Saturday, May 26, 2007

Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual: "Beholding the Glory: The Incarnation and the Arts", edited by Jeremy Begbie

This was a textbook for a Church Worship class taught at Wesley Biblical Seminary by one of my favorite professors, Steve Blakemore. I audited the class and did not read much of the assigned texts, including this one. To tell the truth, I was expecting to dislike this book, but reading it was truly an unexpected treat. I had expected it to be filled with pretentious language by writers intent on impressing their collegues. And there was some. But despite this, there was much good theology stated in plain but creative ways.
The book consists of eight essays which attempt to explain how theology (the Incarnation and the Trinity in particular) can be explored through various artistic mediums. Each essay deals with one kind of art form: poetry, literature, music, etc. All essays but one (the exception being the one on sculpture) were good. And even if some of them did not totally succeed in its aim(such as the essay on dance), the time spent with them is worthwhile. The best essay is the last, written by the editor, Jeremy Begbie. In his essay Begbie confronts the difficulty some have in dealing with the Incarnation. One of the difficulties is that man tries to think of the Incarnation strictly in visual terms. The problem can be stated this way: "How can Divinity and Humanity co-exist together in the same space? Wouldn't the Divine nature swollow up the human?" Yet space need not be have to be conceived visually. When one plays a key on a piano, while the source of the sound can be known, the sound can occupy the entire room. No matter which way you face, you can hear the sound of the key being played. Now, if we play two keys at one time, we hear both distinct sounds at the same time. They occupy the same space, as it were, yet both keys remain distinct. If you want to use this explanation to deal with the Trinity, add a third note. All three notes remain individually distinct while inhabiting the same space. By rethinking what we mean by the concept of space, some who have had difficulties with the Incarnation and the Trinity can come to a new understanding of them both.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Quotes and Facts: From "The Tragedy of American Compassion" by Marvin Olasky

(The purpose of this new section, "Quotes and Facts", is to share with my readers information from my reading that could not fit into my book reviews. I had planned to share some quotes from Francis S. Collins "The Language of God", but I have decided to move on. The next "Quotes and Facts" with feature at least one quote from "Beholding the Glory" edited by Jeremy Bigbie.)

p.10- In 1752, American colonial Charles Chauncey exhorted the Society for Improving Industry and Employing the Poor that aid should only go to those who could not help themselves, not to the those able but unwilling to work. Paul stated in IIThess 3:10 that those who will not work shall not eat. This is Chauncey's basis for his position: "...And, so far as appears to me, it would be an evident Breach of the Law of the Gospel, as well as of Nature, to bestow upon those the Bread of Charity, who might earn and eat their own Bread, if they did not shamefully idle away their time." This distinction, as Olasky points out throughout the book, was a major reason for the success of fighting poverty up through the 19th century.

p12- In both Northern and Southern Colonies, schools for teaching all children, black and white, to read the Bible were established. These schools continued until the 1830's when parts of the South overreacted to abolitionist threats.

p.14- One of the origional meanings of charity is "to suffer with." Olasky points out that previous to the welfare state, givers of charity had close enough contact with the needy as to empathize with each recipient of aid. Olasky bemoans that this is no longer the case and urges the Church to return to suffering with those who truly suffer. He quotes the goal of the Massachusetts Charitible Society, formed in 1794 to aid those displaced by fire: "Let us penetrate the lanes and by-ways of the city, enter the abodes of poverty and distress, and show the destitute inmates that we sympathize with their sufferings and commiserate with them in their losses."

p.22- In the 1830's, Englishman D. Griffiths, Jr. spent two years in Ohio. During that time, he saw only one beggar. He attributed this to three factors: 1. Economic growth. 2. An open countryside. 3. The compassion of those who were better off towards those rendered destitute through no fault of their own.

p64.-Ninteenth century charitable organizer Francis Smith contrasted government aid unfavorably to private charity. Olasky quotes her as stating that the purpose of true charity was personal reform: "...As long as it remains[s] in the hands of private agencies, private individuals could affect personal improvment. Statutory provisions, however, would disarm the private citizen and render him powerless to restrict the growth of pauperism in the community."

