Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Imperial Prosperity Update

An article on BBC News reports Mexican protests over rising tortilla prices. At least some people fear that growing U.S. demand for ethanol is behind the price increase, which could lead to serious malnutrition among Mexico's poor.

The Imperial Security Story

Part 3 in my discussion of David Korten's Alternative Radio speech based on The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Communities....

My first reaction was that I didn't have much to say about the "imperial security story." It seemed like such a banal critique of the current American situation with names removed in a weak attempt to claim it as a universal feature of empire. But after giving it just a very little bit more reflection, I can't believe I thought that.

True, in our current political climate the fear of enemies is more openly used to force people to love the imperial security story than at any time I can remember, but this is truly an archetypal story. In fact, I think it's possible that this idea, the idea that security comes through power and might, is the most frequently argued against concept in the entire Bible.

The Exodus story establishes the Biblical prototype as God delivers the Israelite slaves from the mighty Egyptian empire. After the armies of Pharoah were drowned at the Red Sea, the Israelites sang, "I will sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation." (Ex. 15:1-2)

But it's a lesson that must constatly be relearned. When Samuel is conceived his mother Hannah sings to the Lord, "The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength." (1 Sam 2:4) But within Samuel's lifetime the people are asking for a king like other nations.

As the Assyrian empire rises, Sennecherib's representative tells the people of Jerusalem:
Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: "Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree, and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive oil and honey, that you may live and not die. Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The Lord will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered its land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?"
-2 Kings 18:28-35
This is the other side of the imperial security story. If you're weak, submit to our empire and we'll give you security. Yet throughout all of this, the prophets kept telling the kings of Judah not to give up and not to seek military allies but to trust in God. Their advice must surely have sounded insane. Just wait? Really? But the point is this: military strength does not bring security.

If there was any doubt where God stands on this issue, it should be cleared up in the story of Jesus. Jesus was born into the world of the Pax Romana. By its military might, the Roman Empire had brought peace and security to all who would submit to them. A letter from this time speaks of Caesar Augustus as "Savior":
[T]he Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order....
But in the backwoods of Galilee, a young woman sings of God, "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:51-52) And how does this happen? By the weakness and humilation of the Cross.

And the Cross is the key to all of this. As you read the Biblical invectives against relying on power and strength, it's easy to move it into a theology of glory and transfer your reliance to "the power and strength of our God" but still thought of as power and strength in the traditional sense. And from there it is a short and inevitable step for a powerful nation to march with God on their side -- "Gott mit uns" as the German belt buckle read in both world wars. But the Cross will have none of this.

It is utterly amazing to me how quickly we progressed from the cross as a symbol of God's strength in weakness to the imperial story of "In this sign, conquer." It is shocking how a generation of Christians who had persisted in their faith through severe persecution allowed it to be said. And it is disheartening that after centuries of "reformation" their are still people who tout a "Christian nation" that would spread "democracy" by military force and make the bald-faced claim that our security depends on military strength.

An Even Better Communion Story

Speaking of stories, I shared the story of my daughter's first communion with some people from my congregation last night. One of the women told me the story of her daughter's first communion -- at the same congregation but a number of years ago.

Her daughter, like mine, saw that how you held your hands was the key to receiving the host but every week the pastor would simply give her a blessing, and every week she would make a grumpy face. One week, after blessing her and moving on, he noticed her grumpy face, said to himself, "I just can't do that," and stepped back and gave her the bread.

At this point, she held the host over her head and shouted, "I got it!"

We should all be so happy every week!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Imperial Prosperity Story

Continuing my discussion of David Korten's Alternative Radio speech based on The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Communities....

Toward the end of his talk Korten emphasizes that the core of his ideas represent values shared by a super-majority of Americans. They are, he says, neither specifically conservative nor specifically liberal values. I think this is true, but his economic perspective tends to undermine whatever support he might hope to find among conservatives.

I read somewhere that liberalism is entirely based on ignorance of basic economic facts. This is, of course, untrue. It would be more to the point to say that liberals just aren't willing to subjugate all of our values to these basic economic facts. And this is one of Korten's main points.

Unfortunately, Korten's views fall under the broad label of Malthusian economics, and in many circles this means that once the label is applied, these views can be openly mocked without actually being engaged.

In particular, a lot of Korten's doomsaying turns on the assumption that the world is about to run out of cheap oil and that as it does the infrastructure of our economy will be broken as long haul transports become infeasible and our Walmarts and similar businesses become "stranded assets" as we no longer have cars to take us to them.

