Monday, November 21, 2011

I Would Love To Be A Universalist

If it's true that everybody will one day make it to heaven—which would be very good news for very bad people—it would solve some knotty issues that have long vexed me. 

The hardest one, with the least-satisfying Biblical answers, is about people who lived in the years BC. Though Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain, and is said to have acted in faith, we know nothing about the system of worship that prompted the brothers to offer sacrifices in the first place. Despite meeting righteous individuals like Enoch, Lot, Noah, Melchizedek and Abraham, we have no record of God providing any comprehensive revelation for the first 10,000 years of human existence. Why leave people in ignorance so long before sending the law? And even longer to send Jesus? 

The years AD, when God finally poured out his Spirit and spread the gospel quickly around the world are less problematic for me. At last the Creator was propelling salvation to all people. But even here God did not permit the missionary Paul to take the gospel east into Asia. That doesn't seem fair.

These awkward matters have largely remained behind the academic and clerical curtain, with preachers only rarely bringing them to the pulpit. In a possibly-related story, George Barna reported earlier this year that exactly one-quarter of self-described born again Americans believe everyone will eventually be saved. Apparently benign neglect bears unexpected fruit. 

Enter Rob Bell and his blockbuster book Love Wins—a maddeningly unbalanced book that didn't so much reconsider the subject as rip the band-aid off our most uncomfortable issue. Into the fray step two friends of mine with their own book, entitled  Is God Fair? What About Gandhi? Where Bell was coy, dancing around the issue and understating hard questions, my friends forthrightly make a case for Biblical Universal Salvation—addressing the hardest objections head-on. Disclaimer: the authors hired me to build their website and run their marketing campaign.
I know authors James William and Michael Riley to be men of deep Christian faith. I attended church with Jim and his dear wife, who've now been family friends for the better part of 20 years. And I've seen God's grace in Mike's life over the decade I've known him. Though I am not a Universalist, my reading and research in recent years have led me away from the traditional view of eternal-life-in-hell for the unsaved, to what is often called Conditional Immortality.

But I do mean what I say in the headline of this post. Universal Salvation has been described as a Wider Hope. And that hope can be seen in scripture: "...the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world"; "...when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself"; "...for I came not to judge the world, but to save it." How could that be anything other than Good News to anybody?

But there are other amazing insights in this book: like how often the New Testament mentions a just future reckoning for people famously destroyed in Old Testament times. Or the Scripture Chain detailing the sweep of God's redemptive intention from the beginning of creation. Or the case of the Apostle Paul being used as an example of undeserved mercy. Or the implications of the "ages to come." My favorite quote is the authors' contention about God's judgment for the wicked: "Nobody is getting away with anything." 

I must warn that this isn't light reading—the sections on faulty translating from Greek and Hebrew sometimes wander into the weeds. The chapter on Free Will—and, ironically, the one about the Sons Of Thunder—strike me as pedantic. But as a single-volume resource, Is God Fair? What About Gandhi? can fairly be called an encyclopedia of Universal Salvation. It is a worthy and sincere contribution to the understanding of God's strategy in human history.

Is God Fair? What About Gandhi?
"For I came not to judge the world, but to save it." John 12:47
by Michael Riley and James William

Perfect Bound Softcover, 424 pages

ISBN-13: 978-145675709-0

(Also on eBook and Hardcover)
Published October, 2011 by AuthorHouse 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I am on paid retainer with the authors of this book, as described above. 
They did not pay me to review their book on my blog, nor forbid me from criticizing it. I would not agree to any such restriction on my personal blog, where I only comment on books I have actually read and deem either important or useful to readers.
 I disclose this per the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I Too Was Falsely Accused of Sexual Harassment

Several years ago when I worked in business sales at CompUSA, a customer—a young woman with a home-based business—wanted a laptop on credit. Her application was approved and she went home with the computer. The next morning my manager said one of the disclaimer boxes on her credit app hadn't been initialed: the young lady would have to come back in and initial that box.

So I called the phone number on her application. No answer, so I left a message identifying myself and asking her to stop by the store at her earliest convenience to finish off the paperwork. All that day and the next she didn't show up. On the third day my manager told me the matter had to be wrapped up within the next two days, or I would lose my commission on the sale. So I phoned again, left a message again and told my manager they must be out of town (I knew she was married from info on her credit application). 

The following morning  passed without any contact from the young lady. At lunchtime, I hopped in my car to go grab a burger—taking the paperwork with me. Before pulling out of the CompUSA parking lot, I dialed the customer's number again and got their voicemail again. I left a message saying I was in my car and would swing by their residence with the paperwork for her to sign. So I ate my lunch and drove over to their apartment complex nearby. At the security gate I buzzed their number, but got no I returned to work.

She didn't call back that afternoon. She didn't call back the next day. Oh well, bye-bye laptop commission.

The following week I was at my desk in the business sales department when my manager came in and asked if I went to the lady's home. I told him I'd called ahead, buzzed from the gate, but got no no, I hadn't been at her "home". Then he says: "Well, she and her husband are accusing you of being a stalker and they're threatening to sue the company."  I just laughed and asked if they'd filed a police report. He replied: "No, but the couple are in my office now demanding that we give them the laptop for free." I laughed again: "Now surely that's a joke." Evidently not. The husband said he was a lawyer. My manager, after calling corporate HQ in Dallas, agreed to their demand and gave them the laptop.

What goes on in people's minds prompting them to do outrageous things is a mystery to me. If the couple was a con-team running a scam on us from the beginning, then they were brilliant...because CompUSA had an encyclopedia of scams. 

