I Hadn’t Thought of it This Way…

becoming curiousI’ve just begun reading Casey Tygrett’s new book titled, Becoming Curiouswhich proposes that the asking of questions, of being curious, is actually a practice that may be spiritually transforming (and one we often lose as adults as we think maturity equates with having answers and certainty).

That’s not actually the point of this post. Rather I want to focus on an observation he makes about the word “repent.” We most often hear it as an imperative, but he asks the question of whether it might be understood differently, similar to an ad he saw for a certain airline saying, “Fly _____”. The ad is not a command, but an invitation in the imperative form, kind of like what I am doing when I answer the door at my home, see a close friend standing on the doorstep, and I say “Come in!” It’s not a command but an invitation of welcome.

We usually think of the word “repent” being spoken in angry tones by an adult (like a grim father figure) who is really put out with how awful we are and is warning us to clean up our act or face the consequences (“turn or burn”?). Most of us usually respond pretty negatively to this kind of stuff. Perhaps it is a “sez who” response. Or maybe it is disbelief that people could be so obsessed with “sin.” Maybe we just put our hands over our ears.

What if this were framed, and heard as an invitation? What if we heard it as the chance for life to begin again, anew? What if we heard it as a second chance being offered, saying that we can change our minds, change our ways, and this will be honored and received with gladness? What if we heard this as the words of the father to his prodigal son, saying “come home”?

Are there any of us who has not desperately needed this invitation? We know we have screwed up, made bad choices for which we are utterly responsible, done things that have deeply hurt another. We know in our deepest selves that our “transgressions” were not noble acts of rebellion, but rather a self-absorbed descent into the darkness. In our most honest moments we wonder and despair whether there is any way to escape the cloud of shame and the pangs of guilt. We cover it well, put a brave face on our self-justifications, and maybe even start believing the lies we tell ourselves.

What if we heard in the invitation of repentance a chance at forgiveness, a chance at a new beginning? This only stands to reason, when you think about it. Wouldn’t the invitation to repent be the most ultimate act of cruelty were it followed by condemnation? That, I think is why the invitation to repent is often followed by the words “and believe the good news.” What if there were One who so radically loved us that he paid what we could not possibly pay or repay? What if there were one who could empower us to live differently, to become the self we know we ought to be, even as we are delivered from self’s tyranny?

What if repentance were an invitation into this kind of life? Would you say yes? Will I?

What I Learned From My Father

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My father, on a beautiful autumn day in 2011. (c) Robert C. Trube

I’m writing this on the evening of Father’s Day and I’ve been remembering my own father, who passed nearly five years ago. Remembering him is cause for profound gratitude for the kind of man he was, and the ways he gave himself to shape the man I would be. Whether I’ve lived up to that or not, I’ll leave to others to judge. All I can say is that while he was never famous, he is truly great in my eyes, a member of “the greatest generation” not only by association but by character. These are some of the things he taught me:

  • Any work is worth doing well, if for no other reason than you know whether or not you’ve done your best.
  • He taught me to assume responsibility to earn my own spending money. When I was ten he fronted me the money for a lawn mower to cut lawns. He helped me sign up for a paper route, and got up early on winter Sunday mornings to help stuff and deliver the Sunday papers.
  • He treated people with dignity, no matter who they were. I saw him treat hourly employees and company presidents and people of all races the same way.
  • I grew up in the Vietnam era. Dad taught me that military service could be honorable and something to be proud of. The military salute he was given at his burial was a fitting closure of his life.
  • Perhaps because he never finished college, he valued education and encouraged all of us to excellence. He took our grade cards seriously and responded to teachers’ comments and talked to us about them.
  • He communicated how proud he was of whatever achievements I made in school. Years later, he gave me a file he had collected of these various recognitions. He tracked my career and he gave me the wonderful gift of never having to wonder about his approval of my work, or wife, or anything else.
  • He taught me what love and faithfulness means in marriage. I watched him holding my mother’s hand as she passed, loving her to her last earthly moment before death parted them after nearly 69 years of marriage. Perhaps it is no coincidence that between us, my siblings and I have celebrated 123 wedding anniversaries of our own. Mom and dad taught us well.
  • Because of dad, I never struggled with the idea of God as Father. When I was little, we took walks in the park together and I loved the time where he taught me about different trees, birds, and plants and where I could ask him anything. It is what I think of when I think of “walking with God” or what we call prayer.
  • I work among academics and it is easy to intellectualize and “complexify” almost anything, including matters of faith. Dad often brought me back to earth with what I call his “watchword” which summarized for him what it meant to live as a Christian:

Read and pray;

Trust and obey;

Live God’s way.

