Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why Your Christmas Music Should Include Jazz

If you're one of the few living civilians who has read Understanding Media by my fellow Edmontonian, Marshall McLuhan—and no, seeing his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall doesn't count—you're privileged to have been present for the coining of two renowned phrases: the-medium-is-the-message and the-global-village. Me? I'm still haunted by his concept of Hot-to-Cool Media. 
Illustration from GRP Christmas Collection CD (1988)
It is a coincidence that McLuhan chose the word "cool" to describe media requiring effort in consuming/apprehending them. Jazz is said by aficionados to be "cool," but what McLuhan meant was that it was among the media requiring me to supply some understanding—to connect some dots—in order to fulfill the listening experience. When jazz musicians give us instrumental Christmas carols, they're inviting us to join in and re-live the message. Their musical presentation is ever-new, often surprising, and intentionally different—take Daryl Stuermer's The Little Drummer Boy for example. They have created a new wineskin to carry a potent, dynamic, growing elixir—a musical incarnation retelling the birth of mankind's salvation. We provide the lyrics, or hum along to engage with their celebration...squaring the circle, so to speak.

I've heard many people say they "hate" jazz, and I can sympathize. Some jazz can be frantic, non-melodic, showy and loud. But there's also a genre called Smooth Jazz, derived from West Coast Jazz, invented by my dear, late friend Shorty Rogers. Christmas jazz is almost always smooth. In this day of iTunes, where you can purchase individual songs, it's never been safer, easier and more affordable to spice up your Christmas repertoire with some tasty jazz. I'll give you some links to sample a few luminous examples below, but first consider that you probably already own at least one jazz Christmas CD: the Vince Guaraldi Trio's A Charlie Brown Christmas

I still consider The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait to be the best yuletide recording of all time—which is vocal pop and symphonic instrumental, with only sprinkles of jazz-like piano tossed in. I then rank Amy Grant's 1983 A Christmas Album in second place, followed quickly by Michael W. Smith's 1989 Christmas. Don't even think of not buying the complete album if you don't already own these vocal classics (which also contain entire instrumental songs).

The CD cover atop this post perfectly epitomizes jazz: an incomplete drawing, an iconographic representation, beckoning you to fill in the blanks. And so I offer the GRP Christmas Collection as the best-of-breed (it has grown to three volumes). Next is from our local boy, Larry Carlton, who offers Christmas at My House, and he's in a quartet too: FourPlay, whose 1999 classic Snowbound opens with my all-time favorite Christmas instrumental recording—Angels We Have Heard on High.  The GRP label also released the wonderful Making Spirits Bright in 2004, following the 2002 success of trumpeter Chris Botti's pensive December on Columbia (a title he shared with George Winston's famed 1982 CD).

I hope this small sampling is enough to convince you to check out some smooth jazz this Christmas—and become part of the celebration of Jesus' wondrous arrival on earth.

I don't make any money from any of the links above. GooglePlay offers web-based 90-second samples—triple what Amazon offers. The app-based, proprietary iTunes Music Store also gives 90-second previews, but doesn't offer any way to "share" music. So listen at Google and buy wherever you wish.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2012: Annus Horribilis For Conservatism

I have not written a post in this space for almost six weeks. Today, December 6th, is the one month anniversary of Democrat Barack Hussein Obama's reelection as President of the United States. On that day Republicans also lost a couple of seats in the Senate and a handful in the House—retaining control over just one third of the U.S. government's Executive-Legislative power structure. I was shocked by those results. I fell, and have yet to get up.

Though a righteous man falls seven times, he will get up... (Prov. 24:16)
FALL #1: As 2012 began, I was just returning to Tennessee from Iowa, where I'd had dinner with the conservative Republican candidate I was supporting for the nomination, Newt Gingrich. But his was always an uphill battle against monied "Massachusetts Moderate" Mitt Romney. Once again Republicans nominated the least conservative guy on the premise that he was most electable.
By late spring, I'd licked my wounds and considered the good things about Romney—of which there were not a few. And, apart from the Petulant Paulians—who just can't fathom why their wild-eyed, silver-haired, lets-be-nicer-to-Iran candidate didn't carry the day—supporters of Gingrich, Santorum, Bachmann and Cain rallied 'round Romney. We were back in the race.
FALL #2: Some twenty-two states sued the United States government over the constitutionality of Obamacare. As the Supreme Court's '11/'12 term came to an end, conservatives suffered a body-blow when Chief Justice John Roberts rewrote the PPACA as a tax in order to save it. He defended his feeble legal reasoning whining "It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices." Those ill-chosen words should haunt Roberts for the rest of his life...and they certainly rang in the ears of conservatives heading into the Political Convention season.

In Tampa, despite a dust-up with the irascible Ron Paul, who headlined an off-site rally of his own, the Republican Convention went pretty well—Clint Eastwood's comedic schtick brilliantly capping off the event. 

FALL #3: The Democrat's craven, cynical, shameless tactics escalated all year long. Most obvious was their planned, coordinated phony War-on-Women narrative, launched in collusion with the corrupt Clintonista George Stephanopolous. As moderator at one of the 385 Republican Presidential Debates, he famously inserted an issue that nobody—neither Democrat or Republican—had been talking about in the campaigns: access to contraception. Mitt Romney actually had the best response to the question: "Huh?" Romney asked the moderator what state or federal agency was attempting to restrict women's access to contraception? No reply, just a repeat of the question. And of course Rick Santorum, proving he will never be ready-for-primetime, took the bait, sinking not only his candidacy, but also emboldening David Axelrod to keep throwing dust in the eyes of voters (ie: Romney's tax returns, Romney murders wife of employee, Republicans throw granny off a cliff, etc).

Somehow conservatives fought through the debris and Romney managed to build momentum in public opinion polls—both state and national.  

FALLS #4-6: These may look to be mere sports stories, but sport and entertainment comprise a big part of "culture" in America—a force more potent than politics.
#4 - USA loses golf's Ryder Cup in Chicago. (Tiger Woods. American Exceptionalism.)

