When The Church Doesn’t Feel Triumphant

Abandoned Church Building .

Russell Moore on the church in America and our intersection with public policies in today’s New York Times. We are not a majority white church anymore more nor should we want to be.

The Bible calls on Christians to bear one another’s burdens. White American Christians who respond to cultural tumult with nostalgia fail to do this. They are blinding themselves to the injustices faced by their black and brown brothers and sisters in the supposedly idyllic Mayberry of white Christian America. That world was murder, sometimes literally, for minority evangelicals.

Alan Noble talks about  the politicization of our morals and how that has raised fences around our communities.

Politics do not (or at least should not) define us, but cultural values that are traditionally wrapped up in political movements impact our perception of our neighbor. If politicians and the pundits who support them regularly speak about immigrants as threats to our country or view poor minorities as drains on our economy, or if they mock Christian voters as backwards bigots and pro-life advocates as anti-woman, it shapes the way we envision one another. We grow skeptical of one another, hostile, and cynical. In a word, we become less neighborly.

Talented servants

The Parable of the Talents

A couple weekends ago I got to thinking about the Parable of the Talents. Different versions are found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27, but it’s the first one that interests me most. The two stories differ in the amount of money (talents, a Greek monetary unit figured to be worth about 20 years’ labor) the servants receive. In Matthew, the three servants get five, two, and one talent respectively. When the master returns, the first two have doubled their money, while the third has buried his; he gives the master back precisely what he got in the first place. The first two are commended. The slacker is punished. In Luke, each servant gets the same amount. I’ve always figured that was an earlier version of the story – any storyteller will refine his material over time. But more likely there’s a distinction in meaning I’ve just overlooked.

I’ve written about the Matthew parable here before, making the eccentric suggestion that Jesus was actually talking about time – the lengths of our lives – which tend to be unequal. But over that weekend I decided that was simplistic. The great complaint of humanity through all time (a whole economic system and political movement has been built on it) is that “life isn’t fair,” but ought to be. It seems to me that the basic terms of the Matthew version constitute an admission that the complaint is true. Time, abilities, and opportunities are distributed unevenly. It’s interesting that the servants are rewarded on a sliding scale. The one given less isn’t expected to produce the same sized dividend as the one given more. The only thing that’s punished is indifference.

It occurred to me that the number of talents has to do with more than just who’s more “talented” than someone else. Lots of things are unequal in our lives. One person might be born into a home where the talents are honored and encouraged. Another may be born into an indifferent, or even hostile, home. A person might be limited physically – what if a born painter goes blind? What if a born athlete suffers a spinal injury? Then there’s that time thing I’ve mentioned before. Some people die young, through disease or war or accident. It’s all part of the uneven distribution that’s fundamental to the story.

This helps to answer a question I used to ask, one born of my negative and pessimistic nature – “What if I invested my talents and it all got wiped out in a crash?” The answer is that the earnings aren’t the point. The master isn’t primarily concerned about returns. He’s interested in the kind of person the servant is – the quality of stewardship demonstrates character, maturity, and faithfulness.

On the Faith of Our Neighbors

Matt McCullough reviews Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, which focuses on a newly developed class of self-righteous Protestants who have redefined redemption in social terms.

These folks aren’t self-consciously religious, though they may consider themselves “spiritual.” They blame the Protestant Christianity of their parents for much of what’s worst in the world. But if they’ve cast off their parents’ theological and ecclesial commitments, they have inherited a robust confidence in their own “essential moral rightness” (13). In fact, without the work of Christ or the fellowship of the church to fall back on, their sense of moral enlightenment becomes all the more crucial. It’s how they know their lives are justified; it’s how they know they belong among those who “get it.”

… They’re set apart as a class by their ability to recognize and personally reject the forces of evil—especially bigotry, militarism, oppression, and (sexual) repression. And they enjoy calm assurance that they’re insiders to a better world coming just around the corner.

‘Caught,’ by Harlan Coben

Walker turned away because he didn’t want to admit that maybe Stanton had a point. You make so many calls in life that you don’t want to make – and you want those calls to be easy. You want to put people in neat categories, make them monsters or angels, but it almost never works that way. You work in the gray and frankly that kinda sucks. The extremes are so much easier.

During my Long March through the educational institution, I find that I have fallen behind in my Harlan Coben reading. There was a brand new book (I reviewed that the other day), plus two more I hadn’t noticed. This was good news – it meant a reading feast of extremely high quality.