This is the particularly Malthusian bit, and it exhibits the classic Malthusian weakness -- it underestimates the progress of technology. As I write, the technology behind renewable energy sources is stepping up to the challenge of eliminating oil dependency without requiring changes to our patterns of behavior. Ever increasingly efficient wind farms and solar energy plants are making other technologies like hydrogen cell vehicles suddenly practical.

But this is relatively incidental to Korten's critique of "the imperial prosperity story." The suggestion that the machine is destined to wear itself out is only brought up to give urgency to the need for change. The fact is the real problem is with the intrinsic injustice of the economic system.

Korten's view are largely the product of his experience working in developing nations, initially working to bring the gospel of capitalism to these nations, but then changed as he saw the effects of American consumerism on people in other lands. "It is axiomatic once you think about it," Korten says, "for a few to be on the top, the many must be on the bottom." Pushing the point even further he says, "conventional economic growth indicators too often measure the rate at which productive resources of the poor are being appropriated by the rich and converted to garbage."

So here we've reached the point where economic theory slams into ethics. Is it really true that everyone eventually benefits from a growing economy, or does free market capitalism necessarily involve a group of people somewhere being crushed beneath the wheel?

Honestly, I don't know. There's compelling evidence on both sides. I feel like a better economic model is needed.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Telling Stories

Since I've probably already put myself on some double-secret CIA watchlist by visiting the Alternative Radio website, there's probably no further harm in blogging about it. The Alternative Radio program last week featured David Korten talking about some ideas from his book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Communities (see also, this excerpt). It intrigued me enough that I bought the MP3 version and have been trying to digest it over the past few days. As much to clarify my own thoughts about it as anything, I'm going to post a series of reflections on this speech.

One idea really caught my attention. After describing the pressing problems facing America today (consumerism, imperialism, environmental destruction, etc.), Korten makes the bold claim that the key to changing all this is changing the stories by which we define ourselves. Korten identifies three main "stories" that collectively form the foundation of our current "Empire" self-understanding. These are:
  1. The imperial prosperity story -- The financial prosperity of our society relies on wealthy investors having enough free cash to finance the enterprises that create our jobs. As these investors seek to maximize their own gains, the "invisible hand" of the market translates this to the prosperity of us all. We, therefore, must relieve the wealthy of regulations and tax burdens that slow this process. Furthermore, we must eliminate welfare programs which confine the poor to poverty by denying them the motivation to be productive members of society.

  2. The imperial security story -- The world is full of criminals, terrorists and enemies. Our security relies on a powerful military and police force to control the chaos.

  3. The imperial meaning story -- God tells us to go forth and establish dominion over the earth. This God favors the righteous with wealth and power, while the poor justly suffer divine wrath for their sins. "We may not know what those sins were, but they must indeed have been horrendous." Meaning is found in obedience to God and to his appointed representatives.
"These imperial stories," Korten says, "all affirm the legitimacy of economic inequality, the use of physical force to impose the will of rulers, and the special righteousness of the rich and powerful." He then adds, "Although it may seem absurdly simple, the key to changing the course of the human future is to change the stories by which we live."

You can probably guess that it was the "imperial meaning story" that really grabbed me. I had the initial, red-blooded American, "who is this godless communist attacking religion" reaction, but it was quickly followed by the evangelical realization that this change of stories is precisely what the message of Jesus is all about. The "story" that Korten asks for isn't a new story, it's an "old, old story" but one that we Christians seem to habitually forget.

Over the next few days I intend to look at these imperial stories that Korten presents and offer my own personal responses, which I hope will largely be specificly Christian responses.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

First Communion

My youngest daughter (6 years old) received her first communion today. It was unplanned -- spontaneous even.

My congregation doesn't have a specific process for first communion. It's left more or less to the parents' discretion. I've been planning to wait until I thought she'd have some appreciation for it, at which time I would sit her down and explain the basic concepts and so on, and then the following Sunday we'd make a big deal of it. But apparently God had other plans.

Today my two daughters and I were standing at the altar steps waiting to receive the sacrament. The oldest and I were standing reverently with our hands cupped to receive the bread. My youngest, seeing that this is how it's done, did likewise. I was about to make her stop it, but I couldn't think of anything to say that wouldn't contradict everything I planned to tell her about communion. When the pastor came to us, he handed her the bread without hesitation.