#5 - NHL cancels hockey. (A Labor Union comprised of millionaires.)
#6 - Tim Tebow vanishes. (A successful Christian role-model hidden under a bushel.)

FALL #7: The November election. Unlike 2008, when conservatives just knew McCain would lose, we actually thought we'd win in 2012. This wasn't based just on hope for change—we actually believed that the Presidency is a performance business, that nobody had been returned to the Oval Office with unemployment above 7%, that You-Didn't-Build-That was an insult to America's can-do spirit, that a majority of Americans oppose Obamacare. These beliefs encouraged us, but weren't enough: we had published polls to signal that a center-right nation would change lanes and get off that dangerous left shoulder. Oops. what? How do we dust ourselves off this time?

Without missing a beat, beltway Republicans began telling us to be more like Democrats: come to peace with illegal immigration, embrace notion of the welfare state, abandon social/moral standards. But the Political Consultant-and-Commentariat Class are not highly-regarded by conservatives in the best of times...less so when the chips are down. No, we thoughtful conservatives (that ain't an oxymoron) held our peace. Even Rush Limbaugh has only in the past week begun to articulate what happened November 6th...and hasn't yet waded beyond his ankles into prescriptive waters.

And there's good reason to keep quiet. Conservatives misunderstood the American people. We thought we were winning, and we lost. We simply couldn't believe, with the direction of this government, enough people would vote Democrats back into power. So while a lame-duck Congress takes America over a fiscal cliff, while the worst President in American history plans his second inauguration and while the Middle East spins out of control, conservatives will retreat at Christmas. We will reflect, we will pray, we will study, we will hold our loved ones close. Then we'll pick ourselves up and get back into the arena.

Merry Christmas to you, and a happy new year!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Responding to "Why I Am A Christian Democrat"

My liberal west-coast friend Jim (inappropriately on the right in the photo below) has, like me, long worked in the Christian publishing field. He recently directed me to the above-titled blog post by author Ellen Painter Dollar. Today's Electoral College map reminds me that in states like Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and California, all of which have a significant Christian publishing presence, my friends there live in a leftish pond. So I am rebutting Ms. Painter Dollar's article partly to counter what I consider erroneous theology, but mainly to refute her Statist politics, and help my Christian friends in Blue states go against the flow.
Wayne and Jim calmly discussing their political views.
Every screenwriting book says to establish the protagonist early by having them show kindness to an animal or a child. Conversely antagonists should either kick a dog or take candy from a baby in their opening scene. Ms. Painter Dollar is obviously educated: immediately establishing conservatives as her antagonists. They are shown as "pummeling," filled with "disgust" and judgmental "subtext" toward the "helpless and aggrieved" wife of a liberal philosophy professor at a conservative Christian university. Seems the prof published an essay on why he will not vote for Mitt Romney. 

Appearing as it does on the "Patheos Progressive Christian Channel," the post opens with an emotion-based, female-oriented re-telling of a woman beaten down by a horde of reactionary conservatives. I wonder what a professor at a conservative Christian university expects when he pokes a sharp stick in the eyes of young conservatives—flowers? He's not writing positively about Barack Obama, but negatively about Mitt Romney. If you diss somebody's candidate, prepare to be dissed back. Having established her side as victims (sound familiar?), Ms. Painter Dollar then lays out her six-point Desiderata:

1. I am a Democrat because, in many churches (including mine), being a Christian Democrat is not an oxymoron. Circular reasoning like this isn't terribly persuasive—if it were, then any church with two or more Republicans would validate Republicanism. Ditto for any heretical theology. Or is Ms. Painter Dollar simply a conformist? Seriously, we can't actually count this as a reason. It's like saying "that's just how I was raised." In this section she also confesses to not practicing "a pure faith," but then invokes moral-equivalence in saying nobody else does either. Yeesh, speak for yourself ma'am. Alas, her first point is, in the words of Harry Nilsson, no point at all.

2. I am a Democrat because I understand that theological conservatism and political conservatism are two different things. Sure, but by the same token Jesus' ministry and the enumerated powers of the U.S. central government aren't the same thing either. After saying Jesus was neither conservative nor liberal, Ms. Painter Dollar puts liberal words in Christ's mouth, such as his having rejected "individual success over the common good." She then skips straight to the liberal trope that "Jesus was a radical" (emphasis hers). If ever there was an extra-biblical, politically loaded term, it's "radical." The left is all about revolution: turning things upside down—"bold, persistent experimentation." Here are the leading radicals lionized by the left: Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung. Jesus may have been considered "radical," but he wasn't A Radical. His radicalism, if any, was incidental to the content of his message, the nature of who he was and the purpose of his mission. 

3. I am a Democrat because I daily appreciate the ways in which government improves individual lives and the common good. No conservative I know denies that government is necessary—our dispute with Liberal Democrats is one of scope and proportion. I see very little of the Federal government improving individual lives every day. Most of my encounters with government show sloth, arrogance, waste, abuse—and generate dependency, discontent and despair. But Ms. Painter Dollar sees ... roads and bridges. I kid you not. And food stamps. And unemployment insurance. These are a few of her favorite things. And vamping on Elizabeth Warren's meme, she adds "free public schools." The construction workers didn't get paid to build them? The teachers work for no pay? Of course they're not "free." They are very expensive, but rarely worth the money.

For the record: a- responsibility for public education falls to the states, many run by Republicans; b- conservatives recognize the U.S. constitution as mandating the central government to build and maintain "post roads" (one assumes such roads would have bridges, since America has rivers); c- regarding food stamps and UI, direct government payments to citizens are nowhere enumerated in the constitution. 

4. I am a Democrat because I see a difference between “fairness” and “justice.” I agree that "fairness" is a childish concept—based on envy. But envy is an emotion elected Democrats seek to stir up at every opportunity with their Class Warfare rhetoric. Demonizing successful and wealthy citizens who already pay a significantly higher percentage of their income in taxes is shameful and un-Christian. Besides, in this election no Republican is talking about reducing tax rates—the fight is to stop Democrats from raising them again. (This is not to mention that when God did give taxing instructions to the Jews, they were not progressive but flat.)