My son and I had an interesting conversation today. I happened to use the word “adult” as a verb in a sentence, as some in his generation do. He rebuked me for that. He said adult isn’t something you act like, it is something you are. I think that would have made my dad proud (actually it made me quite glad that he felt this way). Whether it was military service, separation from family, scrambling to make ends meet, dealing with health emergencies, and more, my father just kept showing up, just kept being responsible. In a word, he was an adult. And so much more. He was a father.

 

 

“Do You Do Well to Be Angry?”

anger-1007186_1280“Do you do well to be angry?”

It’s a question God asks the pouting prophet Jonah sitting outside Nineveh, angry with God for sparing this city, Israel’s arch enemy. It’s a question we may well ask ourselves.

Yet another mass shooting resulting in the serious wounding of a senator and several others and the death of the 66 year old shooter, underscores the danger of unchecked anger. He called the President a “traitor” on social media, had been involved in a variety of angry altercations, and was deeply dissatisfied with the way things were going in the country.

Truthfully, he’s not so different from many, except that he made the fatal transition from anger to violence. We seem to live in a society with many angry people. It is dangerous to challenge rude or reckless behavior in a public setting. You could find yourself in a gunfight without even a knife.

Why are we so angry? I wonder if some of it is that everything from advertising to our schools suggest to us that we are the center of the universe and that we should fulfill all our longings. Reality doesn’t work like that. We share the planet with 7 billion other people. Maturity often calls upon us to live with unfulfilled desires. Yet we believe no one should get in our way on the road or delay us even a minute or two when we are running late for work or another scheduled event.

I also wonder if we are angry because we spend too much time listening to angry and inflammatory voices. Online pundits and much of the new media build their followings around arousing and feeding their following, no matter what the political persuasion. At times it can be quite entertaining, and then there is the twist, the inflammatory accusation, or even the suggest that the world would be a better place without X.

Most of us have enough of a sense of proportion to just laugh at this, or even the good sense to change the channel. But a steady diet of this can take its toll, kind of like too much refined sugar. Combined with personal frustrations and perhaps a sense of inadequacy, and inflammatory rhetoric ceases to be a laughing matter.

All this emphasizes how important it is to teach our children, and ourselves how to act constructively with our anger. We all experience anger, but the trick is figuring out how to use it constructively. The apostle Paul put it this way: “Be angry yet do not sin, do not let the sun set on your anger.” Yes we do get angry, but it doesn’t have to end badly. You can write that letter to your congressperson, propose that compromise with a co-worker you don’t see eye to eye with. Maybe going for a walk, a run, or digging your garden gives you time to work off the adrenaline and get some perspective.

Paul also makes a good observation, that anger is best when it is a brief moment, rather than a way of life. It is when it festers and grows bitter that it can become lethal. Anger is a place we are all going to visit, but none of us should live there.

So we might ask, “do we do well to be angry?” And with this, we might also ask, do we do well to arouse another’s anger, and to feed a lingering, free-floating sense of anger at the world, toward a particular group of people, a particular party?

It’s not just for ourselves that we might ask these things. It is also for those most vulnerable to giving way to anger. Contrary to the angry Cain’s question, we are our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. While I think people are responsible for their own anger, I would not want to be the one to help ratchet up the anger of another.

“Do you do well to be angry?”

After Paris

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By Benh LIEU SONG – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There has been global dismay this past week with the decision of the current administration in the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. This Accord commits the global community to efforts and national targets to keep the global rise of average temperatures from the pre-industrial age to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) through reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and contributions to help poorer nations implement cleaner technologies. The dismay has to do with the dominant place the U.S. plays as a world leader in many ways–technology, political leadership, and in our contribution to greenhouse gases (although China passed us in 2006 and contributes twice as much).

I don’t want to get into an argument here either about this decision nor the climate science debate. Instead, I want to explore what those who differ on these things in the U.S. might agree upon in terms of what I hope are commonly shared values.

1.  Care. Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes the case that we all have a fundamental interest in caring for our common home. The earth is a beautiful place filled with an incredible diversity of creatures, as well as 7 billion human beings. Having grown up in the rust belt, I’ve seen what can happen when beautiful lakes and rivers are treated as sewers for industrial waste. Fish kills, algae blooms, and toxins in our drinking water. It is clear that ocean levels have risen with rising temperatures, and some island nations and coastal peoples, many in poverty, face the loss of our homes. We can fight about causes, but will we care for the people who may lose their homes, no matter what the cause?