Tonight we're going to be reading Daniel Erlander's excellent book, A Place for You, and celebrating the occassion.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Thought and Being

As I read St. Augustine's Enchiridion recently, I noticed a parallel with Descartes' famous dictum, cogito ergo sum. Augustine writes:
It is a question whether we ought to argue with those who profess themselves ignorant not only about the eternity yet to come but also about their present existence, for they [the Academics] even argue that they do not know what they cannot help knowing. For no one can "not know" that he himself is alive. If he is not alive, he cannot "not know" about it or anything else at all, because either to know or to "not know" implies a living subject.
-Enchiridion, VII, 20
Now, obviously I'm not the first to notice this. Today, having returned to Thomas Martin's book on Augustinian spirituality, Our Restless Hearts, I read Martin's account of the parallel, which was commented upon by Descartes' contemporaries, particularly his supporters. There are also parallels, I'm told, in Augustine's On Free Will and City of God. Apparently Descartes himself denied any direct dependency on Augustine. But Martin observes, "An irreparable breach would have been created in his argument by suggesting that he discovered the principle elsewhere than in the 'thinking self,' Descartes' thinking self, of course."

This is a really fascinating idea. I've always been pursuaded by Descartes' argument, but if the thought that "I am" comes from outside the self, then perhaps I am not, or at least the "I" that is may be much bigger than "I" think.

I'm quite curious about the concept of collective intelligence, and I may write more about this soon. The evidence seems quite strong that our thoughts are heavily conditioned by our experience and even our seemingly original thoughts are constructed from prior materials. All of which leads me to ponder what is truly fundamental to reality.

Augustine, addressing God, answers in the Confessions:
We, therefore, see these things which You made, because they are, but they are because You see them.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Food for the Journey

A story on NPR this morning discussed the "growing problem" of obesity among the French. Apparently, the French are breaking with their traditional meal practices and moving toward fast food. One researcher lamented the loss of the three traditional benefits of eating: nutrition, pleasure and community. Apparently, you lose all three with fast food.

I was particularly taken with the idea that the French (and obviously Americans too) are losing the benefit of eating as community. You hear a lot about the deterioration of the family caused by a lack of family meals, but even the family meal (which usually means nuclear family) is itself a potential enemy of the community meal. How often do modern familes invite others over for dinner anymore? My experience is that it just doesn't happen.

The gospel of Luke is famously replete with scenes of eating, but eating as a form of community is rapidly disappearing. We often joke about the Lutheran predilection for potlucks, but it seems to me we could do with a few more of them.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Greek Treasure

A short time ago I added Zack Hubert's Greek Verse of the Day script to my sidebar. I can't remember where I came across it. I put it there mainly to give myself a little Greek to practice with as I try to learn the grammar. At the time, when I clicked through to Zack's site, it came out formatted strangley with the text scrolled off the screen at the bottom and I didn't really give it a lot of thought.

Today I happened to click through and WOW! I don't know how many of the features are new. Maybe he just fixed the formatting and all of this has been there all along. But it's new to me and WOW!

Clicking on the Greek Verse of the Day link takes you in to a page that has a longer passage displayed with every word hyperlinked, giving a pop-up that shows the lexical form of the word, a basic definition and parsing information. That alone would make this site a treasure, whether you're learning Biblical Greek or just want to know what's behind the English translation for a particular passage. The site has basic passage lookup, so you can view any passage you like with the above features.

It also has a feature that lets you generate a vocabularly list, according to frequency of occurance, for any book of the Bible or range of passages. For instance, it will tell me all the words that occur 5 times or more in the book of James (58 of them), so I can hone my vocabulary before trying to read the book in Greek. I can't tell you how nice I think this feature is.

There are a number of other goodies that I haven't played with much, like a flashcard generator, a concordance (by Greek word!), and an analysis feature that shows, for instance, what percentage of a book uses the indicative voice.

I've just got to say I'm really impressed with this site, and can't believe how much I've apparently been overlooking.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Augustine, Man and Creation

There's a patristic wind flowing through the blogosphere these days. Derek at Haligweorc posted a plan for reading the Fathers and it inspired Lee to inaugurate his new blog with a series on St. Augustine's Enchiridion. I meanwhile, had already been reading Thomas Martin's book on Augustinian spirituality, Our Restless Heart, and feeling prodded by Lee's work and a comment that Annie made on Derek's blog about "digested history", I decided to also pull my copy of the Enchiridion off the shelf and go ad fontes as they say.