I confess that branding conservatives as whining about “fairness” caught me off-guard. Evidently the online Republican Pummelers said it wasn't "fair" that an ever-increasing percentage of private wealth is taxed for Redistributive Justice. Ms. Painter Dollar noted these folks "appeared to mean that those who obtain much wealth are not asked to give a good chunk of it up to help those who have little." Asked? Churches ask for offerings; governments demand taxes under threat of imprisonment. Where's the moral virtue in that kind of "giving?" But this fourth section is full of muddled theology, most notably a profound misunderstanding of the phrase "the economy of God." Or she may be re-coining the phrase to mean what she means—"it may be unfair for the very wealthy to be taxed at a higher rate than the middle class, but in God’s economy, it is just." So while Jesus was not, his Father God most assuredly is a Democrat. Who knew?

5. I am a Democrat because “Biblical” values are far from clear cut, so I focus on what Jesus chose to focus on in his earthly ministry. Excuse me? It sounds like you're tossing out the entire Old Testament and the Apostles. Ms. Painter Dollar clarifies: "Jesus understood, I think, that our holy scriptures are not always consistent when it comes to ... such important details as the character of God (Did the same God who called the little children to him really mastermind the murder of the innocents?)." Yes, there are tough and seemingly contradictory passages in scripture, but there are answers to those tough questions—we don't just rip out those pages. 

Reading this fifth reason made me go back and check Ms. Painter Dollar's previous explanation of being theologically conservative: "... meaning I believe all that stuff in the Nicene Creed about the virgin birth and the resurrection." Someone tossing out the OT and the Apostles can't credibly claim to be "theologically conservative."  Yes, the Nicene Creed is orthodox, but it's not scripture. There is one upside, I guess: a bible with just the Gospels and the Nicene Creed would fit easily into a small clutch purse.

So when Jesus does nice things like feeding 5,000 people Ms. Painter Dollar is there. But what about his parable of the talents ("Take from him who has one and give it to him who has ten")? I guess when St. Paul condemns homosexual behavior, we can disregard it and go to Starbucks for loaves and fishes. This is a form of Bible striptease—peel off all the hard parts 'til you're free of all that misogyny and unenlightened cant.

But by far the most stunning thing about Ms. Painter Dollar's fifth symphony is her impassioned middle paragraph about Jesus' commands to "me" and "us." A ringing recitation of what "I" and "we" are instructed to do according to Jesus. The Lord is talking to individual believers and the church. But in closing her sale in the final paragraph she switches to "our societal obligation"... which means she'll vote for Obama to pick her neighbor's pocket to fulfill Christ's commands. But what if her neighbor isn't a Christian? Isn't government-enforced religion the definition of a Theocracy? I thought Democrats were against "imposing their beliefs on others." Wasn't Jesus addressing Ms. Painter Dollar's personal Christian duty—and the church's corporate responsibility as the Body of Christ? 

6. I am a Democrat because adequately caring for the least of these requires some government support. Leaving aside the question of "adequately", let's consider "some." Under the Democrats in power today, a TRILLION dollars a year are being spent on welfare—not Social Security or Unemployment Insurance, just welfare. Conservatives believe it is wrong for a government $16 trillion in debt to continue spending over a trillion more than it takes in year after year.

But if Ms. Painter Dollar is comfortable with "some," conservatives would stand up and applaud. Much more Christian virtue would be unleashed if the Feds scaled waay back on their eighty-three means-tested transfer payment programs. Americans would not stand by and watch bodies pile up in the streets when government cuts spending. Americans—whether Christian or not—are a generous people, and they would rise up to deal with social ills through their churches and other volunteer organizations. All the money to fund those government programs comes from the people anyway—but the central government is far less efficient and effective at this sort of thing. Consider private schools: where teachers are paid less, but their students do much better. 

This sixth reason is the pinnacle of Ms. Painter Dollar's case; and a modest hillock it is. In acknowledging that Jesus' commands were not addressed to governments but to his own followers, she admits believers and churches "could do much more for the poor and marginalized than we are doing..." Great. But "...we are also limited to providing help within our cultural, societal, and governmental structures." Huh? What on earth does that mean? Perhaps that we're already taxed so much to pay for misguided Social Justice Spending that we can't afford to engage in serious Christian charity? If so, she's right. Then cut the taxes, cut the eighty-three programs and watch what happens. America was built upon the notion of minimum government and maximum freedom ... and had thrived with that foundation for two centuries. 

Ms. Painter Dollar sums up her argument thusly: "... the Democratic Party is doing more than the Republican Party to care for the 'least of these,' however imperfectly. And Jesus made it absolutely clear that caring for the least of these is central to our identity as his followers." Yes, the party of abortion-on-demand and same-sex marriage does spend more than Republicans, but I reject the author's assertion that only government can successfully deal with social problems. How is Jesus pleased if I vote that my neighbor must pay to fulfill my Christian duty? I find Ms. Painter Dollar's political views to be based on weak theology and a dim understanding of the ethos which has animated America since her founding. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Foreign Policy: Smart or Strong?

It remains a truism that American foreign policy hardly changes when a new family moves into the White House. But does anybody still think politics ends at the water's edge? Then-candidate Hillary Clinton challenged both notions during Bush 43's tenure, first by shouting (literally) that dissent is patriotic, and then with her contention that the way to fix things is to implement Smart Power. She cast U.S. foreign policy as an intellectual exercise (not to mention implying GW Bush's stupidity). How's that workin' out Madame Secretary?
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton return to their seats after speaking during the transfer
of remains of the four Americans killed in an attack this week in Benghazi, Libya
(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Rhetoric is coin of the realm among diplomats because the price—paid in blood, treasure and stature—of taking action can be astronomically high. Firing barbs at each other is preferable to firing bullets and bombs. But while most Western "democracies" behave themselves peaceably, the world has no shortage of Bad Actors. The non-state bad-guys have become famous since 9/11: Al Queda, Hezbollah and their affiliates. They're universally loathed outlaws who can be shot on sight without much blowback. But there's also a roster of nasty nation-states worth worrying about. They are, in descending order of awfulness: Iran, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, China. 

