Things Fall Apart. Part One.

As Europe moved into the 20th century, intellectuals on the continent felt an increasing nervousness.  While the continent was slowly de-Christianizing itself, eschatology was everywhere, and the intellectual class became focused on the likelihood that something – and no one knew quite what it was – was bound to happen.  Of course tensions finally came to a head in the horrors of World War I, but I want to focus on that anticipation that so overwhelmed Europe as the 20th century dawned.  (Those fears were well founded, were they not?)  Many in Europe became consumed by fatalism, what was termed amor fati, but encapsulated most particularly in the French term fin de siècle.  The book to read, I am told, is Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture.  For my own part, the best remembrance of this sentiment is found in William Butler Yeats’ magnificent poem “The Second Coming:”  

            Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is the first stanza that I find most significant for the believer.  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”  Is it possible that the center is the Gospel?  Yeats himself was something of a pagan and an occultist, though a fine, fine poet, and it is unlikely that, for him, the “center” is Christ. Yet Christians who believe in the Incarnation and the Resurrection know that the Christian faith is in fact the center of all things.

So therefore, if Christ is the center, what we believe and know about Him ultimately will be the determining factor in how our world is shaped.  I want to be careful not to create an if/then scenario, where we suggest that if we believe X, then God will do Y.  I tend to reject such thinking in favor of an outlook that suggests then even when we get something wrong, the Cross still gets it right.  Therefore the center is still holding, in spite of us.  Thanks be to God for his unfailing consistency and permanence! In making such a statement, I have given away the punchline.  Because when we talk about getting Christ right and getting Christ wrong, we are dealing with a series of contradictions.  Of course I should desire by God’s grace to get Jesus right, but I should be under no illusions that my approach to Christ is doing God any favors.  On the contrary, it is my awe and thanks for the Gospel and the majesty of God that should drive me towards any attempt at getting Jesus right and making Him the center of all I do.

In my next post, I shall pick up this theme again and try to develop what it means to get Christ wrong.  The next theme will be getting Christ right, and finally what are the implications of both things for the Church.

My Problem with Tim Keller

I usually like to read a couple of books at one time, and I have found it to be a healthy practice.  It is, however, problematic when you find that reading multiple books allows you to procrastinate from reading one book in particular.  In my case, that particular book is always some Dostoyevsky novel.  Right now, it is The Devils.    At any rate, I do admit that such heavy stuff is hard reading for the dinner hour.  So last night I pulled Tim Keller’s The Reason for God off the shelf.  I got the book a year ago and already possessing a deep apprecation for Keller’s work, I thought it time to peruse the bestseller.

I only have one problem, and it is a simple one.  In fact, it may not even be a significant one.  Keller is focused on social justice, a worthy cause with an unfortunate name.  (Never mind that social justice was a term co-opted by the radical left in the late 1960s and 1970s).  Early in the book, Keller notes that Democrats have not been concerned enough about the social effects of loose morals and sexual autonomy.  True enough, as even some liberals have noted, Caitlin Flanagan among them.  He then says that Republicans have not been concerned enough with the plight of the poor.  It is at this point that I put my took on the table and bang my head against the wall.

This statement is simply not true.  Republicans, a great many of them are evangelicals, tend to give more to charity than Democrats.  To the extent that there is a secular Republican wing, I do not what kind of giving takes place, but for the coalescence of Republicans and evangelicals, giving tends to be quite high.  Keller is simply wrong to assert that Republicans have not shown enough concern.  What Republicans have done, though with increasingly fervor, unfortunately, is assert that state-based solutions (particularly those at the federal level) are bad for the economy, and would do very little to help the poor.  That is a far different thing from being indifferent to the suffering of the poor in America and around the world.

Keller goes on say that he looks for something of a “Christian third-way.”  The problem is that the third way always end up going towards one of the original ways.  That is because either you believe in a market run by the state or by the individual.  There is very little middle ground.  While we have all seen the excesses of the free market, the truth is that a market dictated by virtue (found chiefly in the Christian faith and tradition) is a market that works.  A market dictated solely by greed will implode of course, and Keller would do well the avoid thinking that somehow the government can do more to help the poor than can individual initiative.

Arthur Brooks, one of the leading researchers in charitable giving, notes that as people begin to see the government as a source for charity (which is a standard position of the American left), they tend to be less charitable themselves.  In a sense, it is hard to blame them, for if one’s taxes go up twelve percent, it is easy to reduce charitable giving by a comparable measure.  On the other hand, Christians are not let off the hook so easily, for we have a Biblical command to give as a response to Christ’s grace.  But here’s the rub: if Christians take that command and vote for a left-leaning, big-government style charity in the vein of Europe and Canada, what then of the non-believing public?  They are already far less likely to engage in charitable giving, and many would argue that the most innovative thinking about charity and aid comes from the grassroots, private sector.  If Christians lead the way for a welfare state, Christians might continue to give.  But it seems highly likely that there secular neighbors would not.

I respect Tim Keller like no other; his work for the Gospel is a marvel.  But he should know better from history and economics that what he argues here is a straw man of huge porportions.   He may be ministering in a city and to a country that is increasingly urbane and liberal, but he should not be so quick to buy into progressive preconceptions.  As he does, he may find a political situation more untenable than the one we already have.

For more on Arthur Brooks, see this piece.

Randy Alcorn on Television

Yesterday I ran across this post by Randy Alcorn about television consumption.  Most of this is fine advice, though I take issue with a couple of points.

 First, point number twelve.

 “Spend an hour reading Scripture, a Christian book or magazine, or doing a ministry for each hour you watch TV.”

Seriously?  Now I will be the first to admit that I am terrible about reading Scripture consistently, but this is just nonsense.  Suppose you spend Saturday watching college football or you enjoy watching Law and Order a few times a week, and this guy is suggesting you have to go work in a soup kitchen to make up for it.  I appreciate that Alcorn is thinking through the implications of media influence – someone has to – but let’s not get carried away.  I thought the Reformation was to do away with this legalistic silliness.

Point number thirteen is also troubling, albeit a little less so.

“Consider dropping cable, Showtime, HBO, or any other service that you determine is importing ungodliness or temptation into your home.”

True enough, there is plenty of programming on these networks that is explicit and in all likelihood unsuitable for believers or any decent human being.   But the truth is that despite its vulgar nature, there are many programs and movies that have been cultural watermarks, and Christians have to be a part of that conversation.  Now I am not suggesting that believers must watch The Sopranos or Deadwood or Six Feet Under.  However I am suggesting that in spite of violence, nudity and some very salty language, these networks, and HBO in particular, have produced some programs that say deep and profound things about human nature.   Christians – some of us but not all of us – must be a part of that conversation. 

Of course one might say that you could use Netflix to catch up on these shows or watch the edited syndicated version on A&E or check the DVDs out from the local public library.  But Randy Alcorn might suggest you read back issues of Christianity Today to make up for it.