To Change The World, Week Thirteen

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

I’ve very much enjoyed this book. Having said that, want to flag two reservations I have now that I’ve finished reading it.

First, Hunter has a certain quality I’ve noticed in other Christian scholars (N.T. Wright comes to mind). It’s a John The Baptist syndrome which manifests as the scholars conceiving of themselves as lone voices crying out in the wilderness, when in reality there is a broad conversation they are participating in – and there are many who substantially agree with them.

James. K. A. Smith’s review in The Other Journal How (Not) To Change The World highlights one example:

Indeed, one of the oddities of the book is the complete absence of Abraham Kuyper from the discussion. I note this, not as a failure to be comprehensive (I respect the “essay” genre), but only because where Hunter ends up is so close to Kuyper’s model (even if Hunter is rightly critical of Chuck Colson’s bastardization of Kuyper in How Now Shall We Live?).

And Andy Crouch gives several more in his Books and Culture review How Not To Change The World.

This leads to the one feature of this book that is troubling, and genuinely perplexing. Hunter is quite thorough in his documentation of both the sociological literature and primary sources from the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists. What you are unlikely to ascertain from the text or the notes, however, is the existence of any Christian scholar or public actor who has pursued the course Hunter recommends other than Hunter himself, along with a few of his students and associates. D. Michael Lindsay’s study of 360 Christians “in the halls of power” is waved aside as a mere cataloguing of isolated individuals, even as Hunter goes on to critique their generally pietistic and ecclesiologically deficient approach to their faith in precisely the terms that Lindsay has used in interviews about his work. Lindsay’s February 2008 article in the American Sociological Review argues for the importance of overlapping networks and models of élite agency. Hunter does not reference it at all, nor John Schmalzbauer’s People of Faith: Religious Conviction in Journalism and Higher Education, nor, in a slightly different vein, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. It would take nothing away from Hunter’s brilliant synthesis to acknowledge that others are doing similarly important and influential work.

When it comes to Christians attempting to do some good in the wider world, Hunter finds very few he can put in a good light. Charles Colson is dismissed as a quasi-Hegelian idealist based on his enthusiasm for worldview education, rather than recognized for his considerable network-convening savvy. Gabe Lyons’s Fermi Project comes in for sustained examination only for its sometimes glib promotional material, not for the work it is doing to build overlapping networks of young élites in some vital cultural centers. The patient and wide-ranging intelligence of Os Guinness is similarly passed over in the course of making a point about evangelical individualism. Hunter devotes several pages, rather than just an endnote, to dismissing my own book Culture Making, and some of his criticisms, as of the others mentioned, are fair as far as they go. But a reader of his summary would never guess how much my book and his overlap in their fundamental concerns and final vision

Second, at the end Hunter claims that we should not try to change the world. It seems to me he’s being a bit disingenuous. He wants Christians to be sent by the Church into every sphere of society (including the elite networks which generate cultural change) and take faith-based actions that lead to human flourishing. Hunter still believes Christians should change the world, he just likes talking about it in a more low-key way. His plan for transformation is humble, but it is nonetheless a plan for transformation.

It’s just something to bear in mind. No book is perfect, and as flaws go these are far from crippling. Hunter is generally a clear writer and is clearly a profound thinker. All in all an outstanding read.

Now a few thoughts from the closing chapters:

CHAPTER FIVE: THE BURDEN OF LEADERSHIP – A THEOLOGY OF FAITHFUL PRESENCE IN PRACTICE

Hunter thinks that we should serve God in our generation by practicing what he calls “faithful presence.” Both words matter – we must be faithful to God and present in every sphere of society.

“But the great commission can also be interpreted in terms of social structure. The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms—not only discipling those in these fields by providing the theological resources to form them well, but in fact mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.” (page 257)

There is a particular peril for those who called into the high-status vocations:

Because Christianity has lost status in the institutional centers of the modern world, those believers who work and live in the higher echelons of culture, politics, business, and finance are under great pressure to carefully “manage their identities” in part by hiding this discrediting information about themselves. In this case, the consequence of disclosure is to be excluded themselves. The temptation to be deceptive or dishonest about one’s faith in these circles is enormous. (258-259)

This is a real thing that I have seen many times at Stanford. I recall one graduate student hyperventilating when her PI found out she was an evangelical Christian. Her concern that she might experience negative consequences was not imaginary, although in her case I recall things working out just fine. But there is definite animus against Christianity in some elite circles. Look at the Senate’s disgraceful grilling of judicial nominee Amy Barrett for her Catholic faith. She openly and carefully discussed the implications of her faith for public service and had her words turned into the literal opposite of what she said (you can read more about it in item six of last week’s Things Glen Found Interesting).