2. Caution. While some of our political leaders question the models of the results of continued global warming and the role of humans (despite the strong correlations between carbon emissions, CO2 levels, and temperature rises) it seems to me that at least caution is warranted when this is the only planet we get. I grew up in an era when physicians and medical researchers began warning of the consequences of cigarette smoking while manufacturers, growers, and many users denied the dangers of smoking. I’ve watched people die because of denials and lies, the refusal to face the truth about smoking. At very least shouldn’t the possibility of the danger to our life on the planet warrant redoubled efforts to know whether this is a clear and present danger, and what may be done to avert it? Do you want to risk the lives of your children and grandchildren on the hope that there is no danger?

3. Community. I also wonder whether there is a silver lining in the withdrawal from this accord. It is a false delusion that agreements of governments can effect the change needed. Yes, governments can incentivize or disincentivize certain behaviors. But we are those who behave. I’m glad to see mayors of so many cities saying they will press ahead with their efforts to reduce the emissions of their cities, to have clean, efficient cities that are better places to live. All of us, in our homes and businesses, can make a difference, and on our own initiative may come up with better solutions than the ones imposed on us–but we need to act.

4. Conserving. I garden. It makes me aware that whatever I take out of the soil must be replenished or I have weak and diseased plants. I was a volunteer with Boy Scouts when I was young and we taught kids to “leave no trace.” The goal was to leave the places we camped with minimal evidence of our presence so others could enjoy them just as much. Can we agree that the good things we enjoy from the earth should be replenished and especially when we use that which cannot be replenished, that we use only what is truly needed? It would seem that both “conservatives” and “liberals” should believe in conserving.

5. Consumer power. Businesses change their behavior because of customer demands and their own self interest. With coal, the major challenge is how dependent we are on it for power generation (59 percent of my home state’s power, 24 percent by natural gas). We’ve been able to reduce our household power consumption by 35 percent with more efficient appliances, light bulbs, and other energy saving measures. But it also seems that we need to press companies to shift to using renewable forms of power generation. Only 2.2 percent of our state’s power comes from renewables. I also wonder if we can use this power compassionately for those whose livelihoods have depended on coal–to invest in individuals and communities who invested their lives providing our energy.

6. Creative edge. It was interesting to me that the Mayor of Pittsburgh issued an executive order that his city would continue to adhere to the Paris Climate Accord, after his city was mentioned in the President’s speech.  He said, “For decades Pittsburgh has been rebuilding its economy based on hopes for our people and our future, not on outdated fantasies about our past. The City and its many partners will continue to do the same, despite the President’s imprudent announcements yesterday.” Can we not agree that maintaining our creative, innovative edge is critical? For years, I watched the steel companies in my own city refuse to invest in modern technology while countries overseas were doing so, spelling the death of steel-making. I’ve also watched Pittsburgh turn from steel-making to becoming a technology center, leveraging resources like Carnegie-Mellon to build a new economy. Can we not agree that thinking about tomorrow rather than protecting the past is critical to national greatness?

In questions about climate change and the environment, as in so many other areas, we must move beyond two sides who won’t talk to each other. Whether the six points I’ve outlined are adequate to find common ground from which to work, or not, I will leave to you. What I hope we can agree upon is that caring for our common home, to use the Pope’s words, requires the love, and thoughtful action of each and every one of us. No Accord should be needed to convince us of that, nor the absence of one excuse us.

Is This The Religious Liberty We Need?

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President Donald J. Trump displaying Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)

Last Thursday, May 4, two significant government actions dominated the news. One was the narrow passage in the House of Representatives of the AHCA, legislation designed to roll back a number of provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The other was the signing by the President of an Executive Order on Religious Liberty, surrounded by religious people of various faiths.

As a religious person, I do care about religious liberty and think the First Amendment protections in our constitution important to uphold, and indeed strengthen, because of the long and global history of religious persecution. We do not do it perfectly but we have a system that allows an incredible diversity of religious expression in our country and works hard not to privilege any one over the others. This is a relatively singular occurrence in human history that is a mark of American greatness.

One thing that is important to note about the executive order, available to be read on the White House website is that it is a directive to federal agencies that does not repeal laws but only addresses the approach taken to enforce them. Only a new law can repeal a law. Only court decisions can overturn laws. What is significant, from what I can read in the executive order, is it suggests a disposition on the part of government to defend religious liberty rather than undermine it. Section One on policy says:

“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.”

These are broad statements that amount to saying that the executive branch will uphold the Constitution, which is in fact what the President says he will do in taking the oath of office. But to go on record in this regard is heartening.