St. Augustine gets a really bad rap in certain circles, and I think that many times it's because of what people think he says more so than because of what he actually says. A popular position is to be against traditional Christianity because its doctrine of Original Sin devalues human dignity. Semi-informed people know enough to pin the blame for this one on Augustine.

In this light, I was very pleased with the section of the Enchiridion I read today. In approaching the problem of evil in humans, Augustine formulates a position that looks a lot like the traditional Lutheran simul iustus et peccator, except the saint ascribes goodness to the human as human before their meeting Christ.
We find this to be true in many, indeed in almost all contraries, that they cannot coexist in one thing simultaneously. But while nobody doubts that good and evil are contraries, not only can they exist simultaneously, but evils cannot exist at all without goods, and they can only exist in goods, although goods can exist without evils.
This is all Augustine's doctrine of creation and of evil as corruption of good. What is created is good simply because it was created by the supremely good God. But listen to how he deals with the question of human evil.
But what is an evil man if not an evil being, since man is a being? Moreover, if man is something good because he is a being, what is an evil man but an evil good? But when we make a distinction we find that he is not an evil because he is a man, nor is he a good because he is wicked, but he is a good because he is a man and an evil because he is wicked.
List to that again, a wicked man "is a good because he is a man and an evil because he is wicked."

The humanists who grumble about the doctrine of Original Sin tend to have a sort of romantic notion of the inherent goodness of humans. We are good because of the great and noble things of which we are capable. There's a "spark" of goodness at the core of our being. Augustine, though he might recognize a partial truth in the "spark," locates our goodness in God. We are good, essentially good, because we are God's creation. As long as we exist, this goodness remains. And yet Augustine's view allows full responsibility for our actions. Though remaining always good, we are also evil when we behave wickedly.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Verbal Abuse

When I was younger I had a theory that you can't really learn a foreign language past the age of ten. Then one of my cousins learned a foreign language to prove me wrong. Now I've revised my theory to I can't learn a foreign language past the age of ten.

As you may know, I'm trying to teach myself Koine Greek. I was doing well until summer vacation, which set me back nearly to where I started. I made another go at it and was back on track until Christmas vacation tripped me up again, though not as bad as summer.

Now picking it up again, I've discovered why Bill Mounce puts verbs off until chapter 18 of his book. If he had started with verbs, I would have given up right away! Different roots in different tenses, key letters dropping out between vowels, rules getting treated more like guidelines.... Whose idea was this stuff anyway?

I'm sure if I had grown up speaking Koine Greek this would all make sense, like the irregularities in English do. As it is, it's making me nuts.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On the Road?

I just happened to notice that I've had three (now four) completely unrelated posts that I titled "On the Road" in the past year. I guess I just can't quite get Kerouac to leave my brain.

Monday, January 08, 2007


The universe, it has been observed, is a very, very, very big place. Cyberspace, though not a place in the strictest sense, is also fairly large. When you perform a search on Google, for instance, it searches something in the neighborhood of 20 billion web pages. This is a fairly staggering figure if you think about it. Web pages outnumber people on the earth by about three-to-one.

Given that figure, it might seem that any given corner of cyberspace would be fairly insignificant. And yet.... And yet, it appears that random people keep coming across my blog (and I assume everyone with a blog sees this same thing). Mostly, they seem to come here from Google. This never ceases to fascinate me. I've posted on this before, but I came across something today that surprised me enough that I just have to share it.

As of today, if you perform a Google search for What's wrong with the four spiritual laws, the number one result in the list is an entry from my blog. That's not a blog search -- it's a straight search of the entire Internet. Now, strangley, this top result is a post on Lutheranism, with my actual post entitled "What's Wrong with the Four Spiritual Laws?" listed as a sub-result, but there it is.

Google's mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." In my experience, their results tend to weight blogs too heavily (probably because of the tendency of bloggers to crosslink to one another, which plays into Google's search algorithm) so we could perhaps equivocate over the definition of "information." Nevertheless, it's an extraordinary result. I, "poor stinking bag of maggots that I am," post my idiosyncratic opinion on a well-established pillar of conservative evangelism, and, thanks to Google, several people a week find it.

It's just weird.

Friday, January 05, 2007

How Lutheran Are You?

I came across this in a post by Brobrooz on Beliefnet. I expect it will spread quickly.

You are 93% Lutheran! This is most certainly true.

Nicely done! Martin would be proud of you! You may or may not have room for growth in understanding Lutheran terminology and culture. Good thing Salvation is by Grace and not by merit. We can add nothing to what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. But it never hurts to learn a little more about the church on earth. Thanks for taking the quiz!