Of course there was no stalking—the voice messages I left were all business. Mister lawyer had the recordings, and if there were any hint of impropriety, he'd have demanded much more than a Toshiba laptop. I don't know what CompUSA admitted in its "settlement" with the couple. I was never shown any document or asked to sign anything. I wasn't debited for the loss—other than commission—and that was the end of it. But if I ever run for political office, I'm sure I'll hear from the lady and her attorney.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Getting The Leaders We Deserve

Throughout scripture, God deals differently with "the people", compared to their leaders. He uses leaders like tools in His hands: hardening Pharaoh's heart, directing kings' actions like water, raising up rulers and bringing them down. One leader can be used to affect change among many people.

But God's attention to the people isn't always sunshine and lollipops. While the topic of this post isn't judgment, it is useful to observe God's pattern of escalating judgment. First comes instruction, then blessing and prosperity, then warning and reminder, then silence. What happens after the silence can take your breath away. Literally.

In the Torah (Numbers 16) God had already quit talking to the people, giving them the silent treatment. Through all their wilderness grumbling and complaining—despite His having instructed and blessed and prospered and warned and reminded them—they hadn't learned to grin-and-bear-it out in the wilderness with that manna. They had turned into a mob. So Korah and 250 Israelite leaders, oblivious to their own peril, mounted a challenge—it was a peaceful protest, they weren't armed—to Moses and Aaron. Korah and company had heard from the people and brought forth genuine hardships. 

But Korah was on the wrong side of the issue. He didn't realize that years of stewing in his own juices had turned him into a frog in a near-boiling kettle. Walking toward their doom, he and his party boasted of being "God's people". With their utter lack of discernment, they didn't realize He'd stopped talking to them. Costly mistake: they and their families were immediately swallowed alive when the earth opened up beneath them. Stunned for a moment, the people shut up. But the following morning they again griped about Moses and Aaron's domestic another 15,000 were killed by the Lord until Aaron was able to atone. 

For more than 40 years God didn't change leaders, he changed the people—besides Joshua and Caleb, nobody born in Egypt made it alive into the Promised Land.

With that background, let's move on to the topic of choosing the right leader. Specifically, who should we vote for as President of the United States? America isn't a theocracy like ancient Israel. We don't have a King. We are permitted to elect our own leaders. 

God instructed our founders, blessed our land, warned and reminded us of our founding principles...but He seems to have gone silent recently. This is a dangerous moment. What we do next will make or break America. It isn't so much whom we will choose, as much as what our choice says about us. God cares about the values, beliefs and convictions that motivate our choice. He will indeed "give us a leader" based on His evaluation of our heart condition. So here's my advice:

If you believe in God—if you think He spoke to our founders, that He still speaks thru scripture, that wisdom lifts up her voice and that knowledge follows repentance...then I suggest you seek Him like never before. Don't look to government as savior, don't turn inward like a child to bemoan your current circumstances, don't just seek your own comfort. Tough times call for tough choices...choose somebody who rejects the "drift" of recent decades, somebody who emphasizes the personal responsibility of the people to create wealth. It is a choice between stern, scary liberty versus the soothing promises of big-government benevolence—promises that have not, will not and cannot be kept. 

Personally, I distrust those who would play God by pledging to meet all my needs. I pray we will have the discernment to figure out which candidate is less like Korah and more like Moses.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who Gives You Power To Get Wealth?

Moses the Lawgiver started the world's second-most famous monologue* in the 5th chapter of Deuteronomy—and kept right on going through chapter 30. His 8th chapter includes a warning about some pitfalls the pioneering nation would face after it successfully settled the new land: 

Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His 
commandments, His judgments, and His statutes, lest—when you have 
built beautiful houses and dwell in them; and when your
silver and gold are multiplied, [that] your heart is lifted up, 
and you forget the LORD—saying in your heart, 
‘My power and the might of my hand have gained me all this.’ 
But it is He who gives you power to get wealth.
If you forget, you shall perish.

The American Founders were students of the Mosaic Code—you can't read Washington's Farewell without hearing echoes of Moses' parting words. And yet the Republic was barely 100 years old when a seductive new strain of thought captured some American leaders. When the fuel of Darwinism was poured onto the hubris of America's blazing Industrial Revolution, it flared up into something called Progressivism. And we're still tryin' to get rid of the smell...

Ironically, a movement that started out as a reaction against industrial progress and big corporations has ended up bloating the U.S. government into a leviathan overlord. For the past 40-odd years they've preferred the "liberal" label, but voters recently figured out what that meant—so now they've recycled "progressive" again. Back in the days of Woodrow Wilson their concepts were dressed up as Christian-ist, since most Americans went to church. But as overarching centralized government expanded, they finally blew their cover under FDR's early New Deal legislation—much of which was overturned by the Supreme Court. The Congress of the United States was actually telling butchers whether or not they could sell whole chickens or just certain cuts, and cleaners were being hauled into court for charging LESS than their competitors. 

Finally, in 1942, after FDR had worn down the Supreme Court, he got the power to force farmer Roscoe Filburn of Ohio to destroy his crops and pay a fine for growing too much wheat. Never mind that it was wheat grown on his own land  for his own use. Thus was the constitution's "commerce clause" turned into a battering ram for progressives in government to knock down one after another of America's free-decision zones. Not until 1995 was any significant portion of Wickard v Filburn overturned in Lopez. Thankfully the court has another opportunity with Obamacare to whittle the government back down to size.

I hope they do, because the inclination of modern statists to wield Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is too much like playing God. Which never ends well.