Much has been made of Section Two. Contrary to popular belief, it does not repeal the Johnson Amendment banning the endorsement or opposition to political candidates by churches or other 501 (c)(3) organizations. David French (a lawyer I had the chance to work with on a religious liberty issue), writes in The National Review:

In fact, a lawyer will commit malpractice if he tells a pastor or director of a nonprofit that this order allows a church or nonprofit to use its resources to support or oppose a candidate. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to enforce the law, a later administration can tear up Trump’s order and begin vigorous enforcement based on actions undertaken during the Trump administration.”

What may be the case is that this will presumably make some feel bolder in talking about political issues or even endorsing candidates because they need not fear enforcement. French’s warning is, “for now.” I certainly wouldn’t use this as a warrant to endorse candidates not supported by the current administration!

Section Three concerns conscience exemptions to the preventive care (read contraceptive) mandate. It says that several government agencies “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” In fact, this has already been mandated by the Supreme Court during the Obama administration.

French makes an important point in his article–executive orders are no substitute for law-making. At best they are only a start. John Inazu, in his book Confident Pluralism, articulates three areas where substantive law-making is needed to protect religious and speech freedoms in the public square (summary is quoted from my review of his book):

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

French notes in his article the attacks on religious groups in universities that infringe on the first and third of these requirements and the attacks on dissenting views that would infringe on the second.

I would argue that the protections Inazu talks about include but are broader than just religious liberty. They protect the freedom of conscience and associative and speech freedoms of all citizens, not just religious citizens. I would argue that these are the liberties for which we need robust protections, not simply in executive orders but in law.

There is one other religious liberty I long for. I have written often about the way the American church has offered itself as a voluntary captive to the political process. Actually, one of the concerns I have about the relaxation of enforcement around political speech in pulpits is that in so doing, I think the government is helping the church dig its own grave. Perhaps it is anecdotal, but I am watching not only younger, but also older evangelicals angered by this political captivity, leaving evangelical churches, even churches not overtly engaged in this kind of behavior.

I long for the day when churches cast off the chains of partisan politics and repent for how they have alienated people from the gospel of Christ that unites people across all the divides of our contemporary politics. I long for a church that speaks prophetically to both left and right (currently it seems only late night television is doing that). This is the kind of speech for which you actually need religious liberty protection.

I have to admit to being troubled by the setting in which this order took place. Religious leaders are gathered around in the Rose Garden celebrating the protection of their own liberties while down the street the party of the President is passing legislation to make the protection of one’s health increasingly difficult for the most vulnerable in our society to obtain (“the Unaffordable Health Care Act”?). I’m torn. I’ve had to advocate against real attempts to undermine religious liberty. Yet I was telling a friend recently that religious liberty concerns me less than the attack on the liberties of the poor, children, the elderly, the most vulnerable in our society. Perhaps the only way to reconcile this is the idea that all liberties are important and that the attack upon the liberty of any of us is in fact an attack on the liberty of all of us. Might we agree upon that?

 

Is Evangelicalism Dying?

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Recently apologist Hank Hanegraff converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, joining the exodus of prominent evangelicals to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. Ed Stetzer, in a column in Christianity Today, noted the attraction for many thoughtful evangelicals of the liturgy and sense of authority and unchanging belief when belief seems to be a “choose your own adventure” story for evangelicals and many Protestant churches are trimming their belief sails to the winds of culture.

A friend of mine, who has recently converted to Catholicism described the evangelical church as “fading away” and that it will probably not exist in 50 years. His judgment was that were this to occur, the movement won’t be missed. I’ve been thinking about his remark all week. You see, both in terms of the organization I work with, and the church where I worship, evangelicals are the “people” within the larger Christian family with which I am identified. And truth be told, I am unashamed of the core distinctives David Bebbington and others have said mark this movement within the larger Christian family: a focus on the work of Christ, the authority of the Bible in our lives, the need for conversion, and a commitment to live out our beliefs in action. I should also say at the outset that I both deeply respect and learn from believers from these other parts of the Christian family, as I hope they might from our part of the family as well.

If there is anything that is dying, it is white, boomer evangelicalism. The evangelical movement globally is rapidly growing, particularly the Pentecostal segments of it. In the U.S., ethnic minority churches are rapidly growing and they share the theological convictions, if not the ethno-cultural trappings of boomer evangelicals. There has been a great deal of commentary about white evangelicals since the presidential election. What I think it all really comes down to is that large swaths of the white evangelical church have exchanged gospel power for political clout and have associated themselves with partisan politics rather that the impartiality of the gospel. We’ve forgotten our own conversions and what it was like to be lost…and found, and we’ve become indifferent to others or even judgmental. The Bible is often simply the launching board to justify whatever we want for ourselves or want others to do. Crosses are just part of the “Jesus junk” we adorn ourselves with and we think little of this as the place where God’s love and justice meet. Activism is going to political rallies and posting yard signs.

