Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On the Credibility of Public Broadcasting

The reason we started PBS and NPR and the CPB was to allow for broadcasting free of commercial interests, right? So public broadcasting is supposed to look carefully to its credibility, its only real currency with the public.

And now, with the threat that federal funds might dry up, PBS is running advertisements (most of what is advertised on PBS is PBS, of course) implying that if federal funding ends, PBS may disappear, along with all the programs that have ever aired on it. Somehow, public broadcasting can't survive at all if it loses the small margin of funding it gets from Uncle Sugar.

This is the kind of blatant fear-mongering that normally gets lambasted by pundits when it's carried on by political candidates. When threats like this are used to sell commercial products, truth-in-advertising watchdogs go into hyperdrive.

When PBS does it, apparently no one notices.

Because apparently, no one is watching PBS but SWNID.

BHO in Libya: The Stubborn Refusal to Risk Leading

Nothing should make the world miss Dubya quite so much as the spectacle of reticence, delay and silly squabbling that has erupted in Libya.

First, Obama used diplomacy to slow down the impetus to act to save the nascent rebellion and its civilian supporters and bystanders. Forgetting the lessons of Bosnia, Kosova and Rwanda, Obama squelched moves to intervene.

Then, pushed by allies without and cabinet members within, Obama acceded to action. The UN acted in record time, for the UN, but by then it was the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute. If anything has been saved by the intervention, it was saved at greater cost and less effect than if action had been taken days before.

Then, acting just like every other POTUS since and including Washington, Obama showed little respect for his duty to consult with Congress and seek its approval before making war.

Then, suddenly loath to spend money and concerned about the undefined mission of the operation, he insisted that the US would not lead the coalition for more than a little bit.

And so now, the Germans are pulling out of NATO, the French and the British and the Italians are at odds with us, and no one is even attempting to define what everyone is doing or why. And all that when the objective should be clear: we are protecting the lives of insurgents, moving toward coordination of their ground operation with air support to pressure Gadaffi to surrender power and leave the country.

This is not a failure of leadership. This is a stubborn refusal even to consider exercising it. It's symptomatic of a lack of experience in making decisions, of never having faced consequences for the failure to act, of imagining that collective leadership can function, and ultimately of being more concerned to keep one's own image and record pure than to something that might matter to people who would otherwise be killed by a tyrant.

Anybody remember Martin Niemöller's famous quotation? Anybody see how continually insisting that we don't have a national interest in this or that ruthless dictator's slaughtering of his people rings hollow after awhile?

Monday, March 21, 2011

NPR: Collapsing or Right-Sizing?

If you’re saying we’re a liberal propaganda front, you’re insulting the intelligence of millions and millions of conservatives who listen to us every day. You are saying they’re stupid.
--Steve Inskeep, NPR correspondent and anchor

SWNIDish first: a positive citation of a Howard Kurtz article.

Kurtz reports lots and opines a little about the NPR kerfuffle, and the reportage is good. In sum, NPR is expanding its audience and to all accounts offers reasonably balanced news coverage. SWNID, as alert and gentle readers will remember, concurs heartily.

What's amusing about Kurtz's piece, however, is the revelation that the prospective loss of federal funds will result in a 10-15% loss of overall revenue to NPR, which Kurtz glosses as NPR's "collapse." Kurtz, as we have suspected, obviously belongs to that vast tribe of citizens who have never done a budget.

Unless NPR simply can't somehow appeal to its donor/listener base for additional cash (campaign suggestion: "put off trading your Subaru for one more year and send us what you save"), or prioritize its operations for savings on the expense side, or both, a revenue loss of that size will hardly destroy the organization. Most for-profit and not-for-profit businesses have dealt with shortfalls of this magnitude a lot recently, and we're doing fine, thank you very much.

Kurtz notes that NPR execs say that rural stations will feel the cuts most. SWNID says, why not? The Republic subsidizes a lot of rural citizens in a lot of ways, and not necessarily for the common good. Why should Uncle Sugar spend my money to make it more culturally comfortable for a retired Boston schoolteacher to live in a scenic spot in Maine or Vermont or even New Hampshire? And if North Dakota has the lowest unemployment and a rapid rate of population growth, can't its hardy citizens pony up for Click and Clack? Somehow we don't think it's the rural poor memorialized by James Agee and Walker Evans who will be hurt most. And if the lack of NPR and broadband in the hinterlands encourages some people to move closer to the bright lights, will the result not in fact be savings on greenhouse gas emissions used to drive out to their wilderness homesteads and the returning of rural land to agriculture usage or even wilderness non-usage?

Seems to us that liberals and conservatives can agree that it's a bad idea to use the public purse to make it easier for folk to live in the country.

Or maybe NPR could just start a shortwave service, like the Beeb.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Rob Bell Kerfuffle and the Diabolical Power of the Christian Patron-Client System

Recently someone whom we know, in a fit of frustration over being continually hounded for redundant pronouncements about Rob Bell, flippantly pledged to give up discussion of Mr. Bell for Lent.

That decision might or might not be in keeping with a thoughtfully Christian approach that says serving others is more important than temporary, self-focused pledges to give up this or that. We gently remind our friend of this helpful paradox.

In so doing, we point gentle readers to today's WSJ opinion piece by John Wilson, the estimable editor of Books & Culture, on l'affaire Bell.

By the way, has anyone else noticed how ably WSJ deals with matters of faith when its editors take them up?

In truth, there's nothing new about Wilson's review of the situation (it is that more than a review of the book that he offers). He belongs to that tribe of critics who seem to understand that Bell is trying to do something that belongs in the church's long consideration of eternal things, that sincerely if imperfectly (as if that needs saying) tries to recall the church to consideration of the real contents of its sacred books and its divine, incarnate Lord. A quotation will suffice to demonstrate:

But anyone who carefully reads "Love Wins" will see that Mr. Bell is not a universalist. As C.S. Lewis did, he suggests that God grants free will to all, including those who do not want his divine company and therefore choose damnation.

Still, the account of heaven and hell that he rejects does sound a lot like what most Christians have taught and been taught for 2,000 years, with some modifications. The notion that heaven is the preserve of "a few select Christians" has never been normative. Though all too many Christians have strayed into that error over the centuries, most have not presumed to speculate about how crowded (or uncrowded) heaven will be. God is both perfectly merciful and perfectly just.

As the discussion of the issue itself has now become utterly sclerotic, we turn to another phenomenon that it demonstrates. Wilson rightly cites Albert Mohler's pronouncement of Bell as influential in sparking criticism against him. He could as easily have cited John Piper's now-famous tweet. Meanwhile SWNID and his friend have complained mightily about being asked repeatedly to read Mr. Bell's book and pass judgment on Mr. Bell's orthodoxy.

These instances disturbs us. They demonstrate for us that despite our best efforts and others' best efforts to educate Christians for greater self-sufficiency in their thinking, the vast, vast majority remain comfortably dependent on others to do their thinking for them. Quick judgments based on messages limited to 140 characters are all that most want.

"Tell us what to say, Herr Professor, and we will say it" was once said to the legendary Jacob Neusner when he expressed frustration at the stubborn refusal of German graduate students to participate in graduate seminars. Such lazy dependency is deplorable in a university setting, and it's at least irritating in the church.

We think that too many prominent Christian leaders are too ready to accept the role not just of influencer but of pontiff, for whatever number of adherents they can attract through their blogs (!), DVDs, books, tweets, and media-circulated pronouncements. It's time for them to quit posing as the church's protector against the tides of heterodoxy and start acting like the leaders who equip the church in the manner of Ephesians 4 instead of addicting the church in the manner of the guy who throws a pair of sneakers over a utility wire.

So in the end we commend our close friend for attempting to fast from tintinnabulating statements of and about Final Judgment.

Christians of the world, throw off your chains of authoritarian dependency! You have nothing to lose but your complacency!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

So Much for the "Thinking Person's Sarah Palin"

For those who thought that Michelle Bachmann is what Sarah Palin would be if Sarah Palin were smart . . .

Bachmann made a pre-primary foray into New Hampshire yesterday and committed the following crime against truth:

What I love about New Hampshire and what we have in common is our extreme love for liberty. You're the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord. And you put a marker in the ground and paid with the blood of your ancestors the very first price that had to be paid to make this the most magnificent nation that has ever arisen in the annals of man in 5,000 years of recorded history.

Everyone makes bloopers. But you'd kinda expect that Bachmann or someone who works for her would've caught this one when she's stepping on the Big Stage for the first time. Especially when she's repeatedly referencing revolutionary themes. Especially when she's repeatedly criticizing the effectiveness of public schools.

Much as we wish that blue states had nothing to do with our nation's liberty, we admit that Massachusetts had something to do with the Revolution.

We expect this tape to be run in a continuous loop until Bachmann retires from the field.

Once again, the GOP field is going to be clear for the grownups.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Evangelicals, Lent Us Your Ears!

AOL/Huffington features a column by one Tim Suttle, encouraging evangelicals to embrace the Lenten fast/sacrifice as a way to check the experience of "satiation," restoring a sense of dependence on God.

Fair enough and common enough, that's Lewis's point restated. We give it a B+. It's true and has value but misses the imperative opportunity.

We continue to offer this challenge, differently expressed yet again:

The follower of Jesus who understands the cross as demanding that one give one's life for the sake of others will constantly have her tendency to satiation checked by stepping out to risk serving another. That makes Lenten fasts redundant.

Maybe the church at large is frustrated with the shallow discipleship of the church in our age (and ages past) because we keep constructing shallow proxies for genuine discipleship.

Bell's Hell, Going on Eternally

The book still isn't out. But the opinions continue.

We kinda like Timothy Dalrymple's assessment of the Rob-Bell-is-a-smug-universalist controversy, offering as it does a decent assessment of the real struggle that Christians ought to have about issues of divine justice and eternal punishment. We think it ought to be read by gentle readers. Note well that Dalrymple has read a prepublication copy of the book but is refraining from direct public interaction with its contents out of respect for the publisher's request in giving him the copy.

To Dalrymple's stuff we add a couple of observations. Well, more than a couple:
  • There's more of a discussion to be had about the use of aion and its cognates than many of the responses to Bell have acknowledged, including Dalrymple. Knowing Bell's patterns of reasoning, we're sure he raised the issue in a rather shallow and uninformed way himself. But there's some complexity to the usage of this word that isn't being talked about to our satisfaction. Here's the deal--in sum and as we see it: aion and its cognates can mean "age" or "epoch" but they are commonly used in biblical literature to mean "having to do with the age to come," and so "eternal," inasmuch as the age to come is the final chapter in God's saga. Whether that means that the judgment of the age to come means everlastingly conscious punishment or something else that is enduring for the age to come (like some combination of conscious punishment and annihilation, or just annihilation) is harder to say with certainty. Two things to add to this: (a) the church that interpreted these texts as indicating everlasting conscious punishment wasn't doing it without good reasons; (b) this little discussion has been going on for centuries. Implication: we won't settle this, so we better acknowledge humbly what we know and what we don't, agreeing to get on with the fellowship and the evangelism.
  • Dalrymple notes that some revisionists' understanding of this issue seems to reflect a lack of appreciation for God's holiness/righteousness/justice. Perhaps so. But for many revisionists, the revision in fact reflects sincere thought about whether God's righteousness would demand what they describe as unending torture .* It's the implications of God's justice, not just whether it's a factor, that matters here, we think. If we were an annihilationist, we would find it unjust to be told that we didn't understand God's justice.
  • Again, we say that whatever it is that awaits the unredeemed, it is horrible in and of itself, and even more so in comparison to the gracious gift that God gives those who plead to Christ for divine mercy. That's why Dalrymple says that universalists can still be and often still are evangelists. That's why the precise contours of eternal punishment don't need to be known to discuss the gospel with people who need to hear it. We can, then, simultaneously agree to disagree (on hell, some) and agree (on what people need, and then get busy giving it to them, a lot).
  • Finally, Dalrymple belongs to that unhappy tribe that in this digital age continues to keyboard as if they were using a typewriter. To wit: he uses two spaces after periods, thereby disturbing the kerning functions so deeply and successfully embedded in digital media and leaving awkward empty spaces at the beginning of lines where the margins split the two spaces. He will be held to account for this someday.** Yes, we really do have opinions on everything.
*Rejoinder to those for whom the injustice of eternal torture is patent: what is clearly unjust for fallible, sinful and finite humans to exact as punishment on other humans is not necessarily unjust for the infallible, holy and infinite God. Still, there's an issue here to be taken very seriously.

**His post also has the humorous typographical error "eternal torment in hill," which we point out by way of amusement and not criticism, not wanting to point out specks when we have logs. See disclaimer.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mrs. Daniels: As Cool as Mitch

Here's a link to an Indy Star video interview of Cheri Daniels, wife of the superlative Gov. Mitch Daniels.

This is our first encounter with Mitch's spouse, and we are favorably impressed with her demeanor. We expect others will be as well. She seems warm, honest, down to earth, the kind of person you'd love to have as a friend.

Speculation has been that Mrs. Daniels objects to Mr. Daniels fulfilling his presidential destiny. One questions whether such is the case after viewing this interview. At the very least, Cheri Daniels is clearly a political asset to Mitch, should he decide to run.

From Your Biggest Fan: NPR, Wean Yourself

Nobody is a bigger fan of NPR than SWNID. Take that, liberals who imagine that conservatives get all their news from Fox! We spend about two orders of magnitude more time with NPR than with Murdoch's broadcasts, or Limbaugh or Beck or anyone or all of them together. Our most punched pre-set is for WVXU. We have presets for NPR affiliates in Oxford, Indianapolis and Chicago, so that we can listen more or less continuously on our most-traveled road trips. We can name reporters for All Things Considered and Morning Edition on the basis of their articulating less that one word. We've heard Susan Stanberg talk about her grandmother's cranberry relish about 120 times.

We're also pretty much into PBS. We rejoice that digital broadcast brings us about a dozen PBS channels to us. Life without American Experience or American Masters or Great Performances or even Nightly Business Report is unthinkable to us.

And we have never given Public Broadcasting a dime, and won't until NPR and PBS and CPB are unfunded by USA. And we might not then, either, because we are cheap and prefer to give to things that we believe in as opposed to those that we merely enjoy. But we dare/beg/insist that the government unfunding begin (N.B. that because the CPB is funded two years in advance, the pain won't be felt until networks and stations have oodles of time to adjust their budgets, just like actual businesses wish they did).

And when public broadcasting is federally unfunded, we hope that they'll make their advertising (a.k.a. "underwriting") explicit. It won't need to be rude like for-profit TV. But we don't think that Exxon sponsors Masterpiece Classic because it likes British costume drama. There's a reason why the radio network's last two initials are "PR."

And when they are unfunded, we hope that competitors arise. Remember when A&E was about Arts and Entertainment? When the History Channel was about history?

What if the Gray Lady used its considerable news-gathering and arts-criticism operations' excess capacity to create a radio network that does what NPR does, which is largely radio coverage of what's appeared earlier in the Times? Might they do that if they weren't competing with a subsidized entity? Might it "save" that misguided but estimable organization, now deep in a fiscal death-spiral?

Liberal bias? Well, we've been listening and watching for longer than most of America has been alive, and we can tell you that if anything, NPR and PBS have become more ideologically balanced than they were, say, in the Reagan Administration, when "Radio Sandinista" was an apt moniker. But really, who cares, unless we're all taxed to pay for it, and who is going to referee the establishment of objectivity? Where are the islands of objectivity in this great sea of bias that we all drown in?

Public broadcasting is elitist. As a self-styled elite, we like that. But we don't think that the lumpenproletariat ought to help pay for it. Its fans are richer than its non-fans. Let us have all of it that we will pay for.

On Disasters and Cultures

Over a little more than a year, we've had three major earthquakes hitting three island nations: Haiti, New Zealand, and Japan.

Viewing pictures of the devastation in Japan, we are sobered by the destruction and its toll on hundreds of thousands of lives, not just those killed or injured.

But we have a confidence that a year from now, Japan and New Zealand will be at a very different point of recovery than is Haiti, where rubble commonly remains exactly where it was the day after the quake that caused it.

This is not simply because Haiti is a poor country and the others are rich ones. It has to do with what makes a country economically rich, which is, arguably though hardly so, culture.

As we have noted before, on Haiti the impact of Voodoo, slavery, and most recently paternalistic international aid has been the establishment and reinforcement of a culture that perpetuates poverty. Most countries in the Caribbean are poor, but Haiti is profoundly worse off than all of its neighbors.

Voodoo has taught Haitians that the spirits present opportunities to take economic or sexual advantage of others, so promiscuity and stealing are fine if one can.

Slavery taught Haitians that not working is better than working.

Paternalistic international aid have more or less destroyed Haiti's agricultural economy, further destroying incentives to produce as commodities are donated and distributed freely, leaving the country worse off economically than it was a generation ago.

Again, for elaboration, we recommend the consistently insightful discussion of dysfunctional culture from Lawrence Henderson.

SWNID has many, many friends who work in Haiti to make people's lives better, with the good news and with good deeds. We have more respect for them than just about anyone we know, and we are glad to partner with them in any way that we are able.

But we find ourself at a point of perplexity. It was brought home to us when we attended a workshop on Community Health Evangelism, a potent means by which Christians have brought the well-rounded good news to underdeveloped peoples, at which the presenter, asked where CHE doesn't work, responded, "Haiti."

Can we find a way to help Haitians that doesn't also hurt them? Certainly we have helped many individuals, especially those who have left Haiti. Can Haiti ever get on a trajectory to become like Japan and New Zealand, where culture disciplines fallen human nature at least to avoid the grinding, near-universal poverty that inflicts untold and unnecessary misery on so many?

Japan and New Zealand, like Our Republic, need Jesus. As does Haiti. But Haiti needs in ways that those other countries don't.

What to do?

Not Abstaining from Lenten Observations

As an adjunct to our provocative Lenten observations, we offer the essay on C. S. Lewis's view of feasting and fasting offered by Asbury University English professor Devin Brown at Christianity Today.

Lewis had much to say about rightly enjoying God's creation, which he offered as in part as an antidote to the church's neo-Platonic hangover. The good food/bad food motif in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is familiar enough (though the movie blasphemously ruins it with the Beavers' presentation to the Pevensie children of an unappetizing, burnt fish), but Brown nicely lays out that and others of Lewis's expositions of the notion. Lewis, in sum, was an avid advocate of the feast.

In that light, Lewis argued that the fast is a temporary measure to pursue the proper ordering of our relationship to the creation. We think so, though we aver that such is not, as far as we can tell, a biblical notion of the fast as such, though it is just as much not an anti-biblical notion. Call it a revision and right-sizing of an historic Christian practice that lost its way early on.

Where does SWNIDish blather fit into this? Our point is that even with Lewis's right-sized understanding of the church's fasts, if all we're doing is reordering our relationship to creation, which we affirm is not an unimportant matter, then we have mightily missed something that is mightly important, squandering an opportunity to embrace the core implication of the good news. To wit: we are not reordering our relationship to others.

Some do so reorder. Indeed, many probably do. But more should.

Instead of or in addition to "giving up," we urge "reaching out," as in spending time and energy and treasure to make someone else's life better. And in more than 1/9 of the year.

SWNIDish Lent in the Dock

This would appear as a comment on our previous post, were it not too long. Perhaps we should give up verbosity for Lent.

Obviously we have struck a nerve. We reply briefly on several points.

To interlocutors who say that our view of Lent is incomplete, we reply that it is only our post that is incomplete, and for obvious reasons that it is a blog post and not a monograph. If Lent is practiced to urge people to love and good works, it is exactly what we urge, which you'll note is not the end of Lent but its reformation at the popular level. You'll note that we haven't said that the bad way is the only way all folk observe Lent, though we think it is at least the common way and probably the most obvious. We aren't throwing out the baby with the bath water. We are urging better bath water for the baby.

On the nature of biblical fasting, those who pose the question have concordances. We urge them to do their own work. Give up co-dependency for Lent.

Dr. Love, in your rejoinder you have embedded several assumptions that we find unwarranted. You can identify them and then decide whether they have warrant, and maybe even describe the warrant. We simply offer a different assumption that we think has warrant, and then follow it to a conclusion, assessing the capacity of the assumption to account for the evidence: if (as many have noted) the etiology of Hebrew fasting is ritualized mourning, and if that background is understood in many/most/or all of the relatively few biblical texts that mention the practice (and, we say again, never enjoin it on Christ's followers, though it remains something that they may do as they see fit), does a coherent picture emerge that challenges the other notions of fasting that we have picked up here and there, whether from the neo-Platonists of Alexandria, Byzantium and Rome or some other source (and it's not the source that disqualifies the notion, of course)?

Another point that y'all are missing is the object of mourning. Who are those who mourn/weep, whom God blesses under his end-time rule? They are those who mourn the miserable state of the world in rebellion against its God. Such mourning is necessarily and always the prelude to action as the agents of God's rule (hence, blessing on the merciful, peacemakers, persecuted for the sake of the Name). If not, it isn't mourning for the world that is in rebellion against this particular God that we say we worship.

And so to self-control, undeniably a biblical virtue, but rightly understood, like all biblical virtues, not as an ascetic virtue but a social one. Temporarily giving up one of God's good gifts for the sake of "self-control" is at best in the penumbra of the biblical virtue. At best. Consciously aiming through the power of Christ's Spirit to control oneself so as to be more loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, and such toward others is in the middle of the umbra. Note well that "self-control" is embedded in a virtue list that is undeniably social, not ascetic. Paul's use of Stoic vocabulary is at its foundations profoundly un-Stoic.

The ethic of the New Testament is centered on the center of the message of the New Testament: the incarnate Son of God died for others. It looks inward on the way to moving outward, and immediately. The Christ who arises early to pray does so because he moves on to the many villages of Galilee with the announcement of God's rule. The Christ who agonizes in the garden contemplates his death for the sake of others in submission to the good Father's will.

Though the direction of this conversation has brought us a measure of despair as to the potency of our teaching efforts, we rejoice at least that no one has challenged the fundamental notion in the previous paragraph, though we think some ignore it unconsciously as they process Lenten practice.

In his celebrated book on why he remains a Jew and did not convert to Christianity, Jacob Neusner, arguably the greatest scholar of the humanities of the last century and undeniably the greatest scholar of Second-Temple Judaism of his time, decried the tendency of Christianity to veer to aceticism, thereby denying the goodness of God's created gifts to humanity. Neusner claimed his beef was with Jesus, but we think he read Jesus through the lens of ascetic Christianity. In that light, he had a point. We are listening and urge others to do the same.

It is a tragedy that anyone might miss the message of the cross because we have miscommunicated it in our efforts to celebrate it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Celebrate a SWNIDish Lent

We're a day late to make Lenten remarks, but thirty-nine days is better than nothing.

The practice of Lent is ancient, representing a period of repentance leading up to the celebration of Easter. In the sweeping way that specialists in one area of learning deal with other areas, we'll offer that its origin and development had a lot to do with trying to address the nominalism of medieval Christianity with behavioral practices that drank deeply at the wells of neo-Platonic spirit/matter dualism, promoting aceticism, the denial of physical pleasures or the infliction of physical pain, as the antidote to lack of spirituality.

SWNID lives in ecclesiatical circles that historically rejected the medieval accretions of European Christianity, tried to reform or restore along biblical lines, and in the process adopted a lot of praxis that reflected American notions about individualism, democracy and the like. These days, some denizens of our circles tend to be rather self conscious about all that. Consequently, many are attracted to ancient practices that haven't been part of their experience. Like Lent. Like the so-called "classical spiritual disciplines." Like the lives of the saints, religious iconography, ancient liturgy, vestments, Gothic architecture, Gregorian chant, episcopal authority, etc.

But this is about Lent. Back to it, via what will seem a diversion.