But even as we recognize that our faith might at times bring negative repercussions into our lives, we need to remember that we are not allowed to hide our light under a bushel. You don’t have to report to work wearing a Christian t-shirt, but you must never pull a Peter and say, “I don’t know the man!”

In other words, don’t sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of presence. Gaining a seat at the table is not worth your soul.

CHAPTER SIX: TOWARD A NEW CITY COMMONS

In this final chapter Hunter summarizes his argument and then lays his cards on the table: he thinks changing the world is a foolish goal.

Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world? This, I believe, is the wrong question…. The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective…. To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do. (285-286)

I appreciate so much of Hunter’s perspective throughout this book, and in particular am glad that he warns us away from focusing on what I have heard called “causes more worthy than holy.” We love God first and most and whatever social good we do (and it should be significant) flows out of that.

Hunter closes with this:

The fact is that Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers was a victory over the power of oppressive institutions—the sense that reality is what it is, that all is as it should be, that the ways of the world are established and cannot be changed; that the rules by which the world operates are ones we must accept and not challenge. We are not bound by the “necessities” of history and society but are free from them. He broke their sovereignty and, as a result, all things are possible. It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities.

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better. (page 286)

I hope you enjoyed the book as much as I did!

Here endeth the reading.

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 118

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. Eat, pray, live: the Lagos megachurches building their very own cities (Ruth Mclean, The Guardian): “Redemption Camp has 5,000 houses, roads, rubbish collection, police, supermarkets, banks, a fun fair, a post office – even a 25 megawatt power plant. In Nigeria, the line between church and city is rapidly vanishing.”
  2. An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates (Jason D. Hill, Commentary Magazine): a gay black man strongly believes in the American dream and takes issue with Coates’ disparagement of it. “I expected no special treatment because, as an American, I was already part of an exceptional process. My ideas, I had decided on the flight over, would one day be taught in colleges and universities. I will tell you presently the extent to which that willed decision became reality, and why it was possible only in the United States of America.” (incidentally, I featured an essay by Coates back in issue 80)
  3. The Question of Race in Campus Sexual-Assault Cases (Emily Yoffe, The Atlantic): “Kagle believes that men of color—and especially foreign men of color, students from Africa and Asia—were uniquely defenseless when charged with sexual assault, typically lacking financial resources, a network of support, and an understanding of their rights.” I linked Yoffe’s two previous articles in last week’s edition. They should be read in conjunction with Campus Rape, A Survivor’s Story (Bret Stephens, NY Times).
  4. They Serve Gay Clients All The Time. So Why Won’t They Cater A Same-Sex Wedding? (Josh Shepherd, The Federalist): “Phillips choked up with emotion as he continued: ‘You can’t serve God and money. I didn’t open this so I could make a lot of money. I opened it up so it would be a way that I could create my art, do the baking that I love and serve the God that I love in ways that would hopefully honor Him.’” See also Icing on the Cake: Justice Dept. Backs Christian Baker Bound for Supreme Court (Kate Shellnut, Christianity Today). The latter is tremendous news, and presumably due to the influence of Mike Pence.
  5. How Many Churches Does America Have? More Than Expected (Rebecca Randall, Christianity Today): “According to a recent paper published by sociologist Simon Brauer in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the number of religious congregations in the United States has increased by almost 50,000 since 1998.” You can see the original research here – the researcher is a sociologist at Duke University. Interesting news. It’s almost like the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church. 
  6. Faith groups provide the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA (Paul Singer, USA Today):  “‘About 80% of all recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based,’ said Greg Forrester, CEO of the national VOAD. The money is ‘all raised by the individuals who go and serve, raised through corporate connections, raised through church connections,’ and amounts to billions of dollars worth of disaster recovery assistance, he said.”
  7. The Human Fetus Preferentially Engages with Face-like Visual Stimuli (Current Biology, Reid et al): apparently about a month and a half before birth babies can perceive faces through the uterine wall. You can read a popular summary of the research at Seeker: Human Fetuses Can See and React to Faces From Inside the Womb. I found this research both amazing and depressing. I wonder how many babies were excited to be making a new friend up until they were aborted.
  8. Harvard Calls Chelsea Manning Invite A ‘Mistake,’ Rescinds Fellowship Offer — Here’s What’s Going On (Benjamin Goggin, Digg). For a good explanation of reasons so many were opposed to this appointment, read When Transgender Trumps Treachery (James Kirchick, NY Times). Kirchick is gay, which makes his piece all the more interesting to read.