I know this is sweeping and there are many exceptions. I had a chance to visit with some of them on Thursday. They are bright, talented graduate students. They were simply talking about the Christian community of which they are part. It is diverse in majors and the ethnic background of people and they love that and want it to be even more true. They love to read and think deeply about the Bible and not beat others over the head with it but rather do what it teaches. They love conversations with those who differ from them–that is the nature of grad school. They love Jesus and each other. They care about the poor in their midst. Several worship in a church in a rough area of town that is a “food desert” and they are dedicated to serving the people there. They encourage me to hope and pray for better evangelical days ahead. And their example makes me want to do all I can both to encourage them and call the evangelicals of my generation to repent and to recover.

  • To repent of our political captivity and to recover our prophetic calling.
  • To repent of our forgetfulness of our lostness and the wonder of being found by Christ and to recover our sensitivity to the least, the last and the lost.
  • To repent of our “solo scriptura” approach to the Bible where each of us are our own pope and we read into the Bible what we want. Will we test our reading against the creeds, the confessions, and how our brothers and sisters from other classes and cultures read the same text?
  • To repent of sin management and censoriousness of others and recover the sense that we are all equally in need of the work of Christ at a cross that brings down the privileged and raises the powerless.
  • To repent of our culture wars and to recover a sense of culture care that seeks to preserve and strengthen what is good, and to bring healing to what is broken.

I mentioned earlier how I learn so much from Eastern Orthodox and Catholic believers and the rich resources of this part of the family. At the same time, I would entertain the humble hope that there are riches within the evangelical part of the family line, and that it would indeed be a tragedy for this to die out. As sad as the break of the Reformation was, it led to reform in all parts of the church. The evangelicals who came from this fomented a missionary enterprise, that despite its imperfections, brought the light of Christ to many people, who in some cases are now re-evangelizing the West. Even as evangelicals have played a key role in the modern day fight against human trafficking, so also they led the fight against slavery. In the world of the university where I work, I’ve seen a generation of Christian researchers arise coupling academic rigor and Christian thought in fields as diverse as philosophy, education, and technology.

I do think there are things in evangelicalism as it has developed over the past 40 years that deserve to be laid to rest. But I would also suggest that to talk about a branch of the family dying is a regrettably sad, and even cruel thing. I wonder if a better conversation might be one where we seek to learn from the best of each part of the family. Will we heal the rifts of the Great Schism, or the Reformation? I doubt it. But we might begin to draw closer as we pray and wait for the Great Return when all wounds and rifts will be healed, and a single, pure and spotless Bride will greet her Lover. Come, Lord Jesus!

 

“The Dogma is the Drama”

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Dorothy L. Sayers

Is contemporary Christianity in America on the ropes? Have Christians engaged in culture wars and lost? Why are increasing numbers of people identifying as “nones” religiously? And if this is indeed so, what might be done to recover and re-engage, if not in culture wars, in an effort to capture the hearts and minds of the rising generation.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Rod Dreher has stimulated a national conversation with his new book, The Benedict Option, which advocates a kind of strategic withdrawal of Christians into a counter-cultural communal life with practices that shape the beliefs and behavior of their people. James Emery White writes in Meet Generation Z of reaching those born after 1993, and believes the church must embrace a similar counter-cultural model that combines savvy communication with integrity of life and belief. He argues that the faith of the church must be translated, but not transformed into something different. Gregory Alan Thornbury, in Recovering Classic Evangelicalism, contends for those who embrace the evangelical label, that the task is not to try to distance ourselves from our roots in order to be relevant but to recover them. In particular, he considers Carl F. H. Henry, and the model of his carefully argued work on epistemology, biblical authority and cultural engagement as worthy of reconsideration.

One thing each of these writers put their finger on is a contemporary uneasiness about or even active movement from central doctrines of the Christian faith. We associate dogma with dogmatism, which seems to be a cardinal sin–an intellectual rigidity about certain beliefs that seem to be “out of step” with modern times. The image is often of a sterility of belief divorced from a life of compassion. And what often seems now to be advocated is a life of compassionate concern for people and for the creation that mutes discussion of ideas and doctrines that may be “disagreeable” or “cause offense.”