Caught is, I think, my favorite to date of all Coben’s novels. The main character is Wendy Tyne, a television news reporter. She’s a young widow, and the mother of a teenage son. She does a feature where she lures child predators through online contacts, and then exposes them on video. That was how she “caught” Dan Mercer – a youth counselor whom everyone respected, and many loved – including the kids he worked with. Even Dan’s ex-wife staunchly defends him.

Then he gets tied to the disappearance of a local teenaged girl, and clues start pointing in all kinds of directions, and Wendy discovers a long-ago crime coverup, and begins to question her own judgment. Then a threat appears to her own family.

Caught is a complex story with complex characters. Not for Coben the simple stereotypes a lesser writer would have offered. The best characters can make terrible mistakes, and the worst have moments of goodness. I was particularly pleased by Wendy’s father, who rides a motorcycle and belongs to the NRA and is a fine, loving, wise man.

Harlan Coben, as far as I can figure out, is Jewish. But the major theme of this book is forgiveness, and the way he handles the subject will be edifying to any Christian.

Highly recommended. The language is mild by thriller standards. There’s no on-screen sex, and the violence is minimal, though some crime descriptions can be harrowing.

Fifty years

I should know better than to put faith in signs and portents, but for some reason the year 1965 seems to have been getting in my face lately.

I find it odd, and amusing, and somewhat annoying, to know that for many of you, 1965 might as well be 1945 or 1865 – it was before your time. It was history.

But I was there. Fifty years ago this year. I was there when that song I posted last week – A Lover’s Concerto – was released (I don’t mean I was in Motown, but I was on the planet). Men wore suits with narrow lapels, and thin ties. Women still wore hats to church. All but the most moral and health-conscious people smoked. Teenaged boys wore their hair greased back in ducktails. Cars had chrome.

And then there was my confirmation. I was confirmed on June 20, 1965. I was reminded of this while attending the confirmation of a friend’s daughter this past weekend. It suddenly struck me – my own confirmation was fifty years ago this summer.

No one ever forgets their confirmation, I think, even if they become atheists or Muslims or join the Green Party. But mine was particularly memorable. And not in a good way. Continue reading Fifty years

‘Extreme Prey,’ by John Sandford

He fit in the crowd like pea in a pod, he thought: the basic difference between Minnesotans and Iowans was a line on a map. Other than that, they were the same bunch, except, of course, for the physical and spiritual superiority of the Minnesota Gophers over the Iowa Hawkeyes, in all ways, and forever. Between the Hawks and the Badgers… they’d have to work that out themselves.

Another Prey book from John Sandford. Another good, entertaining story, and this time – I’m happy to report – a little lighter on the perversion and sadism.

As Extreme Prey begins, Lucas Davenport is working on remodeling his Wisconsin cabin, ogling his sexy carpenter. He’s unemployed for the moment (no great hardship for a multimillionaire), having quit his job with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Nevertheless, he still takes a call from the governor.

The governor is running for the presidential nomination (Democrat), and he’s worried about the safety of the front-runner in the race, Michaela Bowden, a former cabinet secretary. Messages he’s gotten from the lunatic fringe among his supporters have him suspicious that there’s an assassination plot aimed at Bowden. So he asks Lucas to liaise with her campaign and try to ferret out the plot, if one exists. Everybody’s in Iowa for the state fair this week, so that’s where Lucas heads in his big Mercedes SUV.

What follows is one of the more entertaining and thoughtful of the Prey stories. The plot centers around an eccentric band of rural activists, violent and crazy, but just like regular folks in alarming ways. I admired the way author Sandford defused the political implications of such a story by pretty much ignoring Republicans altogether, except for a few slighting asides. The very good and the very bad are all Democrats, and they too are not immune to criticism and satire.

As in all the Prey books, there’s plenty of low humor, and a lot of rough language. But the level of cruelty and gore is lower this time around. I enjoyed Extreme Prey a lot.

What We Eat Vs. Food Culture

Nicholas Hune-Brown describes how foodie trends don’t reflect most of what Americans actually eat.

The gap between the food we cook and the food we talk about has never been larger. Culturally, it’s the same gap that exists between The Americans—the brainy FX spy show that seems to have nearly as many internet recappers as viewers—and shows like the immensely popular and rarely discussed NCIS. Breathless blog posts about the latest food trends can feel like certain corners of music criticism, pre-poptimism, when writers would obsess over the latest postrock band that was using really interesting time signatures while ignoring the vast majority of music people listened to on the radio. The food at Allrecipes is the massively popular, not-worth-talking-about mainstream.