Things Glen Found Amusing

  • Magic 8 Ball (reddit)
  • Too Dumb To Understand (Dilbert)
  • A Frog Prince – Penn and Teller (Youtube)
  • Study: College Students Spend Far More Time Playing Than Studying (Megan Oprea, The Federalist): “The sad truth is that universities have begun to exist for the sake of their own existence, rather than the education of their undergrads. Meanwhile, students are taking their studies less and less seriously as they realize that they need only go through the motions to graduate and get on the job market, which is their ultimate goal. No wonder they’re spending their time on everything except their studies.” Disclaimer: yes, I know the numbers are different at Stanford. I also know you spend more time on non-academic activities than you think. #justsayin

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have Making Sense of the Numbers of Genesis [pdf link] (Carol Hill, Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith): “Joseph and Joshua were each recorded as dying at age 110—a number considered ‘perfect’ by the Egyptians. In ancient Egyptian doctrine, the phrase ‘he died aged 110’ was actually an epitaph commemorating a life that had been lived selflessly and had resulted in outstanding social and moral benefit for others. And so for both Joseph and Joshua, who came out of the Egyptian culture, quoting this age was actually a tribute to their character. But, to be described as ‘dying at age 110’ bore no necessary relationship to the actual time of an individual’s life span.” You will not agree with everything in this article, but it is full of fascinating insights. (first shared in volume 51)

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda – we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it).

Also, remember that I’m not reporting news – I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it.

Archives at http://glenandpaula.com/wordpress/category/links.

To Change The World, Week Twelve

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading

We’re almost done. One more week of reading and we finish out the book. Wow.

So now we come to chapter 4: Toward A Theology of Faithful Presence
The first few pages amused me, mostly because it sounded like something I would hear from a word-faith preacher. The word-faith movement (also known as the positive confession movement or the word of faith movement) is a charismatic movement that emphasizes the power of our words as expressions of our faith. Hunter has got nothing to do with them and may not even be aware that they exist, which I found tremendously entertaining.
And now Hunter comes to the main thesis of the entire book: the best response to the challenges of our world is faithful presence. As a reminder, Hunter thinks the two chief challenges we face are dissolution (pervasive uncertainty) and difference (pluralism). See my notes on week ten.
This, in short, is the foundation of a theology of faithful presence. It can be summarized in two essential lessons for our time. The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference.  page 241, emphasis in original
In the rest of the chapter, Hunter advances his own theology of faithful presence while critiquing other theologies of work and vocation.
One common view Hunter rejects is that our work is only useful insofar as it directly advances the gospel:

To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends.  page 249

Instead, Hunter contends that work (indeed, any task) can be done in a way that glorifies God:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:22–24). What we do certainly would include our jobs, but the reality is that our tasks are many, and they range far beyond paid labor. They involve our work as parents, students, volunteers, citizens, and the like. But in the many capacities in which we operate, St. Paul’s instruction is that we pursue our tasks with all of our hearts. This not only suggests that we give our full attention to those tasks but that we pursue excellence in them.  page 246

And he gives a few examples of the way our work can express our devotion to God:

To manage a business in a way that grows out of a biblical view of (p.254) relationships, community, and human dignity before God has divine significance, irrespective of what else might be done from this platform. Policy pursued and law practiced in light of the justice of God is a witness to the right ordering of human affairs. Inquiry, scholarship, and learning with an awareness of the goodness of God’s created order is a discovery of what is truly higher in higher education. And, not least, reflecting the beauty of God’s creation in art or music is nothing less than an act of worship. (page 253-254)
So whatever your major, work at with all your heart!
Next week we finish up the book.