The concern of these writers seems to be that when we make this move out of concern for relevance and not to cause offense, we run the risk of losing our “saltiness.” Salt in a wound may sting, but it also kills bacteria and preserves. The danger of moving away from dogma is that we move away from the faith altogether. Conversely, these authors would argue that it is the dogma that provides life and vibrancy and energizes Christian faithfulness.

Dorothy L. Sayers would agree. The title for this post is drawn from an essay by the same title. In her essay she writes about reaction to her play, The Zeal of Thy House:

“The action of the play involves a dramatic presentation of a few fundamental Christian dogmas — in particular, the application to human affairs of the doctrine of the Incarnation. That the Church believed Christ to be in any real sense God, or that the Eternal Word was supposed to be associated in any way with the work of Creation; that Christ was held to be at the same time Man in any real sense of the word; that the doctrine of the Trinity could be considered to have any relation to fact or any bearing on psychological truth, that the Church considered pride to be sinful, or indeed took notice of any sin beyond the more disreputable sins of the flesh: — all these things were looked upon as astonishing and revolutionary novelties, imported into the Faith by the feverish imagination of a playwright. I protested in vain against this flattering tribute to my powers of invention, referring my inquirers to the Creeds, to the Gospels, and to the offices of the Church; I insisted that if my play was dramatic, it was so, not in spite of the dogma but because of it — that, in short, the dogma was the drama.”

What I think Sayers is saying is that the real story of the Christian faith, embedded in the Creeds and Confessions of the Church, is indeed far more dramatic than anything she, or we, can come up with. True, these things may be presented in a “dry as dust” fashion. But Sayers would argue that the alternative to this is not relevance but chaos. Rather than mere religious sentiments, or inchoate beliefs we affirm, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth.”

I wonder if the contemporary aversion to doctrine comes in part from either the actual experience of, or more likely, media portrayals of orthodox and yet loveless believers, or the argumentativeness that is a theological form of chest-bumping. Far less common, it seems to me are the models of those who have thought long and deeply and wonderingly on such statements as, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day He rose again.” Such things can turn a life upside down, or right side up.

As I write, we are approaching Holy Week, where the Church remembers and re-tells the story of Christ’s most amazing week, from the Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem to the Last Supper to arrest and trial and crucifixion, the Saturday of waiting and the incredible news, shared first with the women at Jesus grave, “He is not here, He is risen!” It is the story we summarize in the Creed. But it probes us as we wonder, “why did Jesus die? And what do I do with one who undoes and conquers death?” When has anything occurred with greater significance? What could be more dramatic?

The dogma is the drama.

Should Taxpayers Support Arts and Humanities?

It has been widely reported that our current administration is proposing to completely cut the budgets of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This would mean cuts of $148 million to each of these agencies. According to an article on Snopes, the combined total represents 0.006 percent of the Federal budget or less than $1 per person.

I have to be honest. I’m deeply torn about this. The creation of great works of art in all its forms–visual, performance, written–is one that lifts us above what is often a “least common denominator aesthetics” of the marketplace. They capture both the greatest aspirations and painful realities of our human condition. Furthermore, there is a role of the humanities in educating us for citizenship, for our common life in the republic. The website of the National Endowment for the Humanities states:

“Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”

Their work of creating and preserving culture includes funding resulting in seven thousand books, sixteen of which have won Pulitzer prizes. Did you like the Civil War series? NEH funding helped make that possible. We have a set of bookshelves in our living room filled with Library of America works by the best of America’s writers. NEH made that possible. Over 63.3 pages of newspaper have been digitally archived through the United States Newspaper Project. It can be asked how we can possibly aspire to greatness as a nation if we do not know our story.

Unless our object is to become a nation of barbarians, it seems to me that it is unarguable that we must continue to support our arts and letters. But it seems to me that this begs the question, should this be via government agency through compulsory taxation? And this is where I’m torn. Our 20 trillion dollar deficit (nearly $61,000 per person) tells me that we expect far more government than we are willing to pay for. Now the $300 million for these two agencies is just a drop in the bucket, even while we expand spending on our military and propose to build a hugely expensive border wall.  But if we aren’t willing to pay more taxes, we have to cut somewhere and truthfully, most of the rest is entitlements for both rich and poor, as well as our defense spending.

I wonder if it is time to make agencies like NEA and NEH into private foundations and to encourage private philanthropy to invest in the arts. One thinks of the Gates Foundation, which has given away as much as $5 billion to causes it supports in a single year. I for one would be happy if most of the money spent on political campaigns were given to the arts instead. Instead of the grief of robo-calls and endlessly coarse and repetitive advertising, we could have great art and great ideas. Probably not going to happen, but I can dream.