* still gotta give the nod to Jesus' homily-on-the-hill, recorded in Matthew 5, 6 & 7.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs' Nearly-Inspiring Life

I became a Mac fan-boy in 1992, dab-smack in the middle of Steve Jobs' ten-year absence from the company he co-founded in 1976. The early 90s were awful years to be an Apple enthusiast. The company was foundering and the parade of buttoned-down CEOs seemed more interested in grabbing some Microsoft market share than making "insanely great" products. And then there was that whole "clone" escapade. But I hung in there, mostly because I couldn't figure out now to use MS-DOS or cope with it's GUI-like cousin, Windows.
No doubt Jobs learned a few hard lessons from his failed start-up of which presumably led to his founding of Pixar Studios. His return to Apple in 1996, which resulted in the most amazing string of can-you-top-this successes in business history (and I'm not even counting Pixar) was a delight to watch. Kind of a tech-biz equivalent of following Wayne Gretzky and Tiger Woods through their peak years.

But I had seen enough of his interviews, read enough articles and books about him over the years to know that the man behind the iPhone was all-too-human. (Interesting that besides their Stanford connection, both Jobs and Tiger Woods practiced Buddhism.) And of course, the Steve-quote that's getting so much play right now is from Jobs' 2005 commencement speech at Stanford: "Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there." As far as it goes, that statement is surely true. However, if you watch or read his entire address, you'll get the clear sense that Jobs had no vision beyond this life and was not among those "who want to go to heaven".

And so I came to hold in my hands the work of Steve Jobs' hands. I marveled at his breathtaking success in transforming the music business. I continue to distill lessons from his fanatical pursuit of excellence. His aesthetic convictions about beauty and design resonate deeply within me. I also feel rewarded for my years of loyalty to Apple when I see worldwide embrace of their brand. And yet... a person—not as an icon of accomplishment, success, fame and accolades—his next appearance will be before his Maker. The judge at that review will indeed "think different". Steve Jobs' famed reality distortion field will not carry that day. In the end, despite all the enjoyment and benefit his products have brought into our lives, my sadness at the passing of Steve Jobs isn't merely about missing an amazing innovator, it's about what he's missing by deciding against heaven.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mr. President, would you please raise my taxes?

This question was asked during President Obama's faux "Jobs Townhall", hosted last week by LinkedIn at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The question in my headline was actually asked. The identity of the questioner and his evasiveness prompt me to ask some questions:
 Q1. Why do Democrats assume anybody opposed to high taxes must be a shill for "Big _____" (insert your favorite evil industry)? Like in 2009, when then-Speaker of the House, San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi, described T.E.A. Parties springing up all across the country as "Astroturf"—her way of saying they're not an authentic, organically-grown movement. Why do Democrats think this way?

A1: Sigmund Freud talked about projecting "one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, and feelings onto someone else." Nancy Pelosi and the Professional Left routinely create fake outrage and drum up phony protest marches by busing in people who need to be instructed on what they should chant and why they should be outraged. Not infrequently these malleable folks are even paid to protest. The simple fact that Democrats actually have a name for such duplicitous behavior reveals the Freudian pot-v-kettle nature of their accusations.

When Democrats hold a "Jobs TownHall", they see nothing wrong with planting a retired millionaire—Google Employee #59, and recently-published author—in the audience to pretend he's unemployed. When the President asked where he used to work, the man dissembled: "At a search engine." An honest questioner might have mentioned that he is the founder of a Bay Area organization called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, which argues that "Americans with incomes over $1 million should shoulder a larger share of the tax burden to pay for Pell Grants, road improvements and training programs." That might've been a more accurate way to identify himself than saying "I'm not working".

So, yeah, when an Ohio plumber playing catch with his son on the front lawn spots Presidential candidate Obama walking down his street and asks "Your new tax plan's going to tax me more, isn't it?" Democrats just know he must have been planted on that street by evil Big Oil. They must have purchased that home and cooked up that fake son in a test-tube provided by Big Pharma. I mean, what normal person would ever think to ask such a subversive question?

Q2: Why couldn't Congress just raise the questioner's taxes?

A2: Because the U.S. Constitution forbids Bills of Attainder (Article One, Section 9) that penalize a certain group or person.

Q3: Why can't the 200 Bay Area "Patriotic Millionaires" and billionaires who want to pay higher taxes them?

A3: They can. They could even choose which agency to pay. If, say, they didn't like the military, they could write a check to the Bureau of the Public Debt. But, of course, they don't do that because they don't want only their taxes raised—they want everybody else making over a certain income to pay more taxes too. So Mr. Google 59's question is yet more artifice.

When the identity of Obama's questioner came to light, two wealthy liberals favoring higher taxes appeared with Bill O'Reilly. Informed of their options to pay above the amount of their obligation, both admitted they were aware of the options but chose to not pay any more to the IRS. Interestingly, each said they calculated what their taxes would have been at the higher rate and then gave the difference to charity.

Q4: Aren't those two wealthy Liberals proving they believe private charities do better than government programs?

A4: Very observant, yes. Or they may have just wanted the tax deduction.

Q5: Why is it that Omaha multi-billionaire Warren Buffett pays a lower tax rate than his secretary?

A5: He probably pays his secretary a very generous salary, pushing her into a 20% or higher tax bracket. But Buffett reportedly derives most of his own petty cash from Capital Gains, which are taxed at 15%. 