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 117

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. America’s Changing Religious Identity (Daniel Cox and Robert Jones, PRRI): There’s a lot of data here. One bit that stood out to me: “Atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. Most are secular. Atheists and agnostics account for only about one-quarter (27%) of all religiously unaffiliated Americans. Nearly six in ten (58%) religiously unaffiliated Americans identify as secular, someone who is not religious; 16% of religiously unaffiliated Americans nonetheless report that they identify as a ‘religious person.’”
  2. Risky road: China’s missionaries follow Beijing west (BBC): “As a self-declared atheist government, news of Chinese Christian missionaries getting into trouble abroad is embarrassing. But at the same time, Beijing needs to show it can protect its citizens as it goes global. As Fenggang Yang, an expert on religion in China at Purdue University, puts it: ‘They thought Christianity was a western religion imported into China, so how can you export Christianity from China?’” Recommended by an alumnus.
  3. There was a lot written about campus sexual assault recently. Here are some standouts:
    • The Campus Sex-Crime Tribunals Are Losing (KC Johnson, Commentary Magazine): “Barrett’s decision marked the 59th judicial setback for a college or university since 2013 in a due-process lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault. (In four additional cases, the school settled a lawsuit before any judicial decision occurred.) This body of law serves as a towering rebuke to the Obama administration’s reinterpretation of Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.”
    • The Uncomfortable Truth About Campus Rape Policy (Emily Yoffe, The Atlantic): “A troubling paradox within the activist community, and increasingly among administrators, is the belief that while women who make a complaint should be given the strong benefit of the doubt, women who deny they were assaulted should not necessarily be believed. ”
    • The Bad Science Behind Campus Response to Sexual Assault (Emily Yoffe, The Atlantic): “The spread of an inaccurate science of trauma is an object lesson in how good intentions can overtake critical thinking, to potentially harmful effect.”
    • Here Is Every Crazy Title IX Rape Case Betsy DeVos Referenced, Plus a Bunch More (Robby Soave, Reason): “Critics of DeVos will say that her plan to reform Title IX is some kind of giveaway to rapists. But it’s not. Today, DeVos recognized a basic and obvious truth that every objective chronicler of the college rape crisis already knows: The Obama-era modifications to Title IX utterly failed to bring justice to campuses.”
  4. To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now (Neil Irwin, New York Times): “The right product engineer or marketing executive can mean the difference between success or failure, and companies tend to hire such people as full-time employees and as part of a long-term relationship — something like the transmission supplier. What has changed in the last generation is that companies today view more and more of the labor it takes to produce their goods and services as akin to staplers: something to be procured at the time and place needed for the lowest price possible.” Recommended by a student.
  5. I also read a lot about DACA this week:
    • Trump’s decision to end DACA, explained (Daniel Bush, PBS Newshour): “In June, 11 attorneys general — from conservative states like Texas, Arkansas, West Virginia and Kansas — threatened to sue the Trump administration unless it took steps by Sept. 5 to end the program. For months, senior Trump administration officials have expressed concern that DACA would not stand up in court.”
    • Trump Ends DACA, Despite Pleas from Evangelical Advisers  (Kate Shellnut, Christianity Today): “In addition to the 57 percent of US evangelicals that favor citizenship and the 19 percent that favor deportation, 15 percent say DACA recipients should be allowed to become legal residents but not citizens, while 9 percent don’t know.”
    • Can these Democratic attorneys general save DACA? I asked 9 legal experts. (Sean Illing, Vox): The experts seem pessimistic.
    • Donald Trump is right: Congress should pass DACA (Economist): “If you could design people in a laboratory to be an adornment to America they would look like the recipients of DACA…. They are a high-achieving lot. More than 90% of those now aged over 25 are employed; they create businesses at twice the rate of the public as a whole; many have spouses and children who are citizens. They are American in every sense bar the bureaucratic one.”
    • Rescinding DACA Is The Right Thing To Do (David Harsyani, The Federalist): “There are a vast number of solid economic and moral arguments for legalizing the children of illegal immigrants. In substance, I agree with DACA. Yet… the Constitution makes no allowance for the president to write law ‘if Congress doesn’t act.’”
  6. Should a Judge’s Nomination Be Derailed by Her Faith? (Emma Green, The Atlantic): “She and other Democratic senators on the committee seemed troubled by Barrett’s Catholic convictions, particularly on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, which came up later during questioning. But when Barrett repeatedly stated that she would uphold the law, regardless of her personal beliefs, they didn’t seem to believe her.” For a less restrained perspective, read Democratic McCarthyites (Rod Dreher, The American Conservative).  And it’s not just conservatives displeased. Check out [Princeton] President Eisgruber asks Senate committee to avoid ‘religious test’ in judicial appointments (Princeton Office of Communications).