The first three on that list, while spinning dangerously away from Western norms, do not possess nukes. No such comfort with the last four. 

In its most charitable light, Smart Power imagines that pointing out "shared interests" or "being nicer" will alchemize swords into plowshares. Thus does President Obama task NASA with "Muslim outreach" as their number one priority. And he travels to Egypt to apologize for America's having been arrogant. So an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt plays an insulting YouTube video to stir things up for the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Riotous demonstrations ensue in 22 Muslim capitals—and four U.S. embassies/consulates are breached for an Al Queda flag to replace the Stars and Stripes. Brilliant.

About the only city where there wasn't a riot was Benghazi, where Al Queda in Libya assassinated our Ambassador and three other Americans (two of whom were not part of the Ambassador's team). No word on what flag is flying there now.

Here's the problem with Smart Power: what America deems smart rarely appeals to power-crazed dictators or wild-eyed Jihadi mullahs. When Hillary uses the word "senseless" for the 50th time to describe the actions of the Usual Suspects, she is blowing her cover: what makes sense to these people will never add up for us. And vice-versa. How smart is it then, to expect being "reasonable" will get us anywhere with them?

It's all well and good to, in Teddy Roosevelt's words "speak softly and carry a big stick." But if nobody believes you'll use the stick, you're wasting your breath. Remember what previously happened in Libya when America used a Big Stick on Saddam Hussein? Correct: Mouammar Kadhafi turned into a kitty-cat and relinquished all his WMD. And therein lies a lesson of its own about Arabic countries: any leader seen as weak is in grave danger. Kadhafi became vulnerable at that point, and it was only a matter of time before he tumbled. 

So while Mitt Romney hasn't laid out details about "what he would do" in foreign policy overseas, he's done all he needs to do by adding John Bolton to his team and emphasizing American strength. If you don't think what happened in Iran on January 20th 1981 is instructive, then you weren't paying attention. America's Weak Horse, Jimmy Carter, was surrendering power to a horse the Ayatollah considered Strong: Ronald Reagan. Ronaldus Magnus didn't have to lift a finger toward Iran—they just let our people go. Which they thought was the smart thing to do.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

"Jesus Was A Liberal"

After morning devotions and a 3-mile walk, I make coffee, pour a bowl of cereal and sit down to C-SPAN's Washington Journal call-in TV show. Besides enjoying the hilarious tongue-tied callers who've left their TV sound on (there's a 7-second delay), I find it very instructive to hear average folks hold forth on issues of the day. This Sunday morning I slept in a bit and was still finishing my coffee when WJ got to their first guest segment with author Jeffrey Bell on his new book The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism. Hearing one particular caller reminded me that I'd promised to do a blog-post about Liberalism's misuse of scripture, when he asserted that "Jesus was a Liberal."
LEFT: Jesus of Nazareth (Zeffirelli); RIGHT: Passion of the Christ (Gibson)
There aren't very many Liberals today advocating for scripture as foundational to their political philosophy. A web-search for Jesus-is-a-liberal yields mostly puerile stuff like this from Jesus Was a Liberal: How the Conservative Agenda Is a Rejection of Christ's Teachings self-published by University of Indiana East Bush-bashing professor of Educational Psychology Jerry Wilde: "I can barely manage my own life and I don’t have the arrogance to think I know what’s best for everyone else. The only power I seek involves the remote control for our television. Actually there is one other thing I’d like to be able to accomplish if I were ever made 'king for a day.' I’d like to pass a law handing out severe punishment to anyone owning a luxury car and also wearing one of those WWJD bracelets." Thanks professor...this must be the "nuance" I keep hearing Liberals talk about.  

There's also a website, which at least has a list of Jesus-quotes on its home page; but no commentary or application or context is given. The site was last updated in 2006, the same year Wilde's book was published...which year was the nadir of G.W. Bush's tenure. In November '06 Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi won back control of the Congress. By the way, G.W.B. is no role model for young conservatives.

But there are more serious and influential liberal Christians—Canadian Ronald J. Sider (Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners magazine) are probably the two best-known—but given the sharply secular turn in left-wing politics (ie: Obama's "evolution" to same-sex marriage), it's getting really tough to make a biblical case for the abortion party. 

Tough, but not impossible. People who are liberal in their politics are usually liberal in their theology. And that, friends and neighbors, can be a serious problem. Consider this quote from author Scotty McLennan (Jesus Was a Liberal: Reclaiming Christianity for All) "We liberal Christians know in our hearts that there is much more to life than seems to meet the rational eye of atheists; yet we find it hard to support supernatural claims about religion that fly in the face of scientific evidence." You know, minor stuff like the virgin birth, walking on water, feeding 5,000, raising Lazarus and other so-called "miracles." I don't know about McLennan in particular, but I've heard folks with liberal theology question Christ's resurrection.

For the record, I do not claim Jesus was politically conservative—he wasn't political at all, so he couldn't have been liberal either. There are aspects of Christ's ministry that appeal to modern-day liberals: he questioned the status-quo, challenged those holding power, warned about the seductions of money and affirmed the dignity of all persons—notably women and the poor. With their fondness for revolution and upsetting the established order of things, some liberals may think they see in Jesus a kind of Che Guevara. But they'd be wrong: his kingdom is not of this world.

Those features of Jesus' modus operandi and his support for the downtrodden more resemble a T.E.A. party than the storming of the Bastille or an Occupy sit-in. Jesus was restoring the ancient truths from the Torah and the Prophets—and fulfilling them in a whole new way. Though apolitical, his purpose was deeply conservative: reminding individuals of the original purpose for their existence, and offering them a path to restoration.