Remember a couple of things. First, Buffett previously paid taxes on the money he used to generate those Capital Gains—making his actual tax rate at least double what he's claiming. Lots of economists oppose the existence of the CapGains and Dividend taxes since they are double-taxation. And secondly, if Buffett makes less than his secretary, he is artificially underpaid. Unlike his secretary, he's free to decide his own salary. The founder and chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, the most successful diversified conglomerate of all time, could surely command a salary at least as high as the average NHL hockey player if he so wished. But no, he wishes to structure his own income to shield it from high tax rates.

I don't begrudge a Google millionaire or America's richest man the right to live off investment income at low tax rates. I just don't want them to be dishonest and try to mislead less well-off Americans into thinking that "the rich don't pay their fair share".

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Don't See The Movie Right After Reading The Book

I'd tried this once before, back in the '80s with Sophie's Choice. The book was sittin' in the living room (my mother-in-law's copy) and I'd heard the movie was why not? I'd been writing and directing for a few years, so I figured it would be informative to see how the movie makers chose to handle the adaptation. 
Well, William Styron's book is powerful and riveting—its central event a long-ago evil dilemma foisted upon a young Polish mother by a power-drunk Nazi. Many years later and half-a-world away, that same woman—Sophie—finally believes she has found happiness with a suitor. I don't know how it is, exactly, that a well-told tale on the printed page can embed itself so deeply into our souls. I've gasped audibly reading crime novels, I've teared-up reading relationship stories, lost track of time in a good business yarn. But I can count on one hand the number of movies that have undone me: Deer Hunter, Reds, Local Hero, Aliens, Raising Arizona and, well, guess I better use another finger for Toy Story 3

Despite the presence of Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline,  the Alan J. Pakula screen version of Sophie's Choice didn't move me an inch. I learned nothing about either writing or filmmaking from the cross-media experience.
And now I've done it again. Having read the book Golf's Sacred Journey: Seven Days at the Links of Utopia a couple of weeks ago, I went this week to see the movie version. I have no way of evaluating whether the movie could get you to suspend disbelief and take a journey deep into the heart of Texas. My whole viewing experience consisted of waiting to see certain scenes from the book...and then being disappointed when they weren't in the film. How could I possibly tell you whether the movie "held together" when I spent its duration picking it apart?

I can, however, state this with certainty: there's no WAY the movie is as bad as the reviews I've read in the national press. I found the golf swing of actor Lucas Black entirely believable—partly because I know he is a scratch-golfer in real life. And of course Robert Duvall is terrific. Deborah Ann Woll is pitch-perfect as the love-interest, and the supporting cast adds genuine Texas flavor to the mix. Perhaps the ending sequence—which features real PGA golfers and several on-camera announcers/analysts from the Golf Channel—comes close to going over the top. At least the cliffhanger ending from the book stayed in the dramatically unsatisfying as it may be.

My conclusion: the compressed time-frame of a movie gives it less opportunity to burrow into your heart. If your brain still holds details of the book in fresh memory, the film doesn't have a prayer. Until you rinse the book out of your head—replaced by other, newer reads—you should wait to see the movie.

Next time, I may try reading the book after seeing the movie. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review of "Golf's Sacred Journey"

An avid golfer, I have never been able to finish a book about golf. I've received several as gifts, tried my best to read them, but never been able to get all the way through one. Not only have I never purchased a book about golf for myself, I've never even shopped for or considered shopping for a book about golf. I do read golf magazines, but mostly for their reviews of new courses and products and interviews with players. So it is a signal achievement for me to have finished—devoured may be a better word—this brief novel by David L. Cook, PhD.
I first heard about Golf's Sacred Journey watching a trailer for the forthcoming movie based on the novel. Robert Duvall stars in the picture, which is named after the book's subtitle Seven Days In Utopia. The fact that there really is a town named Utopia and it really does have a 9-hole course next to the cemetary helped lure me in—that and its location just outside San Antonio in the wonderful Texas hill country, where I've played several different courses over the years.

Given that I am currently adapting a friend's novel into a screenplay—not a golfing tale—I had extra motivation to read this book so I could compare book-to-film when the picture releases.

Big caveat: if you don't play the game, I don't know how you could enjoy this book. So many of the extended descriptions of the the grip, the stance, the swing, ball flight, trajectory, course management, club selection and unexplained jargon make this pretty much a novel only for golfers. That said, if you do play, I doubt you've ever read anything that captures better the way you feel when you pure a long iron, or execute a shot exactly the way you'd visualized it.

The novel opens with a hungry young professional golfer contending for the lead on the back nine Sunday at a mini-tour event in San Antonio. But on the par five 10th he melts down and takes a 15, including 3 penalty strokes—two for burying his putter-head into the green. In disgust and despair he drives away from the tournament heading aimlessly toward the setting sun, taking a fateful fork in the road away from Vanderpool and toward Utopia, population 373.

On Monday morning, along the banks of the Sabinal River, the crusty old owner of the Links of Utopia finds a disillusioned young pro pounding balls on his dusty driving range. Recognizing a desperate need, he challenges the player: "Spend seven days with me...and you'll find your game." And thus begins a week-long psychological deconstruction and rebuilding of not just the young man's game, but of his very soul.

While Golf's Sacred Journey won't win a Pulitzer or be taught in college english courses, the old man's object-lessons (oil painting, fly-fishing, washer-tossing, Cessna-flying) are strangely affecting. And given the universal anguish even casual golfers experience, the dawning self-awareness in the young pro rings true. But nothing in the first six lessons is remotely sacred...and then comes Sunday. By now the old man's wisdom and goodwill establish him as completely trustworthy, and the outcome of his sermon-in-a-cemetery is never in doubt. This set-piece doesn't feel the least bit contrived—and the term "buried lies" will never again be merely about a golf ball in a sand trap.