p96-Olasky points out a major difference between private charity and the welfare state: private charity focused on the individual, government emphasizes the masses. Jerry McAuley established a successful charity in the nineteenth century. At his funeral, McAuleys individual approach was pointed out: "Jerry believed in hand-picked souls. The best fruit is not shaken from the tree, but picked by hand, one by one."

p102-Olasky points out that pre-welfare charity had a goal: to reattach those who have broken their ties with their community to their families and the rest of good society.

p122- Among those in the ninteenth and twentieth centuries who worked to replace private charity with government aid, was Ely Freemantle. Olasky quotes from Fremantles book "The World as the Subject of Redemption" to show the change in religious thinking regarding helping the poor: "We find the nation alone fully organized, sovereign, independent, universal, capable of giving full expression to the Christian principle. We ought, therefore, to regard the Nation as the Church, its rulers as ministers of Christ, its whole body as a Christian brotherhood, its public assemblies as amongst the highest modes of universal Christian fellowship, its dealing with material interests as Sacraments, its progressive development, especially in raising the weak, as the fullest service rendered on Earth to God, the nearest thing as yet within our reach to the kingdom of heaven."

p136-137- Here is a direct quote from Olasky: 'In particular, the new social understanding attacked the biblical concept of a sinful human nature. Man's basic nature was not corrupt, but good; there were sins but not sin, evil acts but not evil. Problems arose from social conditions rather than inherent moral corruption. The Encyclopedia of Social Reform stated that "almost all social thinkers are now agreed that the social evils of the day arise in large part from social wrongs." ' Olasky further explains the change in thinking from focusing on the individual to the masses. Since a bad environment caused social ills, a good environment will save all. So the emphasis shifted from individual responsibility to changing society.

p174- Another change in thinking concerning welfare occurred in the 1960's as a result of "The War on Poverty." Those who were engaged in this effort worked to remove the shame associated with being on public assistance.

p200- Olasky quotes Christopher Jencks how the change in thinking concerning unmarried pregnancy has impacted the family: "even when almost every "respectable" adult thought unwed parenthood, desertion, and divorce immoral, it was hard to keep families together in poor communities. Now that the mass media, the schools, and even the churches have begun to treat single parenthood as a regretable but inescapable part of modern life, we can hardly expect the respectable poor to carry on the struggle with illegitimacy and desertion with their old fervor. They still deplore such behavior, but they cannot make it morally taboo. Once the two-parent norm loses its sanctity, the selfish considerations that always pulled poor parents apart often became overwhelming."

Monday, May 7, 2007

My Mormon Encounter

I have been a follower of Jesus now for twenty years, yet this Saturday I had my first conversation with a Mormon, two Mormons that is. "What!" you exclaim. "How could you miss encountering a Mormon in twenty years?" I don't know. I've seen them traveling two-by-two everywhere, yet this is the first time they have approached me. We talked for one hour. It was a cordial discussion. Although we covered a lot of ground, one thing stands out. These two college age students were very well trained (unlike most of the Jehovahs Witnesses I have encountered). I am sure years of debating Christians has given Mormons an idea which Bible verses can be used to disprove their particular heresy. A new Christian could very well be at the mercy of their arguements. A new Christian is often rendered guillable by a combination of earnestness and a lack of knowledge. The initial approach to me was this question: "If you knew of a prophet who is alive today who teaches new truth about God, would you be interested?" (The prophet they were refering to is the current Mormon president.) A new Christian might say "Of course! I want to follow all the truth." These two spoke respectfully concerning the Bible while trying to convince me that The Book of Mormon contains additional teachings of Jesus. They asked me if I would pray in faith whether The Book of Mormon was true. I said I would not. A newer Christian could be trapped by such an attempt to play on their earnestness. I asked them whether they believed that Jesus was God. I expected them to say no, but they did admit Jesus and the Father are God, but not the Holy Spirit and that there is no Trinity. They made the claim that The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints is the Kingdom of God. I countered that when we first believe, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts (Eph 1:13). Jesus stated that the Kingdom is within us as believers (Luke 17:21). I told them since the Kingdom of God was within me, I did not need to seek another. They did not know how to answer this. The Mormons are indeed well trained. The Church needs great disernment in how to counter them. Not only do they trap people with their words, but also through their apparent "clean" lifestyle and good works. This is just one thing that obligates the Church to make sure new Christians are molded into discerning ones. A member of my church told me that he had read a quote from Malcom X on how Christians were the easiest to convert to The Nation of Islam. Malcom X explained that it was because he and his followers knew the Bible better than professing Christians. The same could be said concerning undiscerning Christians being approached by well trained Mormans today. Besides discipling others, we can best counter false teaching through prayer for the Church.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Friday Night Frozen Dinner and an Intellectual: "The Tragedy of American Compassion" by Marvin Olasky, Part II