But I digress. In the next post I shall fulfill my promise. Having covered Jesus' words in Matthew 25 (ie: hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned) on July 19th, I will next consider the other four of liberals' Top 5 Proof Texts: 

  1. Judge not lest ye be judged.
  2. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. 
  3. He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.
  4. The Beatitudes.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What Is Sovereignty?

Folks who don't go to church will mostly hear the word "sovereignty" in political or geographic news items: "CIA drone strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty" or "World Bank opposes Palestinian sovereignty." The word was cobbled together to describe the autonomy of individual nations—conveying a sense of rightfulness and legitimacy. The idea of national sovereignty was kicked off in 1578 by Frenchman Jean Bodin's influential Les Six Livres de la République, leading to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, the Peace of Westphalia and the Divine Right of Kings.
The King of Tonga, August 2008
Churchgoers, especially protestants, are often reassured that "God is sovereign." Which is odd in the case of evangelicals, who purport to hold a high view of scripture. Despite being commissioned by a King (James), the 1611 Authorized Version of the bible does not contain the word "sovereign", nor does its final 1771 edition. And the word was still missing from the 1885 Revised Version, widely regarded as the first "modern" bible translation. Only in the mid-20th century, when kings had all but vanished from the earth, did "sovereignty" slowly creep into English bibles:
* 1952 Revised Standard Version (UK) = 3 instances
* 1971 New American Standard Bible = 1 instance
* 1984 New International Version = 295 instances

But there's less here than meets the eye. Fully 290 of those NIV instances are in the Old Testament—60% in Ezekiel alone—and, except for Daniel, the word always appears in front of "Lord." As in "O Sovereign Lord." Before the introduction of this word, previous translations had simply said "Lord", sometimes "King" or "ruler" or "potentate" or some other such designation of high authority. 

And about Daniel: his usages were spoken to—or about—a King of Babylon, describing God as "sovereign over the kingdoms of men." After seeing what God did with Pharaoh, this is hardly a controversial point. Then what about the five instances from the New Testament? Yep, you guessed it: they are all connected to "Lord" (ie: Simeon holding the baby Jesus and calling out the honorific "O Sovereign Lord"). I note with interest that none of the five NT instances comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul—writer of the letter to the Romans (which includes a 9th chapter).

All of which gives us exactly zero insight into the "doctrine" of sovereignty, which A.W. Pink wrote " the centre of gravity in the system of Christian truth—the sun around which all lesser orbs are grouped." Pink is still revered among those holding Reformed Theology, or Calvinism. A non-biblical word, first used to justify absolute power for 16th century kings, sovereign has become Calvinism's central premise. To wit, that God's primary, defining attribute is power. The raw, brute exercise of Divine Will. 

The usual context in which I hear the phrase "God is sovereign" is right after somebody makes an assertion about God which casts him as an ogre. Statements like "God made you without a free will" or "God made most people specifically to go to hell." When somebody says to me that "God is sovereign," I hear this: "Shut up." It's the theological equivalent of a Triple-Dog Dare—plucking Paul's famous rhetoric out of Romans 9: "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God?" 

Well. First up, I'm not dissing God, I'm answering back to John Calvin and his speculative, Augustine-flavored theology. Secondly, sovereignty isn't a biblical term or concept. And thirdly it is by no means clear what people even mean when they use the word. Is it an adverb or an adjective? Do they mean omnipotent or arbitrary? 

Look, I can empathize with theologians who fail to construct an airtight container to hold God. And I agree that there's a lot going on in the heavenly/spiritual realm that strikes us strange. So it is entirely appropriate to try and comprehend God, based on what he has revealed to us through scripture...accepting that his ways are not our ways and that we only see dimly in this world. And then reach a point where we say "I don't know." But to flatly contradict whole swaths of scripture in order to cling to a man-made TULIP, saying God is not primarily Love or Truth or Mercy, but is to enthrone a whole new king.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

8 Questions About "You Didn't Build That"

Not to take the President's remarks out of context—an extended excerpt:
Barack Obama's infamous Roanoke speech.
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me — because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t — look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

— Campaign speech in Roanoke, VA, July 13, 2012

1. What comes to mind when you hear the phrase "give something back"... taxes? Or charitable giving?

2. Where do we stop with the tautology "you didn't get there on your own"? Our parents? Grandparents? Roman road-builders? Hebrew teachers of the law? The God of heaven and earth?

3. Given how obvious the President's statements are, what argument is he trying to make? Have Republicans proposed banning schools and fire departments? Aren't those functions the responsibility of State and local governments?

4. Is the President aware that 71% of U.S. firefighters are volunteers? 

5. The President's speech was aimed at raising tax rates on people earning over $250k. So how long would those extra revenues fund the U.S. government: A) 9 months? B) 9 weeks? C) 9 days?

6. How does it help the country when the President disparages individual achievement? 

7. The President complained his speech was taken out of context. If so, what was his context—that America would be better off if the government took more money out of the economy and redistributed it to favored groups (ie: unionized gov't workers)? Something else?

8. Given that 40¢ of every dollar the U.S. government spends is borrowed, what of the argument that the government is spending 40% too much?

Friday, July 27, 2012

What Is Liberalism? Why Oppose It?

Being conservative is hard work. If you're not vigilant and consciously resistant to the cultural flow, liberalism will sweep you away from your common sense.  
"Against The Flow"
Acrylic by Terry Fontaine ©2003
I grew up breathing liberalism without realizing it. During the 1960s-70s in Canada, socialized medicine came in with big-government liberals going on a tear. While the Yanks were all worked up about Vietnam, Canada was swept up in Trudeau-mania: electing as Prime Minister a radical liberal professor who presaged Obama-mania 40 years later. Only when I was at home or at church would I hear anything even remotely counter-cultural. As early as 7th grade in "Social Studies" (not "History"), I was assaulted with anti-Western propaganda, starting with The Body Rituals of the Nacirema, designed to deconstruct our Civilization as being worse—or at least no better than—any primitive tribe on earth. 