Things Glen Found Amusing

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have a debate I featured way back in volume 48 between two pastors on guns – both are very thoughtful and are skillful debaters.  All the posts are pretty short.

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda – we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it).

Also, remember that I’m not reporting news – I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it.

Archives at http://glenandpaula.com/wordpress/category/links.

To Change The World, Week Eleven

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at https://xastanford.org/summer-reading

I found chapter three much more engaging than chapter two. If you’re getting bogged down, it gets better.

Chapter Two: Old Cultural Wineskins

If sincerity were the same thing as faithfulness, then all would be well, for Christians, as a rule, are nothing if not sincere—not least in their desire to be “faithful in their own generation.” But if I am even partially correct about the nature and profundity of the changes of late modernity, then against these sincerity could never be enough by itself. At least a fragment of wisdom would be required as well. (page 213)

As a Protestant, I truly believe in sola fide (faith alone). But very often I find Christians in our culture treating faith as if it were a feeling or some mere sentiment. Faith encompasses so much more than that! Faith that lacks faithfulness is not the faith God requires – and faithfulness is a matter that springs from the convictions we have cultivated and the habits we have developed far more than it does from the emotional impulses we experience.

Chapter Three: The Groundwork for an Alternative Way

In a milieu where the church and its people are so quickly and roundly criticized for their shortcomings, it is easy to overlook a central theological truth; that is, that however inadequate or pitiful the church may seem at times (and may, in fact, be), where the scripture is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and the people of God continue to seek to follow God in word and deed, God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active. (page 225)

If I could have one truth tattooed on your generation’s arm, something like the above would be a strong contender. Always remember that you are not merely inviting people to follow Christ, you are inviting them to become part of the Body of Christ. You should love it and invite others to love it alongside you. Sadly, the Body of Christ is often slandered by believers who think only of her faults (often with shocking inaccuracy) and little of her strengths.

Be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church has acted in history. For that matter, be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church is acting today. Have you heard that Joel Osteen’s church has been callous during the flooding of Houston? Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook users sure got that impression. Before you apologize to your friends for Osteen’s alleged hypocrisy, read these articles: Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church (Bobby Ross, Jr, GetReligion), Was Joel Osteen’s Houston ‘Megachurch’ Affected By Hurricane Harvey? (Snopes), The Joel Osteen Fiasco Says A Lot About American Christianity (Laura Turner, Buzzfeed). Based on the evidence I’ve seen, Lakewood Church not only acted defensibly  but actually acted wisely and helpfully. Acting in a manner unfamiliar to some of their critics, they were more concerned with actually doing good than with merely giving the appearance of doing good.

This, incidentally, is a useful reminder that the Bible isn’t kidding when it tells us there will be those who “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16, NIV). I often meet young Christians who believe that if we just act nicely enough that the world will love us. You’re not going to be a better representative of Jesus than Jesus Himself was, and He was tortured to death. Temper your expectations.

I say all that to say this: if you hear a negative report about a church, do your homework before you assume the criticisms you are hearing are accurate. A surprising amount of the time the criticism will be false or will be misleadingly true.

But when a criticism of the Church is true we need to take it seriously.