This is another example of how the culture of media people or the culture of the places where most news writers work chafes with middle and small town America. I don’t think it has to be an uncomfortable chaffing, but writers should be aware of it. Food writers may love to write about what’s new and different and extol new theories of nutrition and flavor, but eating has many ties to traditions, personal comforts, family, and even ceremony. We don’t cook for critics; we cook to bless the people at our table (sometimes that just ourselves). And around the holidays, our family traditions (or a specific rejection of them) are like a fuming stew pot, filling the air with expectations. If food writers don’t share our traditions and comforts, if they have deliberately rejected them for personal or professional reasons, then they’re going to push us away from their table to some degree. We may still appreciate what they have to say, but when it comes to actually eating, well, we may ignore them more often than not. (via ArtsJournal)

What we do with our dreams

Sorry I didn’t post last night. I got into customer service purgatory with my antivirus provider. Oddly, I didn’t have to wait on hold at all; it was the actual work that took forever. Of course I had to yield personal control of my machine to some guy in India, which I wouldn’t gladly do even if he were in Minneapolis. But I’m pretty sure that if I’d tried to follow instructions to do it all myself, I’d have ended up just running to Micro Center and buying a new computer.

The Sensation

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my post on The “Lover’s Concerto” music clip. I’m still watching it – not as many times a day, I guess, but it never fails to run a semi-physical thrill through me, along the shoulders and up my neck to the brain.

I’ve had such reactions to various things in my life – often to music (“The Theme from Exodus”, Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell”). Sometimes to art, such as a painting of a Viking ship in a history book my folks bought us once. Sometimes to books, like a couple of passages in The Lord of the Rings. Sometimes to scenery – my favorite was, and remains, a day when the sky is a leaden blue-gray but the sun shines brightly through a gap onto the trees and grass, so that they glow against the iron background.

If I had to explain my life – the choices I’ve made, the successes and mistakes, I’d say that my lodestar has always been an impossible beauty. One that can never be attained in this world, but that can never be forgotten either, that drives unending effort for something that I know can’t be completed, but which for some reason does not make me despair.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Continue reading What we do with our dreams

Luther Documentary Kickstarter

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg church, intending to invite debate on the doctrine of indulgences and its implication. Next year is the 500th anniversary of that decision.

LUTHER Official Teaser Trailer from Stephen McCaskell on Vimeo.

Now, the makers of the film Through the Eyes of Spurgeon are raising money to fund their production of a documentary on Luther.

‘Fool Me Once,’ by Harlan Coben

Wow. What a book. Harlan Coben is one of the best thriller writers around, but Fool Me Once is unlike anything he’s written before.

I might have been inclined to pass this one over, because it involves a woman in combat, a subject that troubles me. But I trust Coben, so I went ahead and read it, and I’m glad I did. You could make an argument that the story supports my views, but I doubt that’s what Coben had in mind. Whatever his intentions, he’s written a fine, taut, explosive story.

Maya Stern Burkett is a veteran helicopter pilot from the Middle East war. She was briefly famous when video of her killing civilians during a rescue mission was leaked by a whistleblower web site. That ended her military career. Now she’s an aviation instructor. Some people say that death follows her, and it seems as if it might be true. Her sister was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered while she was overseas, and now her husband, Joe Burkett, scion of a rich and powerful family and the father of her two-year-old daughter, has been murdered.

After the funeral, Maya’s sister-in-law gives her an unexpected gift – a nanny camera. Maya trusts her nanny, and doesn’t understand the gift, but she uses it… and one day she sees something that can’t possibly be real on its daily recording. Maya starts asking questions and begins to learn that very little in her world is what it seems to be. Her life, and her daughter’s, may be at stake.

Coben does a splendid job of describing the world of a soldier dealing with PTSD. And I don’t often say that a book’s ending shocks me, but this one did. It worked, though, and I won’t soon forget it.

Highly recommended. No sex, language fairly mild (as with all Coben’s books), and the violence isn’t overwhelming.

Tocqueville on the Tyranny of the Majority

And if you want a refutation of the wisdom of crowds—the “theory of equality applied to intelligence,” Tocqueville scoffs—look no further. As someone who believes that “freedom of the intellect is a sacred thing,” as Tocqueville does, “when I feel the hand of power weigh upon my brow, it scarcely matters who my oppressor is, and I am not more inclined to submit to the yoke because a million arms are prepared to place it around my neck.”