By the time I graduated high-school I'd turned my attention from politics toward the Jesus Movement, running off to California to join in the fun. I wasn't at all political while in America from '75 to '85, though I wasn't blind to Watergate's shame, Carter's malaise and Reagan's sunny morning. Returning to Canada—Vancouver—in 1986, I found some of my fellow Canucks starting to push back against liberalism. It was mostly a regional phenomenon, but it resonated with me. By 2012 conservatism is ascendant in Canada, and their economy is miles—oops, kilometers—ahead of the USA. Really. You can look it up. 

Anyway, in Vancouver in the late 80s I remembered having read about Wittgenstein's "Linguistic Analysis" (I often went on curious jags even before the internet). He described modern intellectual language "like being on frictionless ice". Writing after WWII, he saw the chattering classes cutting themselves off from the real-world ramifications of their ideas. If ever anything described modern liberalism, it's that. Liberal politicians airily describe their goals for society without a thought about how many, or which, eggs they'll need to break in making their omelette.

In contrast to conservatism, which has sought to 
rigorously define itself since a young Edmund Burke burst on the scene in 1756, liberalism is an ever-morphing mish-mash of ideas with one common theme: change everything

Whatever ills may affect a society at any given moment, liberals will come up with a plan to re-shape the whole endeavor. All they ask is to be given enough power to, say, criminalize thoughts. Or control prices. Or stop using oil. Or force all citizens to purchase certain goods or services. Christians know something is always wrong in the world, but the cures proposed by liberals are usually worse than the disease. Obamacare is the prime example: 15% of Americans didn't have health insurance, so liberals insisted 100% of Americans be forced into a completely new, untested, command-and-control scheme. Wha—?

Conservatism seeks to retain what's best, change as little as possible with what's not working, and draw bright lines that governments must not cross (mostly concerning property rights and individual freedom). If it's true that power corrupts, then granting ever more power to a central government guarantees deeper and broader corruption—and now those corrupt politicians hold the power of life-or-death over us through Obamacare. 

Liberalism isn't going away, because power-loving politicians will lie and bribe to get it. But we're onto them: they are Statist Authoritarians first, last and always. If we the people are indifferent or venal, we will soon become Serfs to new Lords. Go against the flow, my friend.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Some "Isms" Are Better Than Others

Do you yearn for a world dominated by Islamism? Do you get all misty-eyed at the decline of communism?  Has feminism fueled your life since the sixties? I can't imagine you're a proponent of racism, like those smug founders of progressivism.
L-to-R: Islamist, Communist icon, Rosie-Riveter/Feminist,
Al Sharpton/Racist, Margaret Sanger/Progressive
TV commentator Bill O'Reilly boasts that he is non-ideological, proclaiming himself to be simply "for the folks". Which, of course, is an ideology called populism. Unless you are totally clueless in this world, you do adhere to one or more of the -isms. Me? I'm hip-deep in conservatism and evangelicalism.

My conservatism flows from my Christian faith; deepening my convictions in the realm of governance and society. And conservatism is something I came to as an adult. I was raised in Canada, the birthplace of Socialized Medicine, where the conservative political party had to add the word "progressive" in front of their official name. But our deepest-held values will inevitably shape our social/political views. " he thinketh in his heart, so is he."

Very few Christians in the West would desire to live in a Theocracy. There's a theological reason for this—having to do with the fact that our "Kingdom is not of this world." We want the least amount of government restraint on our freedom—both religious and civil—but realize governments need enough power to maintain order and punish wrongdoing. I find no higher expression of these conservative principles than in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

Until 9/11, Muslims in the West lived free of intrusion from the state...and being an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion helped them find connection points in our civilization. That all changed in the aftermath of 9/11, as the radicalization of Islam blew the cover off their 7th century movement. Islam isn't really a "faith" at all, but a power structure dressed up as a religion. I recommend the excellent book Cruel and Usual Punishment: The Terrifying Global Implications of Islamic Law by Nonie Darwish. I hope and pray Islamism will never gain a foothold in America, as it has in Europe.

Europe's surrender to Muslims resulted precisely from its loss of a Christian consensus—including their refusal to "be fruitful and multiply." The Brits abandoned the robust, clear-eyed Christianity of C.S. Lewis and Malcolm Muggeridge to settle for the lukewarm embrace of the state, despite the warning in Friedrich Hayek's in The Road To Serfdom. The outcome has been what Melanie Phillips calls Londonistan

America is, at least nominally, a Christian nation, unlikely to yield much ground to Islam. And yet we have on our soil—in our White House—those who would follow Europe's failing liberal policies straight off a cliff. Ann Coulter, this generation's Solzhenitsyn, has painstakingly exposed liberalism to be both Godless and Demonic. This is not a description of every liberal person, of course, but every Christian with liberal politics ought to examine both the roots and the fruits of the political philosophy. All of us who follow Jesus confront the tension between being "in" the world but not "of" it. So the Christian citizen is obliged to think through her political views—and submit them to the test of Scripture. How not to do that: 

Liberalism's favorite Jesus quote is from Matthew 25, about those "hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison." Did you notice the absence of the word "poor" in this passage? Jesus didn't forget to mention them, as we'll see shortly. And isn't it ironic that in this passage Jesus is talking about the final judgment and who will go to hell—a place liberals don't even believe in?

Liberalism asks us to believe that in Matthew 25 Jesus is instructing governments on how to spend tax money taken by force from individuals. Nonsense: he's talking to those individuals about the kind of behavior marking people who will inherit the Kingdom of God. How can there be any Christian merit in paying taxes—which isn't even a choice? Taxes are extracted under penalty of imprisonment. Jesus' mandate is for Christians to personally feed, clothe and visit those in need. The "withholding" line on my paycheck doesn't accrue to my eternal benefit. Let's not think that because we empower a Democrat to increase somebody else's taxes that we have fulfilled the law of Christ. 