It took me two Fridays to finish Olasky's book. One would think that the subject matter would leave the reader depressed, yet that was not the case with me. The first half of the book documents the success story of fighting poverty in America prior to the twentieth century. The prevailing thinking for meeting the needs of those who could not help themselves was Christian based. Man is made in the image of God and therefore each individual has a dignity arising from this fact. Each man, woman, and child was thought of in terms of being one's neighbor, and to help our neighbor is the second greatest of God's commandments. This mindset insured that society would not experience "compassion fatigue." Furthermore, the aim of charity was not just to feed, house and clothe everyone. The aim was to not only to meet human needs but also to lead people to Jesus. Charity was dispensed on an individual basis. Those responsible for the care of others determined the need of each applicant. Those who were only after handouts were refused until their attitude changed. Those who could work were given employment. Families of those in need were sought out to relieve their relative's distress. Keeping families intact was a high priority. Not only were the recipients of aid benefitted. The individual basis of charity-giving brought giver and recipient into close contact. Those wanting to help had to go where those needing help lived to determine the needs. Thus, they were living out one of the primary definitions of charity, to suffer alongside of. Olasky gives convincing evidence that this approach worked not only in rural America, but the genuine needs of those inhabiting crowded cities were met. The success rate for people not only working themselves out of poverty, but also accepting Christ was impressive.

Of course we live in a different world. The approach to fighting poverty changed in the early twentieth century. The emphasis upon the individual was discarded, along with any concern for the salvation of souls. Social workers became more interested in the masses. This led to people receiving aid whether they needed that aid or not. This of course has led to the creation of a permanent welfare class. As people looked to the government for their well-being rather than their families, the social fabric that is the family has been has been broken for many. A reader of this blog emailed me statistics of government giving verses private giving. This reader's point is that the needs in this country are so great that only the government can meet them. However, what these statistics reveal is what Olasky refers to in the title of his book. So much tax money is doled out in innumerable government programs; often the same group of people are receiving money from different programs. This has created a dependent class in this country. But not only that, the motivation for private charity has been removed. No longer are individuals seen as our neighbors. Those in need are lumped into one mass which the government can best handle, therefore, individuals no longer feel the obligation to help. They might send money to a charitable orginization, but they no longer suffer alongside those in need. Those in need have no one encourageing them to raise themselves above the poverty line. The church as well as the needy have suffered from "The Tragedy of American Compassion."

But Olasky does not let the church off the hook. He does not just want to end the current welfare system and leave it at that, as some conservatives want to. He calls the Church back to what Wesley would call "Social Holiness." The church must again go where the truly needy live and to suffer with them. Churches should not just be places for a handout but a place where the less fortunate are embraced, encouraged, and yes, exhorted to change. Change not only their life-styles that keep them in poverty, but to fulfill family responsibilities and to accept Jesus as their savior. This is not an easy task, but if the Church is really to be the Church, than we must reclaim our station as the best source of charity. The success of the Church to meet the needs of the survivors of Katrina as opposed to the Federal Government's failure should give us hope that the current tragic status quo can and will be reversed.

Hopefully this Friday I can spend time with another intellectual, in this case, a group of intellectuals. I will be reading "The Incarnation and the Arts." It is a book of essays edited by Jeremy Bigbe. I don't know how far I'll read on Friday as I will be attending a banquet sponsored by the prison ministry I am involved with, Jesus is the Way Ministries. Not only am I looking forward to the food and fellowship, but I am also anticipating to hear testimonies about how God has led people out destructive lifestyles. On Sunday, my church will be hearing from a ministry that delivers women from drugs and criminal behavior. The testimonies given I am sure will be worth attending.