of those already powerful and wealthy. Granted, as someone points out, it’s actually in the best interests of the market to bring people out of poverty because it creates a larger and wealthier market. But, to hope that the market (i.e. the sinful people making economic decisions) will take such a long-range view, often against its own short-term interests, is a little more than I can manage.

Human Flourishing. And, we’re back to this one again because I think it’s at the center of so many of these issues. At the very end of one session someone asked why it is that so many people look at the growing economy of China and worry about what that economic growth is doing to the overall well-being of the people. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to discuss this one because I thought it raised a great question. If we’re not careful, this approach would seem to run the risk of equating human flourishing with economic well being, albeit virtuously economic well-being. So, we end up with a more Christian version of the homo economicus. I think the concerns people raise about rapid economic development are based on an almost unconscious realization that human flourishing involves so much more. So, a discussion of economics has to be grounded in an understanding of (at least) what makes for human flourishing in the world so that we can determine when economic growth does or does not serve that greater end.

There’s a hole in your book

I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading and thinking lately on the Gospel. That is partly because we have had an intense faculty discussion this year on what it means to be a seminary focused on Gospel-Centered Transformation. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect deeply on what I think the Gospel is and where I’m dissatisfied with many of the Gospel presentations that I hear. Along the way, I’ve also had the opportunity to read a number of books on the Gospel. So, I thought that now might be a good time to begin a series of reviews on books that are specifically about the Gospel.

I’m going to begin today with a review of Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God expect of us? The answer that changed my life and might just change the world (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Since the book comes with no less that twenty-seven endorsements from people as diverse as Madeleine Albright, Bono, and Eugene Peterson, apparently lots of people liked it. That must mean that I’m in the minority.

If you’re looking for a book that will lay out the full scope of the various humanitarian crises facing the world, as well as the inadequacy of the western church’s response, this book is well worth reading. As president of World Vision, U.S., Stearns is very aware of a wide range of global issues, and he presents these issues in vibrant color with lots of stories. So, on this level, the book is fascinating, engaging, and compelling.

But, the book is fundamentally lacking in at least three ways. The first comes from the book’s prominent claim to be about the Gospel. The central assertion of the book is that there is a hole in our Gospel—i.e. the Gospel as we usually hear it is incomplete. That in itself is not an unusual claim. Lots of people are saying that these days. But, Stearns completely fails to explain what he thinks the Gospel actually is. Lacking more than a cursory statement about the Gospel, we are left without any basis for evaluating his claim that our Gospel is missing something.

Second, when Stearns actually gets around to saying something about the Gospel, it’s often problematic. Take this statement for instance. Trying to explain “The Bible for Dummies,” Stearns claims that the basic message of the Bible is “Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it” (p. 66). Really? If that’s the essence of the Gospel, we’re all in trouble. Because, of course, we can’t. That’s the whole point. Now, I’m sure Stearns fully recognizes that the Gospel probably should say something about Jesus, but he rarely doe so. Indeed, he says remarkably little in the book about Jesus beyond the example that he set for us in his kingdom preaching. To be fair, he is probably assuming that we know that part of the story and will simply make the connection ourselves. But, if you’re going to claim that this is a book about what’s lacking in other people’s Gospel messages, don’t make the problem worse by leaving a gaping hole in the middle of your own. Without a clear statement on the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as providing the only adequate basis and framework for Christian life, the book flirts with becoming a moralistic treatise on the need for Christians to do more.

And, third, what could have been the best part of the book—an emphasis on the Kingdom as essential for understanding the Gospel—falls far short. Stearns sounds almost postmillennial in places:

“his was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ was a call for a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now” (p. 16).

While I would strongly affirm that the Gospel is transformative and that this transformation involves the creation of a new Kingdom community (the Church) that stands as a witness to Kingdom realities and the coming realization of all God’s purposes, that is a far cry from saying that our task is to produce the Kingdom now through our own efforts.

Stearns is at his best when he’s arguing that a Gospel transformed life should be evidenced now. And he makes it very clear that there are crying needs in the world that need to be addressed by anyone claiming to live a Gospel-transformed life. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the “hole” he has in mind is a tendency to so other-worldly focused that we forget to live out the power of the Gospel in this world (p. 17). That’s fine and important. But, too often his argument becomes a mere call for action without a solid grounding in the Gospel realities that would make that action a meaningful response to the grace of the Gospel.

In short, there is a Gospel-shaped hole in the The Hole in Our Gospel.