Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Currency Conversion

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” – James 2:18

Take a look sometime at a $20 bill. How do you know it’s the real thing? There have always been special features to help authenticate currency and frustrate counterfeiters, but in the most recent redesign, the government took these measures to a new level. To name a few: color-shifting ink, a watermark that’s part of the paper itself, a security thread that glows green under ultraviolet light.

That piece of paper holds ways for us to be sure it’s authentic. It also can teach us something about real Christian faith. What is saving faith, after all?

In Ephesians 2:8, Paul tells us, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” And yet James throws down a challenge to those who would claim that faith is all head and heart, no hands. Is salvation by simple belief? Is it by works?


The first thing that authenticates a bill is what’s printed on it. The right words, adornments, seals and pictures must be present. If it’s all there, except that Harry Potter’s mug is in Andrew Jackson’s place, there’s a problem. If Old Hickory is present, but the note is issued by Gringotts Wizarding Bank, still no good.

The right stuff printed on the bill is like the faith we profess. Some things aren’t negotiable: the trinity, the divinity of Christ, His redemptive death on the cross and conquest of death by His resurrection. If we’ve gotten these things wrong, nothing else is going to help us. But if we’re just mouthing all the right words, is that enough?

Here’s where it gets tricky. If we undertake good works as a way of adding to the work of Christ, to make it all add up to salvation, we’ve missed the point of the cross. But if good works, right living and the fruit of the Spirit are absent from our lives, then merely professing the right beliefs is like printing all the correct markings of a $20 bill – on Kleenex. When it’s held up to the light, the fake will be exposed.


My Theory of Everything

Despite the content of my initial posts, I don’t actually pass all of my days in a monklike state of spiritual contemplation. I spend plenty of time living and thinking in the here and now. For example, I’ve given much thought to how America came to its current state of dislocation.

Not being a conspiracy theorist, I’m not going to claim some grand, evil design is behind it all. It’s just threads of culture, politics and economics intertwining in an especially unfortunate manner – with no clear way to untie the knot. I could start tracing the interconnections in any number of places, but I’ll start with the entitlement mentality:

Somewhere along the way, as politicians pandered, marketers marketed and capitalists sought to enlarge their fortunes, large numbers of Americans bought into the idea that they were virtually entitled to certain things: a college education, which would lead to a well-paid white-collar job rather than – horrors – manual labor. This in turn would lead to a home in a leafy suburb, stocked with all the gadgets and conveniences human ingenuity could conjure, but at Wal-Mart prices – easy financing available!

First, about the college entitlement: This may come as a shock to some, but not everyone should go to college, nor is college a requirement for a successful, fulfilling, reasonably lucrative career. I would give my eye teeth for the ability to even dabble in plumbing, auto mechanics, carpentry, landscaping (beyond lawn mowing and leaf blowing)…the list goes on. There is real talent in doing these things well, and I would be living in a lean-to and riding a bicycle were it not for the people who provide those services. Not to mention where we would all be without the hands that grow the food and assemble the countless goods that we take for granted. But somewhere, these occupations became the victims of snobbery, plain and simple. We accept the fruits of the labor, but few would wish their own children to pursue these careers.

The devaluation of manual labor left businesses with an urgent need for people to fill the factory and service jobs that were beneath the entitled. The factory part was easy: ship the jobs overseas. Plenty of willing workers, few unions and dirt cheap labor afforded a double bonus: manufacturers could both fill demand and cut costs, placing the goods within reach of more consumers at home.

But a Malaysian can’t remotely cut lawns in Sacramento, gut chickens in Arkansas or clean hotel rooms in New York. Hence America’s love/hate relationship with immigrants, who do necessary work at low cost, but draw on public resources while often paying no taxes. And for those Americans still willing to get their hands dirty, immigration equaled competition for jobs, as it always has. Hence the very ugly and never-ending debate.

Meanwhile, back among the entitled, the quest for the white-collar degree continues. The higher education industry (yes, I called it that) found itself in the ultimate seller’s market: the entitled would pay any price for that degree, whether it made sense or not. Too expensive? The government and the capital markets were happy to step in with grants and loans – lots of loans – to keep the higher ed business humming.

Speaking of debt-funded entitlements, how about that housing market? As with education, no subsidy was too great to give everyone a shot at the American Dream. The government leaned on the lenders in the name of equal housing opportunity, and Wall Street was happy to do its part, cycling the same money through the system again and again as investors snapped up securitized mortgages. Securitization also helped to sustain the student loan market, by the way, helping to keep the higher education market similarly flush with cash.

None of this works without borrowers, however, and when the good ones are used up, and the investors are clamoring for more, what’s left to do but lend to not-so-good borrowers? And then to borrowers who have no business borrowing whatsoever. After all, they’re entitled to their shot at the American dream. And so two massive bubbles grew, housing and higher education, inflated by subsidies and increasingly questionable lending.

We’ve all seen the housing bubble pop. And so millions of borrowers are left with more mortgage debt than they can pay, on homes that aren’t worth what was borrowed to buy them.

