April 21, 2014

The Christian Life (Book Review Series): Every Good Endeavor

What does it mean to be a Christian in this life? What does it look like? How do we live as Christians? These are important and difficult questions. Over the last couple of years, I have read several books on Christian living. Most of them have been very helpful. So, this is part of a series reviewing some of these books. You can see my first post in this series on Pilgrim's Progress here. In this post, I will review Timothy Keller's book, Every Good Endeavor

In Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller partners with  Katherine Alsdorf to address the Christian's vocation. (In this review, I'll refer to this as Keller's work and words, as a short-hand). Katerine Alsdorf's name is less known than Tim Keller's, but her role says something about the importance of and intention of this book; she is Redeemer Presbyterian's (the church Keller pastors) director for the Center of Faith and Work. Keller urges his readers to consider such ministries at their own church and lives. His stated purpose is to "feed your imagination and stir your action with the richness of what the Christian faith says (directly and indirectly) about this inexhaustible subject" (p. 24).

The structure of the book is telling in terms of Keller's theological framework for vocation. The first part (four chapters) is titled "God's Plan for Work" and includes discussions on God's intention for work. The second section (four chapters) is titled "Our  Problems with Work" and includes discussions on how sin (e.g., making work an idol) and the effects of sin (e.g., the frustrations of work) impact our work. The final section titled "The Gospel and Work" (four chapters and an epilogue) provides a discussion  on re-conceptualizing work under the Gospel and even specific examples of what this would mean in various fields of work.  In case the section titles are not obvious enough, Keller uses the creation--fall--redemption/recreation categories to describe work.

If the point was to "feed [my] imagination," the task was accomplished--home run style! My copy is highlighted and annotated. Keller is profoundly thoughtful, rich in wisdom, and deeply engaging with a smooth, easy-to-read delivery-style.

As I understood the work, Keller sees the Christian's vocation as something that is redeeming the culture and the world along side of Christ, something that will appear and build (or be built into) the new creation. Christians do this by turning work into a Christ-like approach to serve others. Keller says that "our daily work can be a calling only if it is reconceived as God's assignment to serve others." (p. 66). While Keller offers some interesting ways of doing work differently as a Christian, Keller's most striking call is to think about work differently.

As someone who is sympathetic and partial to a 2k theology, I am skeptical about the soundness of parts of this thinking, even while I was (and am) profoundly inspired by it. I am skeptical about the work that I do as part of the new creation or re-creation/redemption. I am more confident in the completed work of the cross (John 19:30) and the home Christ builds (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-4) than I am in my own work as redemptive. On a practical level, many in the secular, non-Christian world see work as a service and preform that service very well. I find that they do work-as-service better in some incidents. As such, service to others may not be the distinctive mark for Christian work.

However, Keller raises several points that I want to affirm. Sin has destroyed work, and we need to draw our attention to how we make work and the fruits of our work (i.e., money) idols. We should also be more thoughtful in serving God in our work (Colossians 3:17). The Gospel really does change everything, not just religious things, as Keller notes. It should change the way we work, the way we interact with others, and all aspect of our lives. While I don't know how or if work plays a role in redemptive history, I am convinced that all should be given over to Christ. Even if our daily work--the actual behavioral tasks--do not change, Keller raised my consciousness about my work's relationship to God and the Gospel profoundly, and for what it's worth, I found myself approaching my work differently after reading the book.

April 15, 2014

Against the Bundy Ranch Standoff

There is some jubilation about the, so-called or seeming, victory in the Bundy Ranch standoff. For now, the federal agents have backed down. It might seem that the libertarian's natural position would be on the side of the rancher. Not me. Bundy's position is very unwise, not productive, and very un-libertarian.

First, Bundy's standoff against federal agents with militia and other armed citizens is downright dangerous. The simple fact is that the government is an institution of force, and the U.S. government, in particular, is an institution of extreme strength. The risk of running into a violent and very deadly escalation is great here. I'm revealed that shots were not fired, and the violence that did take place was relatively mild.