On a more serious note, my home town of Youngstown has a nationally known museum of American art because an industrial magnate made it possible to build an outstanding collection and provide free admission. Will a new generation of philanthropy step forward to fill the gap and sustain our artistic greatness? Could some of our wealthiest citizens step forward and replace what may be lost to budget cuts?

But support of the arts is not just for the rich. Most of us can think of at least one arts organization or artist that has given us joy. It could be a community arts center. You might do like a friend of mine and set aside money to buy original works of art and start your own art collection. Maybe it is your local public radio station. Perhaps it is a poet just starting to publish their work. I sing with a choral group, and I know that our ticket sales only cover a small portion of our budget. The joy of making great music together makes it worth investing not only my time but my money. Do you know that if just one million of us contributed $25 a month to such efforts, it would equal the budget cuts we have been talking about? And many of us could do more.

There is something else that can come of more of us personally supporting the arts and humanities. We tend to pay attention to what we invest in. We get to know artists and writers whose work we like. We come to understand what it means to give birth to works of beauty, and what many of these people sacrifice to do so. We break the walls of impersonality that have separated artists from the rest of us and enrich each other’s lives.

On one hand, I wonder why trifle over such a “drop in the bucket” when we propose to spend huge amounts on a wall that I doubt will make us any safer (the “really bad dudes” tend to have lots of money to circumvent things like walls). But I also wonder if organizations like NEA and NEH might be better off, and more accountable to the public, if they cut their ties with government. I can see why not all taxpayers get paying taxes, even a minuscule amount, for such things. Why not let those who do more directly support such efforts, and other arts organizations and artists from national to local levels. What is stopping us?

 

 

Word Care as Culture Care

Caring for WordsAs a reader, a singer, and a writer I love words. I love that moment when I find just the right word or sequence of words to convey a thought. I love when we find the right words to give a name to something a group I’m a part of is trying to express. I delight in the varieties of expression I find in great writing. There is the spartan economy of a Hemingway, the rich description of a Tolkien, and the evocative writing of Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country that makes you realize how much he loved South Africa, and grieved for her. Last year I found myself moved to tears at the sheer beauty of words set to music in Ola Gjeilo’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

I’ve written recently about the idea of culture care instead of culture war and Makoto Fujimura’s fine book on Culture Care. I am in the midst of another book that explores this theme, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesSome might think that the book was just published in a political season where accusations of lying seems rampant. Rather, it came out of the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre covers the range of ways we might care for words in conversation, in long sentences(!), in poetry and story, in reading and writing well, and in resisting lies and telling truth. I’m finding every page a rich reflection on the use and power and wonder of words, and the necessity of using them well. She speaks to me, and for me when she writes in the beginning:

“If you’ve ever loved and learned a poem by heart, or underlined sentences just because they were beautiful, or labored over a speech about something that mattered, I know we share the concerns and the pleasures of stewards who recognize that we hold a great treasure in trust. It is my hope that a sentence here and there will start a conversation or encourage some of you to speak the truth that is in you, to find a sentence that suffices in a hard time, or simply listen into the silences where the best words begin.”

Word care is indeed an important part of culture care. To care for words, to expose their deceitful use, and to strive in our own use to speak truly and well is the work of those who realize the stewardship of a “great treasure in trust.” Words can be used to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or to our basest instincts. Words can commend what is most noble in thought and character and deed, or they can be used to pollute our minds, debase our character, and bid us to sordid acts. Words can edify or tear down. How we use words can strengthen the warp and woof of a culture or rend the garment of our life together.

Words matter.

For those who claim to follow Christ, we claim to follow one spoken of by John as “the Word.” He is the one who equated contemptuous words with murder. His brother James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV). Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, ESV).

This gives me pause. I speak and converse and write a good bit. It is all an open book to God. Whether it is “petty” deception or cutting speech, it will be accounted for. By the same token, I take great encouragement that gracious words, or maybe even the restraint from the gratuitous cheap shot will receive God’s “well done.” Proverbs 16: 24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words well-spoken contribute to the health of a culture and enjoy the approbation of God.

I hope I can live up to this at Bob on Books. When I write about books, I want to portray them accurately so that the prospective reader is not misled, and the author can say I understood what he or she was trying to say, whether I agree with that or not. I aspire to use words with care, both in the art and the intent of the writing. I hope I can inspire those who read me to the love of words, both in books and life, and to a better conversation about all the things that make up our life and culture. And I long that my words might at least dimly reflect the beauty of the God I love and the unspeakable grandeur of the future hope that grounds my life, that others might long with me for these things.

