Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Pathologically Incapable of Accepting Responsibility"

This dressing down of the British Prime Minister before the G20 Summit is brutal, yet just, and highly applicable to our own situation in the United States. By all means, click on the link and view it.

Hat Tip: Bob Krumm

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A God who Is Everywhere

Depending on their varying vantage points, different people can see the same set of facts in quite differing ways. In terms of religion, the same doctrine can comfort one person, while causing consternation on the part of another. Take, for example, the omnipresence of God.

Christians have traditionally understood that God is omnipresent -- that is, he is at all places at all times. There is no place that one can go that God is not. The Psalmist expressed the thought this way:

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me
and the light about me be night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you
---Psalm 139:7-12 (ESV)

The second commandment prohibits the use of graven images as objects of worship, and this is partly due to the notion that the use of such images encourages the idea, conscious or unconscious, that God is limited to being where the images are located. Isaiah showed the inadequacy of fashioning a likeness to God, saying that such attempts failed to understand that God "sits above the circle of the earth" (Is. 40:18-22, ESV) God is too great to be pictured. He can not be reduced even to our most ornate or creative masterpieces.

For the Christian, the idea that God is at all places at all times is a source of comfort. In Psalm 139, quoted above, the writer reflected on God's omnipresence by saying, "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God....I awake and I am still with you"(vv. 17-18, ESV) Understanding God to be great in grace and mercy and eternally committed to those whom He has called as His own, the Christian rejoices that there is no place that he can go and be outside of God's oversight and protection. While we sometimes are tempted to wish that we could go our own way, in the end we are grateful to remain under his watchful care.

Unfortunately, others have a different reaction. Over the weekend, I attended at the Christian Book Expo in Dallas a debate between Christopher Hitchens and four Christians on the existence of God. The tone of the debate was civil and respectful, but Mr. Hitchens made quite clear his utter disdain for the notion of a God that he could never get away from. He compared the thought to an evil parent from whom a child could never escape, not even for a moment, for all eternity.

Of course, this is not a new complaint. Among many others, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre considered the idea of a subject-object relationship with God as being something to despise, and, as with Mr. Hitchens, the thought led him into atheism. However, while it is not new, this strikes me as sad. To know God is to value His presence. The fact that He is forever with me brings joy and freedom, not sorrow and slavery.

Of course, ultimately -- and Mr. Hitchens also pointed this out, though he mistakenly believed it to be in his favor -- the question of God's existence cannot be decided based on what we wish to be true. I am convinced that the best evidence suggests that God really is there -- and here. We are never outside of His presence. For that, I shall be forever grateful.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Worse than AIG

Let's begin by stipulating for the sake of argument that everything about AIG and these bonuses is as bad as their critics are stating. In this post or elsewhere, I am holding no brief for AIG. Nonetheless, the most disconcerting thing about this entire mess is the way that U.S. lawmakers and government officials have responded to it. Those responses should give every American -- left, right, and center -- pause. Consider:

In his opening statement to Edward Liddy at today's House Finance Committee subcommittee, Chairman Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) sternly told Mr. Liddy that he should have committed a civil tort. Making reference to a practice that Mr. Liddy's previous employer, Allstate, has often been accused of, Chairman Kanjorski told the witness that even if he and his legal team believed the contractual obligation to pay bonuses to be airtight, they should have still refused to pay the bonuses and forced the employees to take them to court. For a lawmaker publicly to advise a private citizen to commit a tortious act is amazing, indeed.

Of course, this follows the threats of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and others, who advised the AIG executives that they faced the choice of either returning the bonuses voluntarily or paying them as taxes under legislation that they promised to get passed. This threat has not gotten the attention it should. Sen. Schumer is contemplating using the tax code as a means of retroactively targeting specific individuals from a specific company in order to confiscate monies that they received legally. This is fascism pure and simple.

Of course, making sure that deplorable behavior by congressional leaders is a bipartisan affair, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) urged the same executives to either resign or commit suicide. He has since apologized, but, really, what decent person says this kind of stuff?

They really are worse than AIG

Monday, March 09, 2009

Writing for the Phone Booth Party

The Oracle notes this day that the same conservative writer who wrote a couple of years ago accusing conservatives such as Robert Novak of being "anti-American," (he opposed the Iraq War), is now doing the cover story for Newsweek talking about how bad Rush Limbaugh is for the Republican Party.

I am not here to advocate for Limbaugh (especially given that this is a sideshow being promoted courtesy of Rahm Emmanuel), as I understand both his strengths and weaknesses as a populist and a conservative, but really: before David Frum speaks of someone else as the wrong messenger, perhaps he should look at his own increasingly narrow visage in the mirror.

The Uncertainty Created by Economic Policy Quote of the Day

"My job is pretty much recession proof. I just hope it's Obama proof."