Second, it is unproductive because I suspect that Harry Reid is right: "it's not over." This man owes the government a good deal of money. The government will get it. There are a number of causes that need libertarians' voices. Supporting armed standoffs with the federal government over use of federal land is (a) diverting attention from real libertarian concerns (see below) and (b) is not the way to be considered as a serious and rationale voice in these discourses.

Third, the land belongs to to the federal government, and Bundy owe's fees to the property owners for use of their land. Opposing the use of paying property owners for the use of land is decidedly un-libertarian. In anticipation of some possible objections, I am not arguing that the government should be land-owners (and massive land-owners at that). I am also not interested, in this case, whether this is a state or a federal issue; as far as I can tell, this is federal land. I am also not considering how the federal government came to own that land (e.g., voluntary purchase vs. seizure vs. eminent domain). How they received the land is absolutely a libertarian concern, but as it stands now, the government owns it. As such, it is not a premise I am considering in my argument. The libertarian solution to this should not be to pretend that land-owners can't put a price on the use of their land; the solution is to privatize everything. As Ron Paul said, "This is a typical example of when everyone owns a piece of land and no one does all at the same time."

April 10, 2014

The Christian Life (Book Review Series): Pilgrim's Progress

"He who walks with wise men will be wise..." (Prov. 14:20a)
What does it mean to be a Christian in this life? What does it look like? How do we live as Christians? These are important and difficult questions. Over the last couple of years, I have read several books on Christian living. Most of them have been very helpful. So, this is part of a series reviewing some of these books.

In this first post, I will review the most recent book that I've read, Pilgrim's Progress. Because it was recent helps me to remember better, but one of the major themes of the books makes this review particularly appropriate to begin this series.

Pilgrim's Progress is a literary classic, in general, and a classic in Christian literature, in particular. John Bunyan's classic work is an allegorical tale of the Christian life. It follows the life of a man named Christian, who comes to realize that his city will be destroyed by God. He leaves his family and friends, who believe that he is crazy or temporarily distressed, to seek safety in Celestial City. Along the way, Christian finds the cross of Jesus, where his burden falls off his back. Throughout his journey, he faces trials in the bog of despair and the valley of the shadow of death; he meets those who have fallen asleep or are unsuccessfully attempting a different path on their journeys to Celestial City; and he meets those that provide encouragement and companionship.

Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated by the idea of picking up Pilgrim's Progress to read. I would suggest picking up a good version of this book. I read this one put out by Moody Publishers in today's English. The style is still not as contemporary as one might find in a modern novel at the bookstore, but the language was quite accessible. (The book also contains both parts of Pilgrim's Progress; the more well known journey of Christian and the lesser known journey of Christian's wife). The other fear might be the allegorical nature of the story, but one does not need to be a PhD in literature to understand the allegories. They are not hidden. The character, Faithful, is the man who accompanies Christian to the end of his journey, Evangelist is the person who sets Christian on his journey, and Interpreter helps Christian understand Scripture. There is Piety, Charity, Talkative; you get the idea. Indeed, instead of an intimidating book with dry language, I found it to be a book that was quite engaging and spoke deeply to me about the Christian life.

Two  important points emerged for me. First, I was struck by the fact that this book raised my consciousness about the sin in my life. I was saddened by the fact that I could identify parts of myself with the city of Vanity Fair, whose citizens are enamored with the things of this world. It is easier on my ego and sense of self to identify with the hero of the book, Christian, who despite his errors and mishaps, faithfully and ultimately continues on his Christian journey, gaining steam towards a more Christ-like walk. But I would challenge the reader to reflect on the other characters too.

The second theme that emerged from the book was that the Christian pilgrimage is not a solo affair. There are many people who enter our lives that provide encouragement, strength, and examples. Indeed, as I initiate this series, it is important to point out that Scripture holds the ultimate answers to those questions raised at the beginning: what does it mean to be a Christian in this life? What does it look like? How do we live as Christians?; however, there are those along our path--my path--that have provided insight, encouragement, and examples in pointing to Christ-like living. In that spirit, I begin this series, and I hope you find it helpful in the way I've found most of these books helpful and the way I anticipate reflecting on these books will be helpful to me.