This to me is to care for words.

 

 

Reflections on “The Future of Work”

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Derek Thompson (far right) and panelists at “Future of Work” Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

The other day, I ordered food at my favorite Panera without talking to a person. A kiosk allowed my to swipe “My Panera” card, greeted me by name on screen, displayed the menu by categories, allowed me to select items, check out and make a payment with my credit card. A receipt was emailed to me. It took people to prepare my food, but only one person was working checkout. Most people were using kiosks.

A few years ago, three or four people would have been doing what the kiosks did. My experience illustrated what several speakers at an event I helped host Tuesday evening were exploring. Work is changing, and automation in various forms is either changing our work, or requiring that we change jobs, if we can.

The event was called “The Future of Work.” Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic moderated a discussion with three academics, a development economist, a labor economist, and a marketing and information technology professor. It was a rich conversation that opened my eyes to some vitally important issues.

Thompson came to my attention a year ago when he wrote an article titled “A World Without Work.” It explored what happens when technology change and market forces put people out of work. And significantly for me, the article centered around time he spent in my home town of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that knows all too well the dislocations of the loss of jobs, shrinking from a high of 170,000 people when I was young to just over 60,000 at present. Talking personally with Derek, we talked about the “Youngstown diaspora” in my own city of Columbus, Ohio, which has a growing rather than shrinking population. We noted how so many who could leave Youngstown, because of education and other factors, did so, and how this changed the fabric of the city, and so many others like it.

Thompson, both in his talk, and in the article made the observation that “many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” One of our panelists, reflecting his Christian beliefs (it was a religiously diverse group) noted that work came before the fall in Genesis. It reflects something of what humans made in the image of God are like. God worked, and it seems work, as well as rest, is important to being human. It was after the fall that work got laborious and frustrating, hence the tension we live in between not always liking our work, but hating not working more.

The panel explored the implications this raises in a world where technology might both put people out of work, and possibly mean others will work less. What will we do with the disparities of income between those who profit tremendously from either making the technology or using it to entertain–and the others who don’t? They explored the idea of the “universal basic income”– a guaranteed level of income for all whether they have employment or not. Most were pretty ambivalent or even opposed to this idea–kind of like society rather than parents supporting us while we live in our basement playing video games.

Another question that was discussed was what will we do should we need to work less to earn sufficient income on which to live? Will we just consume? Or will we find other ways to work, perhaps to create things, or to serve others? Or will we work and earn more than we need, simply because work is what we do? There is a question of what a life well-lived looks like should remunerative work be less of a necessity.

One of the clearest things to come out of the night is that many jobs face automation. Thompson had us consider clerical workers, for example the grocery clerk who grabs an item, scans an item, bags an item, and repeats. There might be some good that comes out of eliminating hard, repetitive, and tedious work. But automation is spreading far beyond this. We are talking about computers driving cars and trucks on one hand, and computers doing radiological diagnostics on the other. It is either people in the service economy doing very relational things with other humans, or people in the knowledge industry, those who create, maintain, or utilize the technology, who will be the last to be automated. Computers do not compose great music or write great books–or invent iPads!

Even if new technology creates as many jobs as it eliminates (about which I am uncertain), the people who lose a livelihood are in great pain. Such things raise questions about what kinds of inner resources do we cultivate against such possibilities, and also what kind of society will we be when change causes such dislocation and pain. Will we be a zero sum society with winners and losers, or will we find ways to stand with those who suffer–to make our neighbor’s pain our own and get through it together?

It seems to me that we cannot afford either a mentality of entitlement for ourselves or indifference to our neighbors. Our families, our schools and our religious institutions alike need to form people to embrace change rather than to hate it or cling to the familiar past. Perhaps it is the bedrock of belief that enables us to cope with the changes in our environment. It is a danger that some of our panelists discussed, that we make work, especially in a particular career, that bedrock. Yet, in a time of great change, this is shaky ground at best. Do we not need something else that gives us the wherewithal to grow and change, grieve and embrace, and discover an abiding joy that sustains us through the changes of life, including changes in how we work? The truth is, none of us knows what the future holds. For some, the answer is in the cliche’ of “knowing Who holds the future.” Whether you buy that or not, the changing world of work poses the question of “what grounds my life?”

[Derek Thompson, in addition to his editorial post at The Atlantic, is the author of the recently published Hit Makers, reviewed here.]