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Saturday, December 24, 2011

In praise of implausiblity

When I saw this cartoon in the latest New Yorker, I thought of Luke Timothy Johnson's hilarious polemic on some of the methods of the Jesus Seminar.  In case you can't or don't want to link to the cartoon, it portrays a man tossing crutches aside and jumping for joy next to a gesturing and haloed Jesus.  A skeptic looks on and says, good luck trying to get that peer reviewed.

The event of miraculous healing is, of course, highly unscientific and extremely implausible.  To skeptics, this is a sign of folly, or at the very least untruth.  But to believers its implausibility is precisely the point, as Johnson makes plain.  It's implausibility helps make the narrative compelling and transforming.  Obviously, a faith built on the entirely plausible is no faith at all, and scripture filled with the completely believable will fail to transform souls and inspire imaginations to hope.  The life of faith is an imaginative one, it calls us to imagine what is not that might be, what does not seem plausible that might become possible.  Imagination is the fertile soil of hope.

So as you tell the Christmas story with your families this year, let its glorious implausibility fertilize your imaginations to hope anew.

Marilynne Robinson's Essay in this week's Times Book Review

Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite authors, which is no surprise since she wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a pastor's family in a small town.  She also grew up in the Pacific Northwest, yet manages to live a rich and satisfying adult life in the middle of the country.  For you Hawkeyes, she lives in Iowa City.

Anyway, she has written a marvelous essay for the front page of this week's New York Times Book Review on what literature owes the Bible.  In some ways she makes a similar point as Nietzsche, only she is sympathetic rather than hostile to Christian faith.

If you are an avid reader of serious writing and have not read Marilynne Robinson, I envy you the joy of literary exploration.  This week's essay is a great place to start.
Friday, December 16, 2011

Pride and Humility

As someone who did not grow up Mennonite, I find certain traditional Mennonite personality traits don't make sense to me.  Pride is associated with being different, or sticking out in some way, and humility is associated with having, or pretending to have, a woeful opinion of oneself.

Being different, sticking out, or even standing out, does not mean a person is better or worse than anyone else, only different.  In fact the apostle Paul is clear that we are different, we all have different gifts.  Equality is not manifested in sameness, but in difference, in that each different gift is important and vital, and everyone is gifted.  Pride comes not in being different or sticking out, nor does it come in overestimating one's gifts since God has given them, they must be valuable indeed.  Pride comes in believing one's gifts are better than others, and in failing to respect the treasure found in others' gifts.  As a pastor, I am upset when I hear people downplay or denigrate their gifts.  It is not themselves they diminish, but the giver of the gifts, and the community which receives them.

This sort of humility, this having a woeful opinion of oneself is not humility, but disrespect for God, for self, and for community.  True humility recognizes the goodness of the gift with gratitude to the giver, not taking credit for it, but acknowledging that Christ's strength is made known in weakness.  True humility recognizes that we are not all equally woeful, but equally blessed with God's gifts.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

John Buchanan's editorial in the latest issue of the Christian Century, and this article by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, have me thinking about the place of Christmas in the Christian life.  Here are some highlights from Buchanan and Wallis, the origins of Christmas are pagan, which is reflected in many aspects of our celebration.  The defenders of the observance of Christmas in American public life are defending secular practices, not Christian ones.  The Puritans opposed Christmas as an essentially pagan holiday, and even banned celebrations for a portion of the 17th century.  The Roman church attempted to co-opt pagan celebrations around the solstice by observing a Christ Mass on December 25.  Christians have been fighting a losing battle against Saturnalia (what we might call secular Christmas) ever since.

So the question is, should we give up?  Should we just say Saturnalia won and find other ways and seasons to mark the incarnation and the birth of Christ? Perhaps we could continue to dabble in secular Christmas, but recognize it for what it is, rather than try to merge ancient pagan festivities with the observance of Christ's birth?

Aside from the likelihood that such an effort would totally fail, I see another reason why we need modern Christmas, with all its glitz and excess, and that reason is joy.  This is especially true for Mennonites.  Did you know joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit?  Who knew?

Some years ago, a family member visited us at Christmas, and asked why Mennonites always dress in grey scale.  I said I hadn't noticed.  Perhaps this is illustrative of the fact that Mennonites struggle with joy.  Severe, austere, stoic, drab, yes, but not joy, as if happiness were a sin.  But the pursuit of and expression of joy ought to be a Christian practice.  We ought to look for opportunities to be joyful, and to express Christian cheerfulness.

And this is where Christmas comes in.  To be sure, Easter's joy ought to surpass that of Christmas.  But Christmas is a place to start practicing.  It is a season when we are encouraged to be happy and generous, even in secular contexts.  As you celebrate this year, remember that joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit.
Thursday, December 8, 2011

Godless, Atheistic Capitalism

Let me say that I do not believe capitalism in and of itself is godless or atheistic.  Capitalism is a human economic system and as such it is like all other human economic systems, neither inherently good or evil, but broken and complex like the human beings who devised the system, with the capacity of spreading both good and ill.  For a Christian, this statement should not be controversial in any way, but a self evident fact.

Unfortunately, many Christians today are influenced by a godless and atheistic strand of capitalism, that has set the free market up as an unaccountable absolute, and dispenser of ultimate truth.  In this kind of religious capitalism, the unfettered free market will deliver prosperity fairly and justly, the market will rightly determine the worthy and the unworthy, private property is sacred, and in pseudo-Darwinian fashion, human beings given full economic freedom, will make the ideal world.  This view or some version of it is often passed off as a conservative Christian (or the Christian) perspective.