PS: Below is a video of Dr. Derek Thomas discussing Pilgrim's Progress at the 2014 Ligonier Conference. He has recently completed a series on Pilgrim's Progress there.

March 29, 2014

R. C. Sproul: "Why Apologestics?"

The Freedom of Moral Conscious

The Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc case that came before the Supreme Court this week is an important case. In brief, Hobby Lobby objects to the Affordable Care Act's (aka, "Obama-Care") requirement to pay for (some forms of) contraception. They don't object to all forms, but some that they believe are abortive in nature, thus violating their religious beliefs.

In one sense, this case challenges the future of "Obama-care" in its full weight. Simply said: if Hobby Lobby wins, it places a limitation on the law; if Hobby Lobby loses, it provides powerful support for the full extent of the law. Indeed, some fear that this might be the string that unravels the whole thing. "[Justice] Kagan worrie[s] that 'religious objectors [would] come out of the woodwork' if the corporations prevailed, and that courts would have to grant presumptive exemptions to any aspect of federal law to which any owner expressed a sincere religious objection," reports The Economist. Some have even suggested that this is Hobby Lobby's back-door way of getting out of complying with the healthcare law.

The case goes beyond the narrow issue of government-managed healthcare, though. It raise to the forefront the overall issue of government's role in society. It shows that extending that role beyond its proper bounds creates problems.

The primary problem created by government overreach in this case is that the government is violating people's moral conscious. The court seems to be side-stepping this matter by shifting the question from "can we allow the law to violate people's conscious?" to "whose conscious can we violate?". The Economist further reports, "Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked [during the hearing]: 'How do we determine when a corporation has [a] belief? Who says it? The majority of shareholders?'" This is the wrong question to ask because the same question Justice Sotomayor raised might be reversed: how do we determine the limits of a corporation's moral conscious? Should it be the majority of justices?

That we are in this moral quagmire should not be all that surprising. The State may be able to play the religiously-neutral party as the public square within the narrow confines of its proper boundaries, but it will quickly find itself forced to to make a move that has religious implications when it steps beyond that role. Indeed, playing the role of a prognosticator for the moment, this will be just one of several moral issues raised by this law.

Thus, freedom is not a utilitarian issue; it is not that free markets work better (even if they do, as I believe). Freedom is a matter of principle and a moral matter because, as this case clearly illustrates, when the government extends itself beyond its bounds, it places itself amongst moral issues. I've spent a good deal of time and written a lot of words on this blog in defense of freedom. The issue is important, not because it is an end to itself (it's not the answer to all problems of this world), but it is important because liberty prevents such moral quagmires. Let me illustrate this latter point briefly by addressing two objections raised against Hobby Lobby.

One objection has been that Hobby Lobby shouldn't be able to make decisions about women's birth control. This is not even the issue on the table, though. Hobby Lobby is not preventing their employees from using birth control of any type. Its simply saying that it doesn't want to pay for it. Hobby Lobby just doesn't want to participate in something it disagrees with. If Hobby Lobby wins, women have the freedom to do as they will, and Hobby Lobby has the freedom to maintain the integrity of their conscious; if the government wins, Hobby Lobby is forced to violate their conscious or effectively go out of business.

Another objection has been that Hobby Lobby's concerns are incorrect. The claim is that these birth-control methods are not abortive. Jon Stewart says,  "So let me get this straight, corporations aren't just people, they're ill-informed people, whose factually incorrect beliefs must be upheld because they sincerely believe them." It may be that they are incorrect, but the issue is not as cut-and-dry as critics would like you to believe. It is a matter of interpretation about when life begins. This underscores the larger point here. It doesn't matter if you agree; it is a matter of personal and moral consciousness.

Both of these objections, then, demonstrate that when the government extends its bounds beyond its proper role, freedom, including freedom of consciousness, is violated. Conversely, it is only when the government stays within its proper confines that liberty, personal conscious, and justice is allowed.