Nowhere is the task of critical resistance more urgent than in the church itself for the ways that it too has accommodated to the spirit of the late modern age. St. Peter is right to say, “judgment begins with the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). Antithesis, then, means that the church’s own structures and its own engagement with the world must be continually scrutinized. Here especially, critical resistance must always be creative and constructive; guided by devotion to the beloved community. (page 236)

Moving on, Hunter identifies a problem that I think is particularly strong at Stanford:

In contemporary America, Christians have faith in God and, by and large, they believe and hold fast to the central truths of the Christian tradition. But while they have faith, they have also been formed by the larger post-Christian culture, a culture whose habits of life less and less resemble anything like the vision of human flourishing provided by the life of Christ and witness of scripture. The problem, in other words, is that Christians have not been formed “in all wisdom” that they might rise to the demands of faithfulness in a time such as ours, “bearing fruit in every good work.” (page 227)

We need to recognize that our culture is always trying to create unchristian convictions within us. Stanford does it more aggressively than American society because the campus is a much less free environment.

But that doesn’t mean that we give up and reject our society. Far from it.

When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory. (page 236)

And so we participate in our society and seek to make it better, recognizing that there is goodness everywhere because of God’s common grace. But even when we find an area of alignment of our values with society’s, we recognize that there will be tension.

It is important to emphasize that the realm of “common grace” is, by no means, a neutral space. It is God’s grace after all—it emanates from him and its purpose is to give him glory. To make strong and active affirmations about the present world, then, in no way implies the autonomy of knowledge, morality, desire, justice, or beauty. The idea that there are common or objective standards for these things independent of the created order is an illusion. In the contemporary world, neutrality is the pretence of all secular establishments; a myth concealed by its hegemony. (page 233)

As a result, we need to have a level of skepticism about the structures of our fallen society.

In the present historical context, this means that Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope. And so it is that the city is a poor imitation of heavenly community; the modern state, a deformed version of the ecclesia; the market, a distortion of consummation; modern entertainment, a caricature of joy; schooling, a misrepresentation of true formation; liberalism, a crass simulacrum of freedom; and the sovereignty we accord to the self, a parody of God himself. As these institutions and ideals become ends in themselves, they become the objects of idolatry. (pages 234-235)

And now we’re getting close to what I take to be Hunter’s ultimate point: we don’t participate in society primarily to change the world. We do it simply to bless those around us.

If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor. (page 234, the original has emphasis that I don’t think is being reproduced here)

I’m eager to see where his argument goes from here.

Things Glen Found Interesting, Volume 116

On Fridays I share articles/resources about broad cultural, societal and theological issues. Be sure to see the explanation and disclaimers at the bottom. I welcome your suggestions. If you read something fascinating please pass it my way.