What’s less visible, unless you’re paying close attention, is the slow leak in the education bubble. College costs are finally, truly soaring out of reach for millions. Community colleges, a relatively cheap alternative, are booming. A handful of four-year schools are starting to respond with tuition cuts, or are digging into their endowments to keep their institutions affordable. I don’t think education costs will collapse as the housing market did; colleges have been living according to the considerable means they accumulated during the boom years, and they can’t slash their expenses overnight. Public colleges, pinched by state budget crises, are especially hard pressed. But this bubble must slowly deflate, or even many of those who ought to go to college will be priced out.

It’s too late for a lot of college grads who, like regretful home buyers, are left with assets – diplomas – that aren’t worth what was borrowed to pay for them. The difference is, they can’t wait for the market to come back and then sell their diplomas like houses. With luck, the job markets in their chosen fields will recover and provide a way to recoup some of that investment, but perhaps not. And so, many grads are left with degrees ill-suited to the job market of the present, much less the future. We’ve trained an army of white-collar workers for an economy that just may need more of a bluish tint.

Setting all of this straight will depend on a number of things that frankly may not be achievable:

— Our willingness to pay for goods at the cost it takes to make them at home, using fairly paid workers.

— The ability to find such workers among our debt-laden, college-educated, underemployed labor force.

— Perhaps least likely of all, the willingness of even one influential manufacturer to take the lead and start bringing manufacturing jobs back home. It could be done, but one look at Apple’s strategy shows which way the wind is blowing.

Wherever these goods are made, we’ll have to be able to afford them. Buying power will take time to come back as we undergo deleveraging – the painful process of paying off or writing off the mass of bad debt. The only quick way to recovery would be a resumption of irresponsible lending and borrowing to artificially stoke demand. It would be a fragile, ultimately phony recovery.

Lenders get to count loans as assets, on the assumption that they’ll be paid back with interest. Right now, many of those “assets” are as illusory as the equity homeowners had amassed at the peak of the housing bubble. There have been a lot of illusions bought and sold over the past several decades, by consumers and constituents hearing what they wanted to hear, and by sellers and politicians with their eyes on short-term gain. Now, the smoke is clearing and we’re finding out what’s real. Let’s hope we can keep our grip on reality, ugly as it is, and work within it.

Photo: Tom Page

Skywriting Creation

The heavens are telling the glory of God; the wonder of His works displays the firmament.

I sang those words in my high school choir, the opening lines of a number from Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation oratorio. At the time I was at best dimly aware that this was based on Scripture (Psalm 19:1); I certainly did not grasp how profound this statement was. Today, I think I may have an inkling.

In my second post, I hinted at some thoughts on science and Scripture. These ideas have a long history in Biblical scholarship, but in some circles they are still explosive. It may be helpful to cast them in a different way.

As I’ve said before, I greatly respect science and scientists, though I have no aptitude in the field. People using the brains God gave them to observe the universe God created are going to find cool stuff. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian and science challenges your ideas of what a Christian is supposed to believe, by all means question it, but don’t fear it. Fear nothing and no one but God.

Now, about that creation story. You can venture outside the scientific mainstream, you can train your mind in a particular way, and you can erase any doubt that the only proper way to read the first chapter of Genesis is literally. And you may be right. I mean that. God is God, and if that’s how He created the universe, and humans have misread the evidence of the heavens and the Earth, who am I to second guess Him? The last thing I intend is to undermine the Bible’s authority or trustworthiness.

But if you’re willing to consider another way to respect both the Bible’s authority and the intelligence God gave humanity, turn to…the Book of Revelation. I think most Biblical scholars would agree that very large portions of Revelation are allegorical. The last book in the Bible is packed with symbols, though where the symbols end and the literal parts begin could keep an army of theologians busy for a very long time. Why did God have John write it that way? Why not spell it out plainly?

Let me suggest a possible reason among many that may apply. Imagine trying to explain the world of the 21st Century – or a future time even we can’t imagine – to a man of the First Century, and in turn having him explain it to a wider First Century audience. Imagine the heads exploding from Rome to Jerusalem.

Now, rewind to Genesis. Imagine trying to explain astrophysics, biochemistry and plate tectonics to people living thousands of years earlier than the apostle John. Heads exploding.

Perhaps the earlier parts of Genesis – to what point I couldn’t say – and most of Revelation form allegorical bookends to the story God unfolds in the Bible. Maybe some of us are asking the Bible to be something it couldn’t be for its authors or their first readers – a science book, written by and to people with no concept of modern science.

So what about the Bible’s truth and authority? For me, it still stands. The Bible tells us what we need to know about creation: God is its author. Exactly how he wielded the pen wasn’t critical knowledge for the Bible’s writers. That knowledge is more discoverable and more interesting to us, but what we believe about it won’t save or condemn us.