How Lutheran Are You?
Create a Quiz

I was born on Reformation Day, I have a press-on of Luther's rose on my car's rear windshield, and the ringtone on my phone is "Patrem Omnipotentem" from Bach's Mass in B Minor, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to see that I rated very, very Lutheran.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Church Repentant

I was thinking today about the metaphors of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. These ideas have fallen into disfavor in many circles for basically sound reasons, but I think we lose something if we just toss them aside without replacing them.

The primary problem with the Church Militant metaphor is that somewhere along the line we forgot who we were fighting and what we were fighting for. The strength of the metaphor is that it emphasizes the fact that the Christian life is a struggle, not just individually but also corporately. While the Church may be a city on a hill, it isn't just basking in the sunshine. Christ calls us to hard work. The weakness of the metaphor is that it too easily gives way to them false notion that the purpose of the struggle is to conquer the world for Christ. It gives the impression that we (the insiders) are "the good guys" and everyone else (the outsiders) are "the bad guys." The Church Militant starts to look like the Church Triumphant-in-Many-Places-and-Working-on-the-Rest. That is, in our scope of influence we've already won (contra Phillipians 3:13).

Following the Reformation, Protestants offered the idea of ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church is always reforming. This is good in as much as it reminds us of our constant need for self-examination. The danger, however, is that it presumes an ideal state of the Church. In fact, the implicit suggestion is often that the only reason the Church is always in need of reforming is that we need to fix the things we have broken and get back to some previous state when everything was right. Though posing as a dynamic view of the Church, semper reformanda too easily becomes a slogan of ideally static ecclesiology.

I would like to suggest the metaphor of the Church Repentant. It's been used before, but not much and perhaps not in the sense I mean. Thesis number one of Luther's 95 Theses was this: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent!' he meant for the Christians whole life to be one of repentance." Lutherans have generally taken this to mean not the stopping of individual infractions (and hence a return to some hypothetical perfect state) but rather a constant turning toward God. The Benedictine idea of conversatio morum, the commitment to being open to change and growth, is useful here.

These ideas of repentance and conversatio are typically applied to the individual, but I think we need to grow them and apply them to the Church as a whole. We need an ecclesiology in which the Church itself makes a commitment to growth and change in Christ. Our calling is not to maintain or return to a state of glorious perfection but to move forward and to be open to what God would have us be today.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

On the Road

"If we don't know where we are going, any road will get us there."
-Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in 10,000 Places

The saying above is probably best considered proverbial, but I attribute it to Eugene Peterson because of the context he provides for it in the introduction to his book, Christ Plays in 10,000 Places.

The saying, as applied to spirituality, leads me immediately to think of that class of people who are "spiritual but not religious." There are a handful of ideas that just bounce around in my mind like flies that won't go away no matter how many times I swat at them, and the idea of being "spiritual but not religious" is one of them. My natural inclination is to try to find a way to get a handle on them so I can properly squash them. The challenge is to resist that tendency and instead seek a better understanding. The above saying in Peterson's book gave me a sort of skeleton key that I could use for either purpose.

It's quite easy to apply the saying derisively to those who reject any formal religion, and this is probably in line with the proverbial spirit of the saying. The "spiritual but not religious" are a bunch of blind wanderers who are going nowhere and this saying is another club I can bash them with.

But the saying subtly offers more than that. Viewed positively, the road will get us "there." Where? Well, who knows...but somewhere. It's about the journey not the destination. You have to appreciate the importance of the trip. When I drove my family across the country this summer, I kept telling them, "We aren't going somewhere; we are somewhere." And this is a point easily missed with regard to the spiritual journey.

As Peterson observes, despite the declining popularity of religion, we live in a time in which there is enormous interest in spirituality. I don't think this can really be considered a bad thing. Obviously, I'm not about to become "spiritual but not religious" myself, nor do I think it's the best course for anyone else. (I haven't yet tamed the annoying fly.) But there's good in it. I might even, grudgingly, say it's good.

It seems to me that the best thing the Church can do in this age of freelance spirituality is to stay faithful to our traditions, to remain available while continuing to offer what we've always offered. I suggested somewhere that we may be entering a time when Christian congregations play a role in society similar to that played by monasteries in the early middle ages -- an example and a guide in the midst of chaos.

Our culture is determined to explore the spiritual landscape. That's not such a bad thing. When I was 20, I did the same and eventually found my way back to the Church. I ended up on the right road, but I took the scenic route -- and I learned some interesting things along the way.