From there it's all denouement. At his next tournament the pro stays in the zone, conquers his demons, knocks down flagsticks—and has progressed so far beyond golf that the notion of life-and-death grinding on the links has become a faint echo in the warm sunshine. Golf's Sacred Journey is a good walk unspoiled.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

One death—a tragedy; one million dead—a statistic

A nurse or doctor who works daily caring for people who are about to die can't afford to think of these folks as people—they are "patients". Think of the debilitating sorrow and grief that overwhelms family members of the dying...would you want the nurses and doctors so burdened that they are barely able to function in their important tasks? Yet we do expect these professionals to show warmth, empathy and a degree of compassion in dealing with the sick and their loved ones. And, generally, those who work in the healing arts behave graciously toward those in their care. This is due in large measure to looking these people in the eye, knowing their name and dealing with them personally.

If you know somebody who lost his home in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 meltdown, or who is out of work now as a result of the lethargic economy, your heart aches for them. If you know two or three such folks, you have to be careful to avoid getting angry or depressed. But the destruction of the wealth and well-being of millions of people by this foreseeable and preventable debacle is so far beyond my ability to absorb, that I can only comprehend it in the realm of statistical analysis. And from this principle comes much evil in a technocratic state: despite an abysmal track record when attempting to manage/control economies, the statist impulse is to nonetheless intervene. These interventions always end badly, hurting most those with the least ability to protect themselves.
Human greed and venality are nothing new. Governments are supposed to punish evildoers, and ensure "honest weights and scales". But the modern Leviathan state provides the biggest companies cover for their shadowy deeds. Government interventions leading to the housing mess have been no secret: from the ticking time-bomb of the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, to the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act allowing investment banks into the depository game, to the Federal Reserve's low-to-no interest rates (many say the mere existence of the Fed is a grave danger), to the moral hazard of Government Sponsored Enterprises, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, to Land-Use Restrictions driving up home prices (most famously in California), to the near-trillion dollar "stimulus", the Dodd-Frank regulatory charade, and that mother of all interventions: bailing out selected firms deemed Too Big To Fail.

Obama's Justice Department has obtained zero convictions among the lenders, legislators, underwriters, raters, regulators and insurers responsible for the debacle—I'm not even aware of any investigations they've launched to hold anybody accountable. Remember that under Reagan, Bush and Clinton there were a thousand prosecutions and about 800 people convicted for their part in the S&L Crisis. How can there not have been private and public sector villains in our most recent catastrophe? For all the talk of "predatory lending", how is it that not one such predator has been brought to justice? Mister Holder—can you spare a moment from persecuting CIA interrogators to, say, enforce the laws that have laid low the greatest economy in the history of the planet?

Next up, Obamacare. Get ready for another arrogant overreach, causing the same slow motion train wreck in healthcare that crushed our housing sector and has shaken the foundations of the Republic. 

Despite a stinging electoral repudiation of their hubris, the regime now in control of the Executive Branch and half of the Congress shows no sign of slowing its headlong rush into the abyss. If America doesn't elect small-government conservatives next year, Obama's "fundamental transformation" may well be irreversible.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reaction to "Love Wins" by Rob Bell

I have dear Christian friends who believe in Universal Salvation—the idea that in the end everybody will get to heaven. I have heard their arguments, read many books and articles and, as a result, have modified my own views on the subject of hell: away from Endless Conscious Torment, but not all the way to Universal Salvation. I subscribe to what has been called Conditional Immortality. My touchstone verse in this regard is John 3:16, specifically the phrase "...whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."

But let's admit that there are problems with every theory regarding the final destiny of humans after death. There are always scripture passages that seem to contradict a theory, despite the many verses marshaled to support it. So a little humility might be expected when debating this topic...and Mr. Bell's new book Love Wins, is modestly subtitled "A book about heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived."

First I must admit that something about Mr. Bell has rubbed me the wrong way ever since his face began showing up Sunday mornings on video screens at my church (and some others I visited). He has been the featured presenter in the "Nooma" mini-movie/sermon videos that became all the rage a few years back. Some of my reaction had nothing to do with Bell himself—I wondered what, exactly, we were paying our pastor for if he was just gonna show a video of some other guy preaching.

But after watching a few of these clips—which are very well-produced, in case you haven't seen one—Bell's schtick began to wear thin. First thing was how often he'd toss off little asides about "sustainability" and "racism", never developing these themes, but referring to them as if his audience of course holds the correct view—his view—on socially controversial matters. Bell would always undercut traditionally-held evangelical beliefs and always land on the oh-so-trendy, culturally-progressive view of the day. I got the feeling watching him that he was driven to remedy whatever his favorite secular writers had criticized about Christianity. And I really, really get that feeling in Love Wins.

Rob Bell has a public speaking technique that reminds me of Apple founder/CEO Steve Jobs. They both create in their presentations what has been called a Reality Distortion Field. But Bell also manages to achieve the effect in his writing! This book made me feel woozy—because in trying to hang onto his chain-of-logic, Bell's tone-poem cadences and beat-inspired, rhythmic phrasing kept shoving me off the scent. He's the opposite of a lawyer building a case—he writes more like a hypnotist or magician. And the layout of his text on these pages differs from e.e. cummings only in capitalization.   