To put it another way, the story of creation is written across the pages of Genesis in a way that the ancients could read and understand. But the Bible itself tells us the story is also written across the heavens, which “proclaim the glory of God.” It is written in our DNA. Perhaps, as scientists continue to insist, it is written in canyon walls and on primordial beaches. And generations such as ours are able to discover and read these accounts in a way that Moses and his contemporaries could not.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16 plainly declares the Bible’s authority. But nowhere do I read the word “literal.” Perhaps something like this could be a paraphrase for our time, with a couple of thousand years of hindsight: The Bible, properly understood as to context and literary form, will never misrepresent God, His character or His work, nor will it ever teach anyone to do evil.

The debate over creation has become a wedge between sincere people of faith on one hand, and skeptics on the other who might be more receptive – if they didn’t suspect they were being asked to stop thinking. Again, I don’t know which story of creation is true. But I believe the Bible, largely through the creation debate, has been reduced from the sword of the Spirit to a blunt instrument in the culture wars, part of the all-or-nothing, us-or-them battle between Christian conservatives and all varieties of liberals. To give an inch on the literal reading of the Bible, to some, is treason against “our” side.

Now, if the Bible isn’t true unless it’s all literal, I see the problem. By this logic, if parts of it aren’t literal, then parts of it aren’t true. The whole book, and therefore our faith, are thrown open to question. But is this a straitjacket that American evangelicals have put on the Bible and Christianity? If you take the literal reading to the limit, you’ll be facing some much harder questions than how the Biblical creation story could be true.

The truth is, no rational person takes it that far. For example, if Jesus were literally every object or substance He said he was at various points in the Gospels, he would have been a very curious entity. If Solomon’s regrets written in Ecclesiastes were all doctrinal statements, we would have our work cut out to reconcile them with the rest of the Bible. We allow Jesus and Solomon literary leeway. Perhaps we should grant the same to the Spirit who spoke through the Bible’s authors. Not that He needs our permission.

In my research for this post I found an interesting word: bibliolater. The implication is clear. At some point in our thinking, the Bible can cross the line from a vital guide – “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – to an object of worship. This is first of all wrongheaded, but it also sucks the life out of the Bible.

When we make an idol of something or someone, we actually distance ourselves, because getting too close will always shatter whatever we have set up our idol to be. So it is with the Bible. Not that it contains any defects, but it will engage us, challenge us and surprise us – as long as we allow it to live and breathe and speak to us.

Premature Judgment – Part 2

You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly–Leviticus 19:15

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman weren’t supposed to be the topic of Part 2. But this case has gotten under my skin, and a thought came to me as I read the latest developments. For what it’s worth, here it is:

It’s just possible that Trayvon and George made the same catastrophic misjudgment. George simply made it first, at the moment he overstepped the “observe and report” role and acted in a way that attracted Trayvon’s attention. It doesn’t really matter how far he followed Trayvon, nor if or when he broke off the pursuit. He perceived a threat, and he in turn set himself up to be perceived as a threat. The moment Trayvon became aware of George’s presence, they both were standing their ground on a very slippery slope.

The rhetoric of some of George’s supporters has an undercurrent of accusation toward Trayvon, as if he was in fact up to no good. It’s important to remember that whatever he may have done in his past, on that night he was just a kid walking home from the store. He had nothing to hide, and so George’s appearance on the scene didn’t prompt an “Uh-oh, I’m going to get caught” reaction. The unwanted, inexplicable attention of this stranger in street clothes must have triggered plain fear.

So why didn’t Trayvon just cover the little remaining ground to his father’s home and leave the danger behind? We’ll never know, but we do know this: there’s a growing consensus that people in their late teens and early 20s – especially males, possibly up to age 25 – have underdeveloped brains, specifically in the area that assesses risk. Whatever Trayvon’s size, in important ways he was still a kid. George was, or should have been, the one exercising adult judgment.

Instead, perhaps both George and Trayvon made premature judgments about the strangers in the darkness, and rather than head for safety, they took it upon themselves to investigate. They came together, each seeing the other as the bad guy. The result of their mutual misjudgment has been a growing pile of other premature judgments.

I promised a post about injustice, and that’s certainly the central issue. Here’s my take on it, so far: If Trayvon did anything wrong that night, he has paid the ultimate, wildly disproportionate price. As for George, he deserves a fair, fact-based verdict, and if the right one is not guilty, so be it. More likely, I think, is manslaughter. As more facts emerge, it’s getting harder to cling to the picture of George as a racist demon or Trayvon as a blameless cherub. They were both complicated and flawed, as humans tend to be. But Trayvon is needlessly dead, and it’s hard to see George escaping any culpability.

Many people on both sides of this case have rushed to premature judgments. I could be guilty of the same with my own speculations here. In the early stages of the case, I believe some in law enforcement also made premature judgments based on the players involved. Preconceptions about the one who died and the one who lived carried some officials to a hurried conclusion. Even if George is exonerated, the case deserved a harder look than it would have gotten had Trayvon’s family kept silent.

What’s a Christian to do? If there’s naked injustice when all is said and done here, don’t be afraid to speak up against it, and to offer aid and comfort to its victims if you can. It sounds like a pat answer, but what else is there? If we know what is right and don’t do it, we’ll be the ones under judgment, and this judgment will be right on time.

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