Liberalism prefers to stop reading after Matthew 25—but the next passage in chapter 26 continues in the same vein. Jesus' disciples complained: This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus said, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.So, apart from the fact that LBJ's costly War-on-Poverty hasn't worked, liberalism took money from people who should minister to the hungry and thirsty, on the pretense of ending poverty. Which Jesus said will never end. seriously does liberalism take the words of Christ?

There are a few other oft-quoted scriptures echoing within liberalism, which will be the subject of a future post. I leave today, however, with today's headlines...demonstrating yet another tragic outcome from liberalism's Political Correctness, which costs American lives.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I ♥ Predestination (Three: A Date With Destiny)

"I went down to the potter’s house, and saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from clay was marred in his hands; so he formed it into another pot...then the Lord said: 'Family of are in my hands like the clay in the potter's hands. There may come a time when I will speak about a nation or a kingdom that I will pull up by its roots or that I will pull down to destroy it. But if the people of that nation stop doing evil, I will change my mind and not carry out my plans to bring disaster to them. There may come another time when I will speak about a nation that I will build up and plant. But if I see it doing evil by not obeying me, I will change my mind and not carry out my plans to do good for them.'" — Jeremiah 18:3-10
"Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has forseen this.
It is your destiny..." —Darth Vader

If you grew up like me—evangelical, Bible-believing—you never heard anybody cite the passage above when discussing Romans 9. And you can see why not: it portrays a flexible potter, dealing with wet clay that is either willing or unwilling. Potters and clay were very familiar to 1st Century Jews...surely this descriptive story from Jeremiah would've colored the way they thought about Paul's 9th chapter to the Romans.

The relationship between potter and clay is dynamic. Everything is moving. And God is telling us that when he plans for something in the human realm, the way we humans react affects whether he carries out his original scheme. On top of that, he's also making sure we know how to react to obtain the best result—for ourselves

Romans 9 isn't at all about Predestination. Paul is talking about the new deal between God and mankind after Jesus split history in two. He's talking about the way salvation is now being made available, and to whom (ie: everybody). And even in chapter 8, where the word Predestination does appear, it's in the context of "those who"...another to-be-named-later group.

The vast preponderance of scripture leans toward individual humans having the freedom to choose their own ultimate fate. There are a few passages that seem to counter that theme...which, to my mind, would lead a reasonable person to seek alternative explanations for the minority passages. Calvin threw out the wrong stuff.

Here's what God has put out there for each of us: a destiny. A destination. He has not pre-programmed us into pre-cast, pre-hardened canals that will deposit us into either heaven or hell. No, he's got us on a spinning wheel and we are each of us pliable, dynamic moral agents who may or may not cooperate with his shaping hand.

Every day I need to remember that a destiny has been prepared for me to fulfill, and there is a destination ("I go to prepare a place for you...") to which I should aspire. And he is right behind me: "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'” — Isaiah 30:21

I call that a risky, bracing, beautiful adventure. I ♥ Predestination.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I ♥ Predestination (Two: Prepared In Advance)

The first debate I had about Romans chapter 9 took place when I was still in high school in 1974. I just couldn't swallow the notion that God pre-determined the ultimate outcome of my life before the universe was built. It struck me as very un-Jesus-like. I actually found it a monstrous belief which makes God the author of evil. No amount of mental gymnastics has convinced me I'm not free to choose-me-this-day-whom-I-will-serve. 
It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, 
but you're gonna have to serve somebody.
— 2 Dylan 1:1

So what is Romans 9 about? Mainly God's exclusive covenant with the Jews: specifically the way so many of them had misinterpreted God's promises, and how God has the right to show mercy to Jews and Gentiles. Note that the word "Predestination" doesn't appear in the chapter (though "election" is used to describe Isaac being chosen as the one of Abraham's sons through whom the Messiah would be born). Interestingly, the chapter's opening statement drops a bombshell on the Jews, which we Gentile readers oughta consider: to wit, not all of God's Chosen People will make it to their hoped-for destination.

This is a problem for those who think God is stage-managing his creation toward a completely manufactured outcome. I mean, since many "chosen" Jews will miss the inheritance, then wouldn't Gentiles be subject to the same risk? Calvin said God pre-determined certain individuals as elect. But how'd that whole chosen thing work out for the Jews? 

In Romans 9 Paul is defending God against Jews crying foul for letting unwashed Gentiles into the party—and especially for telling Jews they can no longer stand on their tradition and lineage as a ticket to heaven. Misunderstanding God's promises can ruin your whole day.

The key to understanding Predestination lies in the distinction between groups and individuals. Every Bible passage dealing with Predestination—all two them—speaks of groups of people. Never once in scripture is a Christian believer named as having been Predestined or Elected. Paul was chosen for the vocation of an Apostle, but there's nothing saying God pre-selected Paul before he was born (even Jacob, Esau and John The Baptist are said to have been chosen after conception). Nor did Paul say he had no choice in the matter of his conversion, or in regards to carrying out the task God assigned him. In fact three days after being blinded, he was still trying to figure things out when Ananias came to pray for him. 

If you believe in pre-selection, indulge me in a thought experiment: imagine that Predestination refers not to God pre-determining the fate of individuals, but his pre-configuring of an ideal team. The players aren't yet born, but God knows exactly what type of players he wants. In fact, he even goes so far as to create good works for them to do  (Ephesians 2:10). So good plays were literally prepared in advance for God's team to carry out. 

Paul got on a roll talking to the believers in Ephesus about Predestination. But notice how often in the first fourteen verses he uses the words "we", "us", "our" and the plural of "you" (ie: you-Ephesian-believers). He starts to crescendo in verses 11 and 12, literally laying out the whole Team Concept, saying "In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been  predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory." So that's your "elect"...the ones who hope in Christ. And it's an open group too—whosoever will, may come.

This player-to-be-named idea kinda messes with the "U" of TULIP. Fine with me. Calvin's Unconditional Election flies in the face of a Bible that is all about conditional, propositional choices: if you “...believe in the Lord Jesus, you will be saved, you and your household.” From Genesis ("If you do well, will you not be accepted?") to Revelation ("He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”) the onus is on individuals to choose, to act, to obey, to persevere, to overcome, to stand fast and on and on.