The rhetorical flourish that towers above all others in Love Wins has got to be Bell's interpretation of Jesus' famous no-man-cometh-to-the-Father-but-by-me line: "And so the passage is exclusive, deeply so, insisting on Jesus alone as the way to God. But it is an exclusivity on the other side on inclusivity." Wow. What? Bell explains:
"What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him."
Let me walk you down Bell's inclusivity logic-path: because Moses got water from a Rock and Paul identified that Rock as Christ, but the Israelites had never heard the name of Jesus, therefore you can be saved by following Buddha—because when you get to heaven he'll take off his mask and disclose that he was really Jesus all along.

Yes, as reported, Bell muses aloud that Jesus is "saving everybody." But he never once utters the word "universalism," and when his book ends—abruptly in my view—Bell hasn't explicitly endorsed universal salvation. His goal in this book is an effort to "leave plenty of room for all kinds of...possibilities." Which, of course, leaves plenty of opportunity to tweak and dig at evangelicals: "As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy..." Oh, I see: those who worship another God named Allah, who worship the creation rather than the creator, who worship themselves—all of which are explicitly condemned in the New Testament—those folks are on the Jesus road to God just like Baptists from Cleveland. Who knew?

Despite my unwillingness to sign up as a follower of Rob Bell, I agree with him that God will not deliberately keep billions of people alive forever just to torment them. That concept is, in my view, un-Biblical—but not just for the philosophical and cultural reasons Bell puts forth. He seems to think evangelicals believe in everlasting torture because they are haters. 

Nope. They believe it because the Hellenistic concept of natural immortality has been swallowed whole by church leaders going all the way back to Origen and Augustine...who didn't seem to take seriously Jesus' warning to "fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell." Rob Bell actually quotes that passage, then swats it aside because Jesus used the word Gehenna for hell, which was the name of a valley near Jerusalem, long used as a dump. As if Jesus was just jokin' around, just kidding about that whole "destroy" thing. But Jesus couldn't be serious, because everybody knows all souls are immortal. Although St. Paul did tell the Romans that "the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." If you bring to the Bible your presupposition that all souls are immortal, then you're amenable toward endless-conscious-torment. But upon the concept of natural immortality rests the weird concept of eternal life in hell for most folks.

Nowhere does Bell even hint that many evangelicals oppose Endless Conscious Torment without embracing Universalism. He simply lays out two stark choices: you're either a hater or a lover. All of which leads me to believe Bell is far less interested in understanding the Christian doctrine of hell than he is in dressing Christianity up in better clothes.

Sure, it's always fun to portray evangelicals as backward rubes—since so many smart, secular, progressive folks turn up their noses at the concept of judgment. And the sentiment wishing for everybody to be saved is very Christian. Universal salvation truly is a pretty thought. But to "open the door" to the idea without actually stepping through and endorsing it comes very close to cynicism. 

Bell loses.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When A President Won't Take Responsibility

The words Defense Industry used to refer to the Military-Industrial Complex, but now describe the vast number of writers required to explain away the Obama administration's manifold failures. Clever apologists across the fruited plain cook up excuses and toss them into the media echo-chamber where they become pablum for those eager to redeem the Anointed One. A sampling: Bush-did-it; nine-percent-unemployment-is-the-new-normal, Republicans-aren't-letting-him-succeed, greedy-corporations-are-sitting-on-cash, free-trade-is-killing-us, it-would-be-worse-if-we-hadn't-acted, and so on. 

The main output of this White House is excuses. 

Here's our talkative young President* addressing auto workers in Toledo:
"’s just like if you had a bad illness, if you got hit by a truck...there are still some headwinds that are coming at us...the tragedy in Japan...the instability in the Middle East...bumps on the road to recovery. We’re going to pass through some rough terrain..." All those excuses are from consecutive paragraphs in a single speech.

The multiplying excuses all flow from a central canard: "Only government" can solve our problems.  

I suppose, in a perverse/reverse logic, this premise could be true: because only government could have created these problems! A partial list: the distortions of the Federal Reserve Bank's monopoly-money; the cake-and-eat-it-too delirium of Fannie-Mae and Freddie-Mac mortgages; the thuggish mob-enforcement of CRIA; the micro-managing of Dodd-Frank and a blizzard of other Central-Planning initiatives that have turned the U.S. economy into a Rube Goldberg jalopy. Plus we now have an additional $4 trillion of debt to show for all Obama's failed ideas...while he seeks permission to borrow even more.

If this President doesn't want responsibility let's take it from him and give it to someone who will actually clean up his mess.  The cure is limiting government, thereby unshackling America from her captors in Washington, DC.

* so named by columnist George Will

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Memento Mori

Remember, you are mortal.

When the ancient Romans paraded a victorious general through the streets to herald a recent conquest, a slave was assigned to stand behind him with a garland and recite the phrase "memento mori." So great was the temptation for a leader to believe in his own success that it required a reminder—at the very moment of his greatest adulation—that before long he too would become worm food.

Caesar Obama

I don't expect American political parties to do the same for their just-crowned presidential nominees, but there's something to be said for one's friends providing a dose of reality. Over time the Romans neglected this practice, trading humility for empire. After just two Caesars,  their third declared himself a god, taking the title "Augustus".  

Pontifex Maximus

This was the coin handed to Jesus by the Pharisees, prompting him to famously ask: "Whose inscription is this? And whose image?" The obvious answer to both questions was "Caesar's", and we all know the Lord's reply: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's." That's why Christians are careful to pay taxes levied by governments. But Jesus didn't stop there, despite having delivered one of the most famous phrases ever spoken. His next words are often treated as a codicil: like they're an afterthought belonging to a totally different discussion. But they're not.

Jesus is still talking about Caesar and money and taxes when he concludes his declaration: "...and unto God what is God's." Remember who accompanied the Pharisees to trap Jesus about paying the Imperial Tax? Herodians; political allies of the Roman Tetrarch Herod Antipas...the man who beheaded Jesus' own cousin. But these guys are still God-fearing Jews, right? So what is Jesus driving at? Two things...

One: Caesar is not God. This should have been an unremarkable statement to the powerful men surrounding Jesus that day. But note the Herodians' reaction to these words: "...they were amazed." Really? How come? Sure, Caesar had claimed on this coin to be God, but Jesus is talking to Jews inside the Hebrew Temple, days before Passover. They all knew Caesar wasn't God, didn't they? The Pharisees certainly should have known that; the Herodians...maybe not. They had aligned themselves with Rome through Herod, and were very close to abandoning the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.

Look, the Jews at this time were demoralized. It had been 400 years since God had sent them a prophet. In the absence of a clear word from heaven, they were tempted to think crazy thoughts: maybe Herod is the Messiah. Maybe what Moses and the prophets wrote isn't true. Maybe we ought to ally with the regime in power and stop trying to stand apart from everybody else. But Jesus' words were a smack upside the head to that kind of thinking. Snap out of it!

Two: if Caesar's image on a coin obliges you to pay him tribute, whose image is on you? Wait—what? The Jewish leaders were stunned by this breathtaking simile. Jesus' analogy instantly took them to the very first chapter of the very first book of their revered Torah "Let us make man in our image..." 

Man-made money is artificial—created by governments seeking honor and permanence (think of whose image is on your currency). It also allows them to secretly enrich state coffers without levying more taxes—an action which erodes the value of the coins in your pocket. If you are part of an economy using fiat money (ie: not gold), you owe the potentates whose faces are on that money a piece of their action. 

But people are God-made—they're real. My very personhood has been branded as property of the Almighty One. He has stamped his image on me and given very detailed instructions about what I owe in return. One day I will die, taking with me none of this world's goods. At that point I better have figured out what it means to lay up treasure in heaven.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Newer Principles vs First Principles

No free government, nor the blessings of liberty, can be preserved . . . but by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

That quote above is not from Obama, it's from Article 1 (Bill of Rights), Section 15 (Qualities necessary to preservation of free government) of the Constitution of the State of Virginia, whose drafters included Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and James Madison.

It should be obvious why, in a constitution, the idea of founding principle is so crucial. You're putting together a document that is literally the foundation of your endeavor. It defines who you are, why and how you're organizing, the manner in which you'll operate and what is permissible within your sphere of operations. I've helped write and amend both corporate and church constitutions and bylaws—very rudimentary examples of the species. These often contain a preamble or statement of purpose, which anchor all that follows to the main thing behind the decision to "found" an organization. Or a country.

For evangelical Christians this concept is vital. The words of ancient scripture carry much more weight than today's best-selling book by a popular pastor. The habits and practices of the first-century church are prized as exemplary and instructive. Both are used as a plumb-line to measure ourselves all these thousands of years later.

But there is a major chunk of Christianity that places less emphasis on the original, foundational writings (ie: the Bible), and more emphasis on later pronouncements. The Roman Catholic Church declares current church teaching and policy equal to the ancient text. I'm puzzled when Catholic conservatives make a big deal out of "original intent" in the U.S. Constitution...yet soft-pedal that point about the source documents of their religious faith.

Which brings us to the Islamic theory of abrogation. I had heard in passing about this principle, but with the visit to Nashville this week of Geert Wilders–member of the Netherlands Parliament—this principle of "newer is better" was highlighted for me. Wilders and his political party are dedicated to opposing Islam's spread into Western democracies. Consider these passages from the Koran:
Whatever of Our revelations We repeal or cause to be forgotten, We will replace them with something superior or comparable. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things? Do you not know that Allah reigns sovereign over the heavens and earth...?

When we exchange one verse for another, and Allah knows best what He reveals, they say, "You are making this up." Most of them do not understand.
Nice gig for Muhammad: if anybody questions why he's suddenly war-like in Medina (where he's now conqueror and potentate), despite having been such a sweet peace-loving guy in Mecca (where he was just getting started and couldn't risk inflammatory words), the questioner is obviously stupid and/or is resisting Allah. Unfortunately for non-Muslims, the "peaceful" early writings of Muhammad have been abrogated by the "intolerant" later ones. When Muslim apologists claim this principle doesn't exist, we must remember that the Koran also instructs deception in dealing with us kafirs (unbelievers).

So Catholicism and Islam share an institutional trait: an official policy and formal mechanism allowing their leadership to contradict or overrule earlier doctrines. This kinda thing isn't surprising from Muhammad, but I urge my Catholic friends to consider John the Revelator's final words to the church: "If anyone adds anything to what is written here, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book." Hard to be more explicit than that about the importance of first principles.

And then there are our fellow Americans on the left, who now prefer the label progressive. They have given us the idea of the constitution as a "living document", stretched its Commerce clause beyond recognition and generally sought to subvert the whole thing by judicial fiat whenever it prevents them from enacting some new innovation—rather than amending it as the founders prescribed. Their greatest frustration with President Obama is that he is not able to do all the hopey-changey progressive things he promised to do. Not for them musty old words on parchment.