That same majoritarian tyranny explains why America’s elected officials are so mediocre. To win votes, they have to flatter public opinion with the obsequiousness of Louis XIV’s most sycophantic courtiers. Andrew Jackson is Tocqueville’s Exhibit A. He “is the slave of the majority,” Tocqueville sneers; “he obeys its wishes and desires and heeds its half-divulged instincts; or rather, he divines what the majority wants, anticipating its desires before it knows what they are in order to place himself at its head.” Like most politicians, he cares only about reelection, so that “his own individual interest supplants the general interest in his mind.” His (ultimately successful) vendetta against the Second Bank of the United States is a perfect example. Even though it inestimably benefits the nation by ensuring its monetary stability, Jackson happily attacks it, accusing its directors of being an aristocracy in the making, opposed to the democratic majority—and, incidentally, to Jackson as well. But of course, Jackson’s Democrats, the party that stands for the infinite expansion of the power of the people, have a permanent majority over the rival Federalists, who could win election only when the country needed to navigate the perils of the Founding, a unique emergency that prompted the Federalist Party’s superior men to accept public office.

From Myron Magnet’s essay, The End of Democracy in America” on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the French Revolution. (via Prufrock)

A private confession, just between you and me.

My name is Lars, and I’m an addict.

Wait, let me rephrase that.

I’m more… obsessed. Or compulsed. Compulsively obsessed.

With a music video.

No, not a music video. They didn’t exist back in 1965, when this was recorded. It’s a clip from a TV show called Hullabaloo, which I vaguely recall from my teenage years. We didn’t watch it very much.

And I wasn’t actually much aware of this song when it rose to Number Two on the Billboard chart. When I first noticed it, it was already an oldie. What it actually is, is an arrangement of the Minuet in G Major, which was long attributed to Bach but actually appears to have been first composed by a guy named Christian Petzold. The arrangers changed the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4, gave it lyrics and a Motown arrangement, and handed it over to a girl group called The Toys. And this is the result:

Continue reading A private confession, just between you and me.

My equestrian weekend

I wanted to upload a picture, but I’m having connection problems tonight, and anyway I didn’t take any photos this weekend that were much better than pedestrian (and you can’t have pedestrian at a horse show). The perfect thing would have been to get someone to snap me with an Icelandic horse, wearing my Viking gear, but that obvious idea never occurred to me at the time.

Anyway, it was a good weekend. In fact, although there were difficult parts, I’d say it was the best time I’ve had in a couple years. The first fling of my freedom, you might say, if you were in alliterative mood.

I’d been to the Minnesota Horse Expo at the state fairgrounds once before, years back. At that point, we were able to get a parking spot in the lot even though we weren’t bright and early. This year, although the horse barns and Coliseum are at the west end of the park, I had to park back near the east entrance. It’s gotten to be a big deal. There was no handicapped parking section. It was a long trek from my parking spot for someone with a recent hip replacement, but I made it, and I wasn’t even terribly stiff the next day. Continue reading My equestrian weekend

Cutting Corners with Other People’s Ideas

Untitled

Some Christian publishers are taking the expensive step of using plagiarism software during their editing process to guard against intentional and unintentional plagiarism, according to World Magazine. Emily Belz writes:

Most publishers think authorial self-preservation, strict contracts prohibiting plagiarism, and a good team of editors will result in a plagiarism-free book. But when plagiarism is unintentional—a missed citation or a miscopied note from a research assistant or just sloppiness—those checks can be insufficient.

I saw this kind of unintentional plagiarism or sloppiness while editing a set a workbooks a few years ago. Usually I was verifying a quotation to see if the attribution was correct, and some of them had incorrect or odd punctuation, so I tried to find an adequately sourced quotation in order to correct what my manuscript. A couple times I found the quotation and surrounded text were all quoted from another work and improperly attributed.

Professor Collin Garbarino gives World this explanation for this persistent problem. “We’ve got some pastors writing books on topics that they only superficially understand. If you haven’t mastered the subject matter, you’re going to have to rely on someone else for your ideas. If you’re under a deadline, you might cut corners.”

Imitating God as a Gardener

Garden
Pete Peterson shares some thoughts he learned from Norman Wirzba on a theology of eating. A gardener with many animals, Peterson asks, “If we are the Body of Christ, are we not also called to be gardeners and caretakers of the New Creation?

He writes:

Each morning when I wake, I am the celebrant in a liturgy that leads me through the sacrament of Creation. I process through garden aisles. I pastor the beans, and the grape vines, and the apple trees, and, yes, even the chickens and ducks. They sing praises in crows and quacks. They make offerings of eggs, or fruit, or even simple beauty. They come forward to partake of the food I offer, and I leave them with a blessing.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture