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60A Hyperbolic Claim about the HHS Mandate?https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2012/02/a-hyperbolic-claim-about-the-hhs-mandate
Tue, 21 Feb 2012 17:14:06 -0500The
LA Times blog referred to my friend Ben Mitchell and his fellow panelists at the hearing on the HHS mandate as “hyperbolic.”
Mitchell, in particular, employed Roger Williams’ famous comparison of violations of religious liberty with “the rape of the soul.”
It is interesting to note that religious people, of a variety of persuasions, tend to naturally understand how serious a problem the HHS mandate presents. What the department did, deliberately and with full knowledge of the consequences, was to create a very real and urgent crisis for institutions with a religious identity (especially the Catholic ones). We could call this kind of crisis a “God and Caesar crisis” in which an individual or a community must choose between obeying God or obeying the coercive force of government. ”Rape” is not an absurd metaphor to employ when we are talking about the use of raw power to force an action against conviction.
Now, it is obvious that religious belief cannot command a blank check, but the old standard was essentially that religious belief (and action) would remain undisturbed as long as it did not pose a threat to the peace and safety of the community. It should be obvious that declining to fund contraceptives in an insurance policy is far from an affirmative threat to either peace or safety. After all, there are many low cost ways to obtain contraceptives and no one is forced to work for a religious employer. The coercion being employed is what is hyperbolic. No one should be forced into a God and Caesar crisis with so little regard for the alternatives and so little regard for conscience.
The End of Secularism and the HHS Mandatehttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2012/02/the-end-of-secularism-and-the-hhs-mandate
Wed, 15 Feb 2012 11:34:53 -0500The primary point of my first book,
The End of Secularism
, was to demonstrate that secularism doesn’t do what it claims to do, which is to solve the problem of religious difference. As I look at the administration’s attempt to mandate that religious employers pay for contraceptive products, I see that they have confirmed one of my charges in the book.
I wrote that secularists claim that they are occupying a neutral position in the public square, but in reality they are simply another group of contenders working to implement a vision of community life with which they are comfortable. And guess what? They are not comfortable with many of the fundamental beliefs of Christians. Regrettably, many secularists are also statists. Thus, their discomfort with Christian beliefs results in direct challenges to them in the form of mandatory public policy.
Collectivism is often very appealing to Christians who want to do good for their neighbors. Unfortunately, collectivism is frequently a fellow-traveler of aggressive secularism with little respect for religious liberty. The veil has slipped. I hope we do not too quickly forget what was revealed in that moment. Collectivism gives. But it also takes. And what it takes is very often precious and irreplaceable.
]]>On the Description of Heavenhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/11/on-the-description-of-heaven
Wed, 16 Nov 2011 13:25:27 -0500I just read
Heaven is for Real
by Todd Burpo. A few of my family members recommended it very strongly. The main attraction is that Mr. Burpo’s son nearly died of acute, misdiagnosed appendicitis and survived to report that he had been to Heaven. Young Colton Burpo did not simply recover and start telling everyone about his trip to Heaven. Rather, he said some things in conversation that piqued the interest of his parents. They eventually began asking him questions and were astonished by what their 4 year old had to say.
The part of the book that was really gripping for me was the account Todd Burpo gives of the year leading up to Colton’s near death experience and his terror at nearly losing a child. My daughter was very ill during her first two years and I felt some of those fears, but not at the level of crisis which faced the Burpos. What Colton has to say about Heaven is interesting, but does not give me the sense of powerful revelation. He saw relatives in their young and healthy forms. He saw Jesus. People were wearing bright white robes with sashes. Jesus had a dazzling rainbow colored horse. There is a war between heavenly and satanic forces. The strongest evidence of Colton’s visit is that he was able to identify his great grandfather as a young man in a photo without ever having met him or really having knowledge of him. He knew who the man was and what he was called. Overall, though, the description of heaven did not strike me as ultra-surprising for a son of a pastor, even a very young one. Still, it is interesting. I read the book quickly and was eager to find out more as I went.
The problem, I think, is that there is something fundamentally wrong with human attempts to describe heaven and/or the things of God. I’m not saying it can’t be done at all, but it seems to me that other than through full-on revelation (as in the book of that name), the sublimeness of heavenly things can only be approached from the side or seen from the corner of the eye. A direct confrontation seems doomed to fall short. I felt that way to some extent about
Heaven is for Real
(a non-fiction account) and more so about the picture presented of the divine appearing by Jerry Jenkins at the conclusion of the
novels. When Jesus arrives in the story, he appears to everyone in exactly the same way with exactly the same message. It feels like the description of a heavenly voicemail attached to a hologram.
Second Corinthians 12:4 mentions the man who was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things he is not even allowed to mention. The most powerful sense of eternity I have ever experienced in reading outside of the Bible was in Walker Percy’s
(a dark book). A man has had a confrontation with evil which has left him a little insane and obsessed with harsh justice. He completes his book-long conversation with a priest-psychologist friend from his youth. During the course of the story, we observe (only in flashes) that the priest-psychologist is returning to his faith and his vocation. He will take a small parish in Alabama. His one-word replies (always the same word) to Lancelot in the final chapter made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. He doesn’t describe anything. But the reader can feel the gigantic, looming reality which will explode forth just as the story ends. Out of the corner of the eye. Possibly inexpressible. The mystery remains a mystery until, all of a sudden, the image clears and we will see and understand and will know as we have been known. But not yet.
]]>Getting Francis Schaeffer Righthttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/08/getting-francis-schaeffer-right
Mon, 22 Aug 2011 22:32:37 -0400Lately with all the talk of “Dominionism” and the scary religious right and Frank Schaeffer chiming in, I feel the need to draw attention to a biography of Francis Schaeffer that I think really portrayed him fairly and without the usual political histrionics. I wrote the following review (
which appeared in Themelios
) of Colin Duriez’s
Francis Schaeffer: An Authentic Life
back in 2009.
]]>Another Run at the “Dominionism” Memehttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/08/another-run-at-the-dominionism-meme
Fri, 19 Aug 2011 15:12:09 -0400Elsewhere, I rejected the contention
by Michelle Goldberg and others that evangelical leaders such as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry are significantly influenced by the aims of the tiny Christian Reconstructionism movement. I tried to make the point that CR has a negligible political influence on evangelicals and that it is not honest to view evangelical office holders and candidates in the light of CR’s aims. The entire thing, I think, is a tar baby sort of trap in which evangelicals are supposed to come out of their corner talking very seriously about Christian Reconstructionism and Dominionism and giving legitimacy to those who have tried to raise it as an issue.
There is a simpler way to get at this thing. I’ll go ahead and concede to Michelle Goldberg and Ryan Lizza that they are correct in their assumption that it is nervous-making to have someone with different ideas and values than one’s own running for political office. This raises the spectre of having that person gain power and perhaps make policies with which one would disagree. But the simple truth is that we are all in this position all the time.
The University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock once noted that he had some concerns about the Christian Coalition gaining political power. He quickly added that he would be equally concerned about any group with an ideological agenda (such as certain types of feminists or environmentalists) gaining power. The simple fact is that power is a feature of politics and it is unpleasant to lose and have someone else use power to impose upon you. This is very much the situation many have been through in the past two years. A great many people feel that a nationalized health care system would have disastrous effects upon our society. Nevertheless, they have had to suffer through it because the side that wanted to enact such legislation won the election convincingly.
And here’s the thing . . . It doesn’t matter what Barack Obama’s motive was in pushing for national health care. It doesn’t matter if he had a religious conviction, a secular principle, a sentimental attachment to the idea, or a desire to be the first Democrat to ever achieve such a thing. He gained power through politics and enacted his agenda.
There is no difference in anything Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, or any other American officeholder might do. Indeed, the likelihood is great that any laws they might enact would be far less intrusive than one mandating that every American purchase health insurance.
]]>Belated Reflections on LOSThttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/05/belated-reflections-on-lost
Sun, 22 May 2011 20:45:00 -0400I’ve just seen the entire run of LOST over the course of about two months. It is time for a few reflections. To those who intend to watch the show, stop reading now. There will be SPOILERS.
The show begins with a jet crashing on an island in the Pacific. The first question is, “Who survives a jet crash, especially one in which a plane cracks in half?” I thought of that often. As I watched the program, I wondered along with probably everyone else whether anyone on the show actually survived. The other possibility is that they are dead and we are watching them move about in the afterlife. To refine the thought a little, are the characters in purgatory working through their sins?
Things happen in the course of the series to make the viewer think that the characters have not died in the crash. I know at one point I abandoned the theory entirely. But by the time I got to the final season, I began to think the matter through again. By the end, I felt confirmed in my belief. These people are dead. They are working out their own salvation.
One thing that sucked me in to the show was the names of some of the characters. There is a John Locke, a David Hume, a Faraday (scientist), a C.S. Lewis, a Jeremy Bentham, and maybe some others I missed. For the most part, I think this naming was a display of someone’s dilettante-ish learning in the core curriculum at college. The names didn’t correlate to the characters. C.S. Lewis, for example, is a gorgeous redhead. She is a Brit, but otherwise doesn’t resemble her namesake. There was, however, one name that seemed to be important. The most heroic character is Jack Shephard, son of Christian Shephard. And, indeed, Jack is a man willing to give himself for others.
At one point, some of the characters manage to get off the island (in your face, Gilligan!), but they end up having to return. They realize (some involuntarily) that they must return. There is something wrong with them being off the island. The island isn’t done with them, yet. This part played into the notion of purgatory. Their leaving is wrong because they have abandoned the work of the soul. They must return and continue the process, miserable and trying though it is.
In the final season, the characters are living dual lives. They are living one life on the island and a parallel life back in the civilized world. What is interesting is that in their parallel lives, things seem to be going well. Wrongs are being righted. Problems are being resolved. Wounds are being healed. It is as though their suffering and struggles on the island have somehow been redemptive. Their lives on the island (a place where wounds heal rapidly and cancer goes into remission) is exerting a restorative effect on their lives in some parallel place.
There is also some exposition about the bizarre nature of the island. We see something like an origin story about two brothers. It is somewhat reminiscent of Cain and Abel, but hybridized with the tale of Romulus and Remus. The brother who lives is the more righteous one. His twin (not identical) is not unambiguously evil. He is more like a Lucifer who wants to overthrow God (or God’s will for his life) because he doesn’t understand him (or it). The dead brother continues on in a supernatural life as something of a monster. He is the black smoke which has been terrorizing our heroes throughout much of the show. Certainly,there is a sense of something Edenic which has gone wrong. The good brother, Jacob, is the protector of the island who is working toward the achievement of some good.
The conclusion of the series centers on the murdered brother living anew in the possessed body of John Locke. He is determined to leave the island. It is what he has always wanted. But we are given to understand that he must not leave. Somehow, he is evil and must be kept on the island like wine kept in a bottle by a cork. Ultimately, he must clash with Jack Shephard.
This is the point where I started to see some strong religious themes. The island has a heart which emits amazingly powerful and destructive light. Desmond David Hume is the man who can withstand it. Jack and the monster accompany Hume. He goes down into the light and removes a stone stopper which is containing it. This seems to put out the light and trigger the slow destruction of the island. The monster feels he can now leave the island, which is sinking, but Jack determines the monster has now become vulnerable to physical harm. They struggle and Jack is able to kill the monster, but not before he is mortally wounded by a dagger in his side. At this point, one cannot help but see Jesus stabbed the spear in his side.
Jack is dying. The disruption in the island and his suffering seem to have made victory over the monster possible. Jack returns to the source of the light to restore the stone stopper. When he does, the island is saved and the light returns at full strength. Jack has successfully given himself for all. His suffering has made victory over evil possible.
Before he died, he made Hurley the new protector of the island. Though I am not Catholic, what I saw here was Jesus giving Peter the kings to the kingdom and establishing him as the new head of the church. To me, it looked like the beginning of the papacy! Benjamin Linus, a man who has been a persecutor of the characters and has been wrongly related to the island’s protector, Jacob, steps up to be Hurley’s co-laborer in the protection of the island. Looking at Benjamin in this new role, I could not help but think of Paul. Linus is very much a Saul-Paul type of figure. (It helps a little that his name, Benjamin Linus, could be linked to the famous scientist Linus PAULing.)
Ultimately, the characters living in their parallel lives encounter each other and come to an astonishing collective memory of their time on the island. These scenes are quite beautiful. They all come together in a church (except Linus who stays just outside). Christian Shephard and Jack Shephard talk. Jack realizes he is dead and so, too, are the others. To my mind, it appears that what has occurred is a triumphant tour through purgatory for them all. They have been sifted like grain and what is of value is what remains. Though the stained glass contains a variety of holy symbols from the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian faiths, the dominant imagery is Christian as is much of the narrative. The characters gather in the pews as pure light spills over them. They are moving on, presumably, to Heaven where true reality is (e.g. The Great Divorce).
I appreciated the final season very much because I felt it was the kind of story which could prepare people’s hearts for Christ. It was a tilling of the soil.
(One final thing. What about the DHARMA Initiative? They are a communal project with researchers and scientists of various types working on the island attempting to pierce its mysteries and perhaps harness its special powers. In the end, their efforts add up to little of consequence. Indeed, much of what they do leads to tragedy. I suspect the story of DHARMA was designed to highlight the instrumental limitedness of science.)
]]>The State of Christian Higher Education: A Response to Allen Guelzohttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/05/the-state-of-christian-higher-education-a-response-to-allen-guelzo
Tue, 10 May 2011 21:14:15 -0400UPDATE: You can read Guelzo’s piece
Many are now taking note of Allen Guelzo’s essay in
on the situation of evangelical colleges in America. He points out a number of troubling issues, such as that few of these schools are selective, alumni are not giving, and many of the schools are in bad financial condition, despite the continued rise in tuition rates.
When I took over responsibility for strategic planning at Houston Baptist University back in 2007, I studied many of these same challenges. My goal was to get a sense of our position in the market so that we could speak intelligently to donors about what we needed. I discovered the relative lack of high endowments among Christian institutions (and the high reliance on tuition that goes with the lack of such endowments).
In addition, I noted the near complete lack of doctoral programs in areas outside of professional training such as education or counseling. Christian universities are not able to afford graduate fellowships or stipends. If the programs don’t generate revenue, we don’t offer them. Guelzo doesn’t mention that.
Neither does he mention the competitive disadvantage for scholars at our institutions who wish to pursue publication. At many top secular institutions, professors teach only two courses each semester. Sometimes less. Our professors almost always teach four courses per semester, which is a consuming task if you do it well.
I could go on. We have fewer scholarly centers and think tanks, hold less conferences, publish fewer journals . . . You get the idea. We are fighting hard to accomplish our missions, but scarcity is much more real to us than it is to many of our counterparts in state schools who
they have budget constraints.
All of this is why it was such a galactically big deal when Robert Sloan was in charge at Baylor University and working to make that school into a Carnegie research institution which was simultaneously emphasizing its fealty to the Christian intellectual tradition. When he was forced to resign, many who follow these things closely were despondent. The worst fears were not realized, though, and Baylor has continued to move forward as a comprehensive (and Christian) institution (which really does carry its weight in the Big 12) and has about a
dollars in endowment. Baylor is now a haven for some of the finest Christian scholars on earth. This is a huge accomplishment. Kenneth Starr gives every indication of being the right person to shepherd Baylor’s continued flight along this nearly uncharted path. I am somewhat surprised Guelzo would leave the Bears out of his excellent essay.
In addition, Guelzo has missed the ascendancy of some other Christian universities on a smaller scale. For example, just as one Christian school, Lambuth University, announced its closing here in Jackson, Tennessee, Lambuth’s longtime sister school, Union University, has enjoyed record enrollments and is receiving some excellent gifts. Union’s budget has nearly quintupled over the last 15 years and the school outperforms just about all of its peers in terms of financial health. A study of the percentage of students admitted at Union wouldn’t tell the story Guelzo suggests it does. Union likely admits a majority of the students who apply, but that is part of its model. Union sets out to attract applications from students who are a good fit spiritually and academically. Union’s selectivity would be better measured by a look at the mean ACT scores of its recent freshman classes, which have been very high.
Just as Guelzo wrote about institutions with which he is familiar, I have referenced some of the ones I know best. I imagine some could come forward with success stories and others with tales of fingernail-hanging survival. I suspect the reality is that Christian universities, as a sector, are undergoing some serious sifting. A wise man once told me several will close in the next decade. I agree with Guelzo that there are very possibly too many and that we would benefit from consolidation. Imagine if we could have Baylor as the research flagship and then 5-10 very strong liberal arts universities. They would all be cultural gamechangers if they remained faithful.
We don’t control these things (the life and death of universities), though, from some central Christian planning office for what we perceive to be the maximum advantage. Some institutions will fail. Others will surprise us and announce amazing new gifts and innovative programs.
What we can control, however, are matters to which Guelzo alluded. We
hire faculty who care about the mission and not just about their guilds. We
hire presidents with vision for distinctively Christian higher education and NOT for education as a commodity to be sold like gasoline or grain. We
install core curricula which actually help students become well-rounded and well-educated human beings who understand their cultural context, their history, and the interrelationship of the disciplines.
make the case to donors to meet our greatest needs. We need scholarships and scholarship endowments so we can compete with the state universities on price. We need investments in endowed chairs, funded centers, and journals which can provide lighter teaching loads for our productive scholars.
, if you are reading this, then understand that the Christian university can provide a tremendous bang for the buck culturally. We educate the student. We provide the student with a spiritual community. We teach them to put their minds and spirits to work in tandem. Our scholars can teach, write, and speak into the world conversation. We can convene scholars into networks of influence.
Read Guelzo. Heed this essay. And help us do what only the Christian university can do.
]]>Considering Atlas Shrugged on Filmhttps://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/04/considering-atlas-shrugged-on-film
Fri, 29 Apr 2011 15:53:12 -0400This piece was originally written for the
. Crossposted with their permission.
Christians have a deep ambivalence about Ayn Rand that probably draws as deeply from the facts of her biography as from her famous novels. When the refugee from the old Soviet Union met the Catholic William F. Buckley, she said, “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” Her atheism was militant. Rand’s holy symbol was the dollar sign. Ultimately, Buckley gave Whittaker Chambers the job of writing the
essay on Rand’s famous novel
that effectively read her and the Objectivists out of the conservative movement. The review characterized Rand’s message as, “To a gas chamber, go!” Chambers thought Rand’s philosophy led to the extinction of the less fit.
In truth, the great Chambers (his
is one of the five finest books I’ve ever read) probably treated Rand’s work unfairly. Though Rand certainly made no secret of her contempt for those unable or unwilling to engage in true exchange of economic value, she was right to tell interviewers that she was no totalitarian because of her abhorrence for the use of force. She did not believe in compulsion. Instead, she wanted a world in which a man stood or fell on his productivity. Rand saw production as the one great life affirming activity. Man does not automatically or instinctively derive his sustenance from the earth. He must labor and produce. This was Rand’s bedrock and explains why she had such contempt for those who try to gain wealth through political arrangements. She saw this parasitism on every point of the economic spectrum from the beggar to the bureaucrat to the purveyor of crony corporatism.
The critical tension between Rand and Christian theology is on human worth. Christians affirm the inherent and very high value of individuals because of their creation in the image of God. Rand values human beings only for their achievements. A person who does not offer value is a leech, a “second rater.”
, the film, is well worth seeing, both because of the challenge posed by Rand’s worldview and because it avoids the pedantic speech-making of the overly long novel. Rand doesn’t trust her story to get her philosophy across. The novel struggles under the weight of her desire to teach. Thanks to the constraints of the film medium, we learn through the development of the characters and the plot. As a result, the tale comes through quite clearly and simply.
The story proceeds from a fascinating premise: what if the most able were to go on strike and take their gifts away from the broader society (like Lebron taking his from Cleveland!)? These talented individuals stop producing because society (in the form of government) has begun to take their contribution for granted and seeks to control the conditions under which they live, work, and create.
Government action occurs under the rubric of equity, but these people who “move the world” as one conversation in the film expresses do not understand what claim the government has to order their lives or to confiscate the fruits of their labor. The villains of the piece are not so much any welfare class as much as corporatists who want to link their companies to government arrangements so as to assure profit without the need for strong performance. They go on about loyalty and public service, but it is a mask for mediocrity and greed. The heroes (Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggert) want to make money, but they are virtuous because they give obvious value for every cent they earn.
The underlying moral is that we must not make too great a claim to control the inventors and entrepreneurs lest we frustrate them into inactivity. Though we think we gain by taxing and regulating their efforts, there is a strong possibility that we will lose a great deal more by blocking the creative impulse and inspiring a parasitic ethic of entitlement.
Rand’s atheism, materialism, and reduction of the human being’s value to economic productivity are all severely problematic for a variety of good reasons. But one might compare her political and economic thought to chemotherapy, which is basically a form of poison designed to achieve a positive outcome. You don’t want to take it if you can avoid it. You hope the circumstances in which you would use it don’t arise. However, in an age of statism, it is a message that may need to be heard. Not so much in the hopes that it will prevail as much as to see it arrest movement in a particular direction which will end badly if it continues.
Tue, 12 Apr 2011 10:34:22 -0400I pay a lot of attention to the ways people speak because words have always fascinated me. I continue to remember the day, nearly 20 years ago, when my father watched undergrads walking from downtown Athens onto the UGA campus and remarked, “There go the students entering into the portals of the university.” The turn of phrase has a certain sublimity. Not bad for a chemical engineer.