On the life and spiritual virtues of boredom

22 Jul

From Geoff Thomas:

We no longer expect children to endure boredom for a second. In our infancy we bounced balls, fed the rabbits, made a model with Mechano and watched the ascent and descent of a yo-yo. We also read books. Our meals were pretty predictable, and a visit to the local park was an event. Today visits to the zoo, bouncy castles, jumping on a trampoline are routine necessities. Daily playgroups and day-nurseries fill every vacant minute with watching videos, learning how to play with computers and bouncing on the soft-play. Everything is wound up to a pitch of noisy razzmatazz. The toys children play with are made of garish plastic of primary colours. The child who would cheerfully have eaten mashed potatoes and vegetables every day is now encouraged to stimulate its palate and develop a taste for chillies, aubergines, vindaloo curry or garlic.

A.N. Wilson has written, “Pascal said that all human trouble stemmed from our inability to sit quietly in one room. If he was right, then we have serious trouble ahead, with an extraordinarily restless, vacuous generation of human individuals waiting to take over the world.

Full article (good one here)

What does the bible say about sex and homosexuality?

21 Jul

From The Gospel Coalition:

The New Testament’s voice on the issue of homosexuality is now in question, even among many in our own churches, who have heard repeated (and often sophisticated) revisionist arguments. Following the lead of the academy, the mainstream culture is quickly adopting many of these arguments as well.

What does the New Testament really say, and how should we understand the issues at stake? Did Jesus ever address the topic? Was Paul familiar with the sort of consensual, committed same-sex relationships we see today or was he merely indicting exploitative aberrations (e.g., rape, pederasty, rampant promiscuity)? Did the apostle have a category for what we now call “orientation”? Might he have disliked homosexuality because he feared it threatened male, patriarchal dominance of women?

It’s difficult to think of a person more qualified to tackle questions like these than Robert Gagnon. The associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has written voluminously on the subject, including works such as The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Abingdon, 2010) and Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (with Dan Via; Augsburg, 2003).

The Council of The Gospel Coalition welcomed Gagnon to its three-day meeting in May to address this contested and sensitive topic. You can listen to his 45-minute presentation here.

 

University non-discrimination policies governing student organizations are hardly ‘neutral’

21 Jul

Recently, Bowdoin College joined other colleges and universities around the country by imposing a “non-discrimination” policy over all official student organizations regarding their membership and leadership requirements.  In essence, the policy is an “all-comers” policy barring student groups from setting or enforcing membership & leadership requirements that discriminate on the basis of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.  But as Sociologist George Yancey (and the nation’s leading expert on anti-Christian bias in higher education) points out, the policy is precisely NOT what it says it is: neutral.

Excerpt:

To those of you who have not heard of this controversy here is a quick recap. As seen in a New York Times article, the college recently decided to enforce a rule stating that student organizations must make all leadership roles open to any student regardless of sex, religion, sexual preference or race. The Intervarsity organization insists that it is a Christian organization and only wants Christians in leadership positions. As such, they have refused to sign a statement indicating that their leadership positions are open to non-Christians. One could argue that they should have signed the document and then do what they wanted with their leadership, but evidently they had too much integrity to engage in such dishonesty. Nevertheless, I am not sure such a strategy would work long-term as a non-Christian may challenge for leadership and then claim discrimination if he or she does not gain a leader’s role. As a result of Intervarsity’s refusal to make their leadership open to those who do not share the beliefs of the group, they are no longer a recognized student organization.

—————————————————————————–

The supporters of the policy argue that leadership of all groups should be open to anybody regardless of their religious beliefs. This does not mean that anyone will become a leader but that they can run for the office of leader in the group. Right from the start we have an attitude supporting a certain perspective which makes this policy non-neutral: the idea that democracy, or a vote in the group, is the acceptable way to choose a leader. Many religious groups believe that leadership should be selected by an elite group rather than from the masses. Others may simply look for a sign from God as to who their leader should be. I may agree or disagree with non-democratic methods but if I impose an idea of democracy into how a religious group chooses its leader, then I am no longer using a non-neutral policy.
But this incongruity is only the start of an obvious imposition of the college in the affairs