-- from an email from my co-blogger Lanette, who rightly has concerns that the President's policies will result in a reduction in investment in pharmaceutical research.

I would add this less pungent and more long winded thought: with the Dow Jones Industrial Average having dropped roughly 20% since inauguration day, and with the normally articulate President now babbling incoherently about "gyrations" and encouraging people to buy stock, even as he proposes a series of policies that would force dramatic changes in industries that comprise more than half of the entire American economy (health care, finance, energy, transportation, etc.) while also making radical changes to the tax code and levels of government spending, one fears that the President has ideological commitments that make it impossible for him to face economic realities.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Finding the Right Words

I know that many people believed that the more recent former President Bush was dumb -- and Dan Quayle, too -- but I am relatively certain that they understood the difference between a "gyration" and a free fall.

Note to President Obama: when you take the plunge and are wondering whether the bungee cord will work, it is not the spinning that you are thinking about.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Book Review: "Christless Christianity"

When I was growing up, evangelicals would point to the declining membership numbers of the more liberal mainline churches and offer them as proof that when churches lose the Gospel, those churches empty. That never really was a very good argument, but Michael Horton, in his new book, Christless Christianity, makes a better argument expressing concern about a more ominous possibility: that churches would lose Christ and the Gospel and keep on going without noticing the difference.

In spite of the title, Dr. Horton (he holds a Ph.D from the University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) acknowledges that American Christianity has not yet reached the place where it can be referred to as "Christless;" but he does persuasively argue that we are in many instances precariously close. In his critique, he does not let either conservatives or liberals off of the hook. Rather, he argues that both sides of the theological spectrum frequently proclaim views that bear less resemblance to historic Christianity than to a sort of "moralistic, therapeutic deism."

That is not to say that American Christians don't talk about Jesus: we do a lot. However, the Christ we talk about is frequently not the one who is presented in the Bible as the Lord who died on a Cross and rose again for the salvation of sinners. Rather, he is a "life coach" dispensing good advice on how to live. Too many who ask "what would Jesus do" fail to really focus on "what has Jesus done." The result is a graceless legalism that ultimately leads to burnout and/or self-righteousness.

The charge of legalism will strike many contemporary Christians as strange, as they think of their churches as providing something different from the fire and brimstone, as well as the lists of rules, emphasized in churches from their past. However, Dr. Horton says modern churches offer a message of "legalism lite." While the rules are less stringent and the messages are more affirming, the bottom line message is still that for one to be successful, one should "do better and try harder." However, doing better and trying harder will never lead us to the Promised Land. That message will lead many either to self-righteousness or to giving up.

In contrast to the "good advice" given in such churches, Dr. Horton argues that the Bible offers "good news." The good news starts with really bad news: we are sinners, and God is Holy. But God has intervened decisively, doing for human beings what we can not do. The message of Christianity is not "do more, try harder." It is to repent and believe. Not by working, but by His means of grace -- Gospel preaching, baptism, Communion -- we find new life.

Dr. Horton applies his critique to varying movements that he argues ultimately have more in common than they would imagine: the smarmy positive thinking of Joel Osteen, the "emergent church movement," the "church growth movement," and both the religious right and the religious left. He argues that our legalistic message, with an emphasis on what we do and not on what God has done, ultimately leads us to be more offensive, not more relevant. In a particularly poignant passage, he writes:

"Yes, there is hypocrisy, and because Christians will always be simultaneously saint and sinner, there will always be hypocrisy in every Christian and in every church. The good news is that Christ saves us from hypocrisy too. But hypocrisy is especially generated when the church points to itself and to our own "changed lives" in the promotional materials. Maybe non-Christians would have less relish in pointing out our failures if we testified in word and deed to our need and God's gift for sinners like us."

Indeed. I highly recommend this book.

Gran Torino: a Brief Review

In Gran Torino, Walter Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man, haunted by past actions, whose life is going downhill. His wife has just died. His own health is declining. He has children and grandchildren whose attitude toward him alternates between neglect and spite, and it is hard to blame them. He lives in a declining, gang infested neighborhood that is ethnically changing. Given his unrestrained bigotry, the changes don't suit him well.

While a bigot, Mr. Kowalski can hardly be accused of discriminating, as he hates pretty much every body. Over the course of the movie, he manages to say things offensive to Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Italians, Poles, and Catholics. I'm sure I've left someone out.

The genius of Mr. Eastwood's performance is that he somehow manages to make this character somewhat sympathetic. As one might expect, the character manages to grow over the course of the movie, but the growth is mitigated. He never becomes someone other than who he is.

However, he does learn to care for his new Asian neighbors, who he initially hated. Mr. Kowalski is not shy about using his guns to protect himself and others in his increasingly violent neighborhood. His standing down of some gang members results in an act of brutal retaliation, and that leads to the somewhat surprising climactic scene in which the protagonist takes his opponents down.

I did not expect to like this movie, but I did.