Every Good Friday, the media covers the few folk, often these days in the Philippines, who allow themselves to be literally crucified (SWNID insists on using "literally" in its literal sense) though not to the point of death and often with sanitized, stainless-steel spikes. Our habit is to point out to our enthusiastic and impressionable students that this practice has no relationship to the teaching of Jesus or the example of Jesus. Jesus died for the sake of others. These folk are imitating Jesus' death purely to benefit themselves, as far as we can tell, by way of what is often called "mortification of the flesh" in a sense that the apostle who coined the phrase didn't intend. There's no discernible benefit to anyone else (the benefit to themselves is perverse, but that's another matter).

Now, to Lent. Is giving something up for Lent a thoughtful way to pursue repentance that is oriented to the Christ of the Cross? Or is it like self-crucifixion: having the appearance of spirituality but really tied to an orientation toward oneself that prioritizes one's own purity without considering that one's purity is defined by actions, rooted in attitudes, toward others? Is it a wasted opportunity to serve others that has been turned inward?

Mostly, what the modal Lenten observant gives up for Lent provides no benefit to anyone. Giving up coffee or chocolate or meat or Facebook or situation comedies or whatever--does anyone benefit from that but the one doing the giving up? And what benefit accrues even to that person? Does the Lenten observant become more loving, more generous, more thoughtful? If so, it is by indirect means only, so would it not be better to do so by direct means, that is, deliberately pursuing such virtues and behaviors?

And if doing this or that for forty days has such a benefit, is there some special reason to confine the practice to about a tenth of the year?

SWNID will be glad to hear from gentle readers who find Lent meaningful for some particular reason. But we lay down the challenge: how does one's observance of Lent honor the Christ who willingly gave his life to bring profound blessing to people who certainly didn't deserve it?

Monday, March 07, 2011

Two Minutes of Clarity

Why thoughtful conservatives (should we avoid redundancy there and just say "thoughtful folk"?) say it's time to change the way many state and local governments do business with their workers:

Thanks to gentle reader Raymond, whom everyone loves, for the intel on this Heritage Foundation video.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Bell Strikes Two: Boyd on Robbing Hell

Greg Boyd, who unlike most people in the conversation has read Love Wins, has weighed in on Rob Bell's heresy trial. In sum, the book really doesn't affirm universalism, and it's more about raising questions on hell than answering them.

Boyd's point is largely as Scot McKnight has already made it, but Boyd makes it nicely nevertheless.

Meanwhile, we haven't heard whether John Piper, guru of the neo-Puritan/Calvinist resurgence, has offered any qualification or retraction of his "Farewell" tweet that seems to have got the evangelical world talking about this. Piper plays a tune that leads many out of the town of Hamelin, namely, a firm and eloquent statement, absent of argument that acknowledges even the existence of counter-argument, that only Reformed Christianity is True Christianity. He appeals to those who long for a kind of theological certainty that grants them membership to an exclusive church that is small and pure. Call it the Elitism of False Radicalism.

For Piper, folks like Bell, McKnight and Boyd (indeed, SWNID too, if Piper ever had reason to take notice) are already outside the True People of God because they aren't sufficiently Reformed. If election is not unconditional, then God is not God, Jesus' death meant nothing, and people are left to save themselves, per Piper. Piper prays for those who disagree (though why is a bit of a mystery, as their "unbelief" is apparently predestined) and urges them to change their minds (see mystery above). But in the end he can easily dismiss one dissenter's defense of another precisely because that one is a dissenter, not because he engages the arguments or the evidence.

Now, some reflection. In the last couple of years, we've witnessed the rise and disappearance of emergent/emerging churches, the rise and ongoing decline of the neo-Calvinists, and the rise and near-burning-at-the-stake of Rob Bell and hipster Christianity. The pace of ecclesial trendiness is far, far too rapid for our taste. Christians, can we stop rushing about from one fad to the next, at least long enough to share the Lord's Supper or something?

Friday, March 04, 2011

AFL-CIO Chief Adept with Speech from Mouth's Two Sides

Today's WSJ offers AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka "equal time" on the issue of public-employee unions.

Trumka offers the usual litany: unions are responsible for the existence of the middle class, without them the rich would get still richer at the expense of the working person, this is really all about warfare against the middle class, etc. No need to respond at this point: the song remains the same.

But there is something we feel obliged to point out.

First, Trumka asserts that unions are all that stand between the middle classes an penury. That's why we need them so very much.

Then, to dispel the notion that public employees are overpaid, he says that public employees earn less than their private-sector counterparts, when controlling for education.

We suspect on the latter point he can say that truthfully, if it is truthful at all, only because he excludes benefits. But that's not our point.

Our point is that private-sector workers are organized at a hugely lower rate than public employees. Yet, apparently, they earn more. Yet, apparently, unions make their workers better off.

So unorganized workers earn more than unionized workers, but we should protect unions to protect the prosperity of the workers.

That, Mt. Trumka, makes perfect sense. Thanks for helping us see the logic of your position. We find ourself firmly persuaded.

Ringing the Bell: Is Hell Being Robbed?

This week's Big Christian News is that trendsetting preacher Rob Bell is a universalist. Or so one would understand from any one of dozens of blog posts and their reposting on social media.

Bell's latest book, Love Wins, is the object of prepublication publicity that says/hints/teases that the author denies the reality of eternal punishment for unbelievers in hell.

SWNID is no big fan of Bell's. We've spent too much precious SWNIDish time telling students that if they want to refer to rabbinic tradition, they ought to confirm the quotations before repeating what Bell has famously said. He tends to make stuff up to illustrate his points. Not that in doing so he totally misrepresents the ancient material. He'd just be well advised not to call something a quotation that isn't.

But in Bell's provisional defense, we have wondered whether he was denying everything people said he was denying. The available quotes are brief, and the promotional blurbs have obvious ambiguities about them. Publishers, even Christian ones, aren't above heightening the controversy to boost sales. Whatever. Time will tell. And we haven't the time to preside over Bell's heresy trial.

But enter into the discussion another iconoclast of evangelicalism, Scot McKnight. His post on Bell notes well that evangelicals these days, especially younger ones, have all kinds of revisionist positions on who gets punished and how. And before we oldsters start boiling tar and gathering feathers, McKnight rightly points out that these revisionist views have as more to do with the struggle to come to terms with difficult issues of justice and mercy as they do with sitting lightly to biblical authority or the historic views of the church. Many folk question whether, as they would put it, God can be just in torturing people without end. There are substantial ways to respond to that objection, but it remains a substantial objection for many, and by its nature one that ought not be taken lightly.

But SWNID would like to add something to McKnight's helpful caveat about lightly bifurcating or dismissing the controversy. It is this: these various theological "alternatives" to everlasting punishment in hell all present something that, in light of what the gospel offers positively, is utterly tragic, repugnant, fearsome and awful to contemplate. The life that God gives in Christ is too great and precious to miss out on, even for a little while. Whether its annihilation or temporary punishment or both--or the traditional notion of everlasting torment--that awaits the person who doesn't receive the gift, it is terrible, terrible to consider.

SWNID cannot bear the thought of ceasing to exist. It is hopelessly miserable. There is nothing to celebrate in the idea that death is the end of consciousness, or that there's some end to consciousness beyond death. Only when life has become death already is there anything there to embrace, and it crushes our spirit even to consider such a thing.

SWNID cannot bear the thought of being excluded from blessedness offered, even if that exclusion will one day end. Who wants to be outside the party looking in, especially this party?

We applaud those who claim the bravery to face such ends with equanimity. And we smirk as we do so, because we don't believe their bravado.

Note well what we say. Professionally and personally, we don't think that the Bible is concerned to tell us exactly what the unredeemed experience in eternity in a way that settles the current discussion that McKnight nicely describes. We do think that the Bible describes that reality well enough to make clear that no one would ever, ever want to experience it, whatever it is. On top of that, the gospel's blessing is so good--so very good, now and forever--that we don't need more information or more of a threat to embrace it and celebrate it.

Chill, Christian peeps. The likes of Rob Bell, whatever he actually says in his book, isn't changing the balance of the situation. God's life is so good that its loss is the worst that we can imagine, however we understand it.