Perhaps my previous mentions of conservatism's three-part credo, first articulated by Edmund Burke, have faded from your memory. I will repeat again here the tripod supporting the conservative mind: tradition, principle and prejudice. That last one doesn't refer to racism, but to deciding in advance what may and what may not be done...which is the reason for constitutions. And is our protection from those in power today who seek to exercise their will in ways that violate America's first principles.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Biblical Replies To The Top 5 'Liberal Slogans'

First an apology to my Canadian readers, who are knee-deep in an election campaign just now, and have a party-of-the-left that actually calls itself "The Liberal Party of Canada". Poetically, those Libs are running against a party called "The Conservative Party of Canada". How can you not love the clarity of our friends in the Great White North? But I digress.

This post, however, is about American politics and the buzz-phrases du jour passed off as Received Wisdom by the American left, as most prominently recited by their putative leader, the President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama.
5. The Rich Should Pay Their Fair Share. 
The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less... —Exodus 30:15 
5a. The Rich Will Need To Sacrifice A Little More. 
If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice' you would not have condemned the innocent. —Matthew 12:7
The only tax that is Biblically endorsed is a "poll tax", which is a pure Flat Tax. A case can be made for the tax being a percentage of annual increase, rather than a flat amount, but any kind of progressive tax is clearly disallowed. For my friends on the left unfamiliar with the concept of a flat ten percent tax: a person who made a million dollars in 2010 would pay $100,000 while a person making a hundred grand would pay $10,000. How, in anybody's political philosophy, is this not a fair share?

4. The Income Gap Is Too Wide. 
Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. —1 Peter 2:1
One of my favorite quotes from Jesus is his answer to Peter, who upon receiving a hard-but-clear instruction to follow Christ, reacted by pointing to a colleague and asking the Lord: "But what about this man?" Peter illustrates a common human failure: comparing ourselves to others in hopes of avoiding hardship, or spreading our misery. But Jesus would have none of it: "If I want him to [do something else], what is that to you? You follow me." A focus on the GAP between what I make and what my neighbor makes is a craven, base, sinful act of envy and malice.

3. The Wealthy Have Benefited Most From America's Success. 
For the Scripture says, "You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain." And in another place, "Those who work deserve their pay!" —1 Timothy 5:18
Please, this is a pathetic and weasel-ish ploy to try and justify taking more than a fair share from the rich. The corollary of this silly statement is just as true (and just as irrelevant): that the poor have benefited most from the success of America's rich. In no case is it helpful to try and coerce more than a fair share from anybody.

2. We Can't Solve Our Debt Problem Without Raising Taxes. 
One tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain from the fields or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord and must be set apart... — Leviticus 27:30
I like Ray Stevens line: if 10% is good enough for Jesus, it oughta be good enough for Uncle Sam. This slogan is just another childish plea to view all current government expenditures as sacred. I don't use the word "sacred" thoughtlessly, because to the Left, government literally replaces God as Provider, Healer, Protector, Redeemer and all other deeds associated with the Holy One. It is obvious that governments in America spend waaay too much...and when they raise tax rates, they spend even more!

1. Government Must Do What We Can't Do For Ourselves.
The authorities are God’s servants, sent... for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. your taxes [not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience]. — Romans 13:4-6
It is idolatry to look to the state to care for our family members, or to teach our children, or to heal our diseases, or to perform our charitable duty. Civil governments are instituted by God to punish wrongdoers. Period. Before the government usurped all these social roles, it was churches and individuals who built hospitals, libraries, universities and rescue missions. Heck, the money used by governments comes from us in the first place, so it isn't like we-the-people couldn't afford to do these things individually and thru voluntary associations.

If common-sense, God-fearing Americans don't restrain this government at their earliest opportunity, the decline of a once-great nation—founded on Biblical principles and explicitly dependent on God for her prosperity—may well become an irreversible slide.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Obama's Bismarck?

Bismarck is burning. Not like the 1991 documentary film about debauchery in NYC, and certainly not the way fires of revolution have engulfed the Muslim Middle East. 
I toyed with entitling this post "Sink The Bismarck (Again)", but the famous German WWII battleship's fate carries less resonance in our culture with every passing year. 
Or how about "A Tale of 3 Bismarcks", given that the city and the ship were both named after the famous non-Socialist who invented the modern welfare state?
Today Bismarck—and all of North Dakota—truly is on fire. In a Chamber of Commerce kind of way. With Otto von Bismarck's cradle-to-grave Statism finally dying all over the world (see Greece, Ireland and Spain), and with the warship still mired on the bottom of the Atlantic, the town on the banks of the Missouri River is the only one of the three Bismarcks still kickin'. And how.

What was the unemployment rate in your state last month? Probably not 3.7% like North Dakota's. Taxes there are moderate, and it's a right-to-work state, attractive to new employers. The state's median household income has increased 17% in the last decade, triple the rate of Massachussetts and more than 10 times California's. Oh, and North Dakota has the lowest percentage of non-religious people of any state, and the most churches per capita. Coincidence?

In his Washington DC palace today, Otto von Obama sits grinding his teeth that he cannot exert his will in North Dakota as he can in Alaska, Utah, Wyoming and off the coasts of Louisiana, California and other states. But why can't the King of America issue edicts to stop the production of shale oil up by the 49th Parallel? Because the land up there isn't owned by The Crown. 

With so much of their land in private hands, North Dakotans are free to develop it for their good and ours. Their lignite coal provides 90% of the state's electricity, and the oil-fields up there are helping fill our gas tanks, while bringing wealth to the free people in and around Bismarck. 

I hope in the next election we'll chart a course for our ship of state more along the lines of our friends up yonder, and reject the path of the the man who brought the world National Health Insurance.