In the third and last installment, we'll take a more personal look at why Predestination should be part of our thinking every day.

Coming Soon:
I ♥ Predestination (Three: A Date With Destiny)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I ♥ Predestination (One: It's Not What You Think)

Among Christianity's handful of mind-bending doctrinal issues, it's hard to top Predestination as The Terminator of theological debates. I recently heard an entire sermon about it, prompting me to examine the subject in this space.
"The Saved and The Damned"
Rouen Cathedral, France
All the fuss about Predestination comes about from its plain conflict with other doctrines. As posited by Augustine and interpreted by Calvin, Predestination subverts two key Christian beliefs: first that Jesus died for the sins of everybody, and second that everybody is free to receive Christ's saving grace. Seeking primarily to preserve what has come to be called God's "sovereignty," Calvin asserted that Jesus died for only some people (the "L" in TULIP stands for Limited Atonement). He also concluded that, since God's will must be done, grace is therefore irresistible (the letter "I"). Thus demolishing any notion of free will by contending that God forces his grace upon those he has pre-selected. On the upside, Calvin's five-point plan confirms the once-saved-always-saved creed, cherished by many believers. But I digress.

The word Predestination appears in exactly two passages in the Bible, both written by the Apostle Paul—once in a letter to the believers in Rome, the other to the Ephesians. He does not define it or explain it (though he does quote some OT scriptures that shed a little light on the subject...more on this in Part Three).

Of course the discussion can't avoid related concepts like foreknowledge and the elect and the chosen. The sermon I heard rejected Calvinism, but ended up endorsing the most demoralizing and extreme TULIP position, that of Double Predestination. DP has God not only pre-selecting which individuals would be saved, but intentionally creating others for the purpose of tormenting them in endless agony. That is to say, God not only knew in advance that Sister Buggins' wayward son would refuse to repent, but God actually pre-decided for Joe—pre-fabricating his refusal, and weaving it into his DNA—then creating Joe anyway, destined for the slow-roaster.

Turn in your hymnals to "I've Got The Joy, Joy, Joy". 

If Predestination means pre-selection, then Sister Buggins gave birth to a spawn of Satan. Yikes. Lots of modern believers reject Calvinism, but for some reason when it comes to Predestination they allow Augustinian/Calvinist definitions to stand. Thus pre-destination continues to be widely assumed to mean pre-determination of which individuals will enter earthly life on the "saved" track and which are born on the "damned" track.

So having set the stage, let me say there is a Biblical, common-sense—and beautiful—case for non-Calvinist Predestination. One in which Jesus does die for the sins of all, and one which does not subvert free will.

Next time: 
I ♥ Predestination (Two: Prepared In Advance)

Friday, April 13, 2012

Just Say Sorry ("Blue Like Jazz")

In late February I attended—with several hundred other folks here in Franklin, Tennessee—an advance screening of the movie "Blue Like Jazz", based on Donald Miller's eponymous mega-selling book. The movie, which opens nationally today, was co-written and directed by my former colleague Steve Taylor. It is by far his best filmmaking achievement to date. Marshall Allman, Claire Holt and the entire cast are terrific—and, of course, the music is perfect. This production is sure-footed and confident, no doubt delivering exactly what fans of the book are hoping for. (Full disclosure: I made a small contribution to the now-legendary "Kick Starter" funding campaign responsible for getting this film launched.)  
But this isn't so much a movie review as a cultural critique prompted by the putative theme of the film ("forgiveness"), and yet another of President Obama's apologies. Evidently saying sorry is all that's required to make everything better in any situation.

The movie ends in a confessional booth with the lead character—newly-crowned as campus "Pope" and wearing a mitre-hat—reversing tradition by apologizing to non-Christians for...well, for everything. The scene, made famous in the book, takes place at über liberal Reed College in Portland, Oregon. It will not surprise you to learn that the apologies are for stuff other believers have done wrong: "...for the Crusades, for U.S. foreign policy." We don't see the protagonist confessing his own sins and misdeeds. How convenient.

And how eerily similar to Obama's modus operandi. How nice to get credit for humility by blaming other people for your sins. How good it must feel to publicly confess somebody else's stupidity. How heart-warming to suck-up to folks whose approval I seek by mocking other believers.

But of course this kind of stuff is disingenuous and un-biblical. Confession is for my personal sin, and should be made only to God and those I harmed. If I do happen to lead a church, and if I have participated in wrongdoing, then I should publicly repent (ie: Willow Creek in 2007). But it's self-deception to imagine that confessing somebody else's wrongdoing is in any sense legitimate or will result in a clean conscience.

Perhaps the title of another recent film made by Portland-based Christians comes closer to describing the feelings of liberal believers: "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers". Evidently taking a cue from Gandhi's line ("...I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ") this 2009 gonzo-documentary confirms that liberal Christians are embarrassed by their conservative brothers and sisters. It evidently makes them feel good to apologize to un-believing liberals (ie: most liberals) for us wrong-headed, mean-spirited evangelicals. The rationale seems to be that if un-saved liberals see believing liberals repudiate paleo-Christians, those non-believing liberals will come to Christ. I'm not holding my breath for a fourth "great awakening" sparked in this manner.

I've been watching this trend since 1972—believers who want to apologize for all the prickly bits of the gospel to make it more appealing to the culture around them. The first place I saw this happening was in the United Church of Canada, which attempted to desalinate the Bible by omitting whole books from the Old Testament. Over time they became indistinguishable from the secular culture around them—except for their terrific bell-choirs. 

St. Paul famously smacked the believers in Corinth upside the head in his first letter to them. In his second letter, he is pleased that they finally saw the perils of living in such a pagan city. "Blue Like Jazz" however, seems to urge evangelicals to apologize to the pagans for having been, uh...for holding beliefs that...well—for hurting people's feelings. Okay. Then what?

Anybody? Bueller?