Where to begin?  Let's start with idolatry.  In the same way that godless, atheistic communism idolized its own ideology, godless, atheistic capitalism has set the free market up as an idol to be trusted and venerated above all else, and accountable to no one, God included.  It is infallible.

How about justice?  The free market creates its own standard of justice and fairness, refusing, in rebellion against God, to recognize any other standard but its own.  That standard is simple, almost beautifully so.  The market gives people what they deserve without fail.  If they act wisely and responsibly, work hard and well, the market will reward them.  If they do not, the market will punish them.  The same rules apply to everyone.  The people who are low-skilled should get skills.  It's nobody else's fault but their own if they don't.

This is not biblical justice.  In biblical justice, people should be paid a living wage.  God determines a fair wage, not the free market.  We are all accountable to God for treating people justly in the marketplace according to God's standards, not the market's.  In God's justice, the community takes responsibility to ensure even its weakest members are cared for.  In the purest and most pseudo-Darwinian form of free market justice, the weak are left to fend for themselves.  And, as Scrooge said, "If they wish to die they better get on with it and decrease the surplus population."  For biblical justice this is an outrage.

Closely linked to justice is worth and value.  According the the free market, people have worth and value as the market demands.  The market decides that baseball slugger Albert Pujols is worth $260 million dollars per year over ten years, and someone who cares for children at the local daycare is worth $8 an hour.  Who are we to question such a decision?  In contrast to the market, Christian faith teaches that each human being is of infinite worth in God's eyes.  The child care worker glorifies (magnifies the Lord, in Mary's words) God as much, and probably more than Albert Pujols.  Yet in the most significant measure the market (and our society) has to discern worth, the childcare worker is virtually inconsequential.  As a Christian, I am offended by the term unskilled labor, because as a Christian I believe all laborers have skills.  I don't believe in unskilled labor.  The unfettered free market does.

How about private property?  In Kansas, water is a big deal.  Farmers who have water under their fields will get a much greater yield.  But water is a precious and scarce resource found mainly in diminishing aquifers deep under the prairie surface. The farmer who says, "the water is mine, I can use it as I please, and nobody is going to tell me I can't," blasphemes according to biblical thinking.  The water, the earth, our houses, cars, 401k accounts, indeed all we own belongs to God.  It is given to us as stewards to use for God's purposes for creation: a just and prosperous community and world.  The words of the scriptures ought to echo in our minds.  The earth is the Lord's...  The land is mine and you are but tenants on it.  The Christian response to property is not "this is my sacred right and nobody can touch it."  Nor is it, "This is mine, how can I make more."  But rather, it is, "I am grateful God put these resources in my care, how can I use them to glorify God."

Finally, the deified view of the free market has an astonishingly naive view of human nature.  No matter what you might think of Saint Augustine, I think Christians could agree that human beings, left without any accountability in the marketplace and elsewhere would not make the ideal world, but rather make a mess of things.  History, including recent history, gives us plenty evidence to remind us that we need ways to be accountable to God and each other for how we engage the market.

I have said before and I will say again that I am not an economist, and have no expertise to evaluate the functions of our complex economy.  But I am a minister of the gospel, and the scriptures have plenty to say about money, wealth, treasure, land, water, labor, and justice, all of which are relevant to how we live our lives.
Monday, December 5, 2011

Money and Christian Faith

One of our holiday traditions is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  We have a delightful recording of Patrick Stewart reading it that we listen to repeatedly as we drive in the car, we also have a DVD of a movie version, and, if we are lucky like we are this year, we get to see a staged performance. People who are more discerning critics of literature than I point out that this is not Dickens' best work.  But even though the plot may be contrived and the writing forced at times, I love it because it is so marvelously biblical.  It is almost pure biblical exposition of some of Jesus teachings on money.  Matthew 6 comes to mind in particular.  A Christmas Carol also echoes the Hebrew prophets in a 19th century English sort of way.

Dickens has me thinking about Christian practices regarding wealth.  So does this thought provoking piece by Jim Pankratz in the latest issue of Marketplace (the publication of Mennonite Economic Development Associates), and this review by Walter Brueggemann of this book.

The Bible, it seems to me, is not particularly interested in frugality, simple living, stewardship, or fiscal responsibility.  The Bible is quite interested in generosity.  The Bible is especially interested in joyful generosity.  Too often, even our best work with money in the church is fear based, focused on managing what we have well, lest we lose it or waste it.  The Bible calls us to love and joy based work with money.  And this is precisely the transformation that took place in Ebeneezer Scrooge's life. He did not change from someone who hated Christmas to someone who liked it, or felt obligated to observe it.  His entire way of being changed from living out of fear to living out of love.

As Christians, we believe Jesus transforms us from fear to love.  Essential to this is an ever deeper awareness of God's generosity.  We see this spirit of generosity in Mary's costly anointing of Jesus.  We see it in Zacchaeus's joyful abandon as his soul awakens to God's abundance.  We see it in the practice of the early church as they give up their own possessions trusting in God's provision and the generosity of their fellow believers.

What does it take to cultivate a spirit of generosity (other than a visitation by three spirits)?  What do we do with real limits ecologically?  How do we deal with money differently in a much more complex economy than the biblical writers knew?  These questions linger.  But I feel clarity that God is calling me anew to a life of generosity.