Things Glen Found Interesting

  1. The flooding in Houston is crazy, and I say this as someone who grew up facing hurricanes in Louisiana on a regular basis. If you want to help, Convoy of Hope is our recommended disaster-relief organization. You can learn more about what they’re doing at Hurricane Harvey Response. So far they’ve served over forty thousand people. More hurricane reading:
    • All the rain that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Texas and Louisiana, in one massive water drop (Javier Zarracina & Brian Resnick, Vox): “…over six days, 27 trillion gallons of water fell over Texas…. That’s one million gallons of water for nearly every person who lives in Texas.” The infographic is stunning.
    • Houston flooding in historical perspective: no, zoning would not have stopped Harvey (Phil Magness, personal blog): “the very notion that Houston is a giant concrete-laden water retention pond is itself a pernicious myth peddled by unscrupulous urban planning activists and media outlets. In total acres, Houston has more parkland and green space than any other large city in America and ranks second overall to San Diego in park acreage per capita.” The author is an economic historian.
    • The Joel Osteen Fiasco Says A Lot About American Christianity (Laura Turner, Buzzfeed): I thought this article was mostly fair and was interesting throughout. This bit towards the end rang true to me: “[Lakewood Church spokesman Doug] Iloff offered a different version of events than the one shared by critics on social media. The church was never locked,’ he told me. ‘The people who showed up were let in; it’s just that very few people came.’ This, he says, was due to flooding around the building and the surrounding highways. And church leaders didn’t initially offer Lakewood as a shelter in part out of concern that it would flood during the weekend’s heaviest rains, Iloff said. ‘If we had let people in and that water had flooded, you would be writing a whole different story now.’” Related: Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church (Bobby Ross, Jr, GetReligion), Was Joel Osteen’s Houston ‘Megachurch’ Affected By Hurricane Harvey? (Snopes). Based on the evidence I’ve seen, Lakewood Church not only acted defensibly but actually acted wisely and helpfully, which makes Here’s why people hate Joel Osteen (Kate Bowler, Washington Post) timely.
    • Hurricanes, Climate and the Capitalist Offset (Bret Stephens, NY Times): “Harvey truly is an astonishing storm, the likes of which few people can easily remember. Then again, as meteorologist Philip Klotzbach points out, it’s also only one of four Category 4 or 5 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States since 1970. By contrast, more than twice as many such storms made landfall between 1922 and 1969.” I did not know that.
  2. 20 Arguments For God’s Existence (Peter Kreeft, personal website): “You may be blessed with a vivid sense of God’s presence; and that is something for which to be profoundly grateful. But that does not mean you have no obligation to ponder these arguments. For many have not been blessed in that way. And the proofs are designed for them—or some of them at least—to give a kind of help they really need. You may even be asked to provide help.” I was reminded of this by a conversation with an alumnus. The author is a philosophy professor at Boston College.
  3. A Beating In Berkeley (Matt Labash, Weekly Standard): “One of them, Will Johnson, announces that he is a black American and a Christian. ‘This is not a neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where they got that from. I actually called Nancy Pelosi’s office and asked her to change that. There’s no way I am a white supremacist.’” An amazing article. Well worth reading.
  4. Some Thoughts and Advice for Our Students and All Students (an open letter from some Harvard, Yale and Princeton professors): “Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.” Interestingly, at least four of the signatories (nearly 20%) are people who have previously made an appearance in these emails.
  5. Wait, Do People Actually Know Just How Evil This Man Is? (Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs): “And I am worried that even those who detest Trump and are appalled by this pardon do not entirely appreciate the depth of Arpaio’s evil, or understand quite how indefensible what Donald Trump just has done is. Frankly I think even Trump may not fully realize the extent of the wrongdoing that he has just signaled his approval of.” Depressing reading.
  6. The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial (Venkatesh Rao, Ribbonfarm): “Premium mediocre is the finest bottle of wine at Olive Garden. Premium mediocre is cupcakes and froyo. Premium mediocre is ‘truffle’ oil on anything (no actual truffles are harmed in the making of ‘truffle’ oil), and extra-leg-room seats in Economy. Premium mediocre is cruise ships, artisan pizza, Game of Thrones, and The Bellagio. Premium mediocre is food that Instagrams better than it tastes…. premium mediocrity is creating an aura of exclusivity without actually excluding anyone.” The article is far too long. Read the first few paragraphs and you’ll get the idea.
  7. My IRB Nightmare (Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex): “We, as the patient’s doctors, would make the diagnosis and write it down on the chart. But we (as study investigators) needed a full signed consent form before we were allowed to access the diagnosis we had just made.” This is simultaneously disturbing and entertaining, and so is the follow-up post.
  8. The Cost of Running Harvard (Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution): I assume broadly similar statistics are true of Stanford.

Things Glen Found Amusing

Things Glen Found Interesting A While Ago

Every week I’ll highlight an older link still worth your consideration. This week we have The Weight of Glory (C.S. Lewis): originally preached as a sermon and then printed in a theology magazine. Related: see the C. S. Lewis Doodle YouTube channel – it’s really good! (first shared in volume 36)

Why Do You Send This Email?

In the time of King David, the tribe of Issachar produced shrewd warriors “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chron 12:32). In a similar way, we need to become wise people whose faith interacts with the world. I pray this email gives you greater insight, so that you may continue the tradition of Issachar.

Disclaimer

Chi Alpha is not a partisan organization. To paraphrase another minister: we are not about the donkey’s agenda and we are not about the elephant’s agenda – we are about the Lamb’s agenda. Having said that, I read widely (in part because I believe we should aspire to pass the ideological Turing test and in part because I do not believe I can fairly say “I agree” or “I disagree” until I can say “I understand”) and may at times share articles that have a strong partisan bias simply because I find the article stimulating. The upshot: you should not assume I agree with everything an author says in an article I mention, much less things the author has said in other articles (although if I strongly disagree with something in the article I’ll usually mention it).

Also, remember that I’m not reporting news – I’m giving you a selection of things I found interesting. There’s a lot happening in the world that’s not making an appearance here because I haven’t found stimulating articles written about it.

Archives at http://glenandpaula.com/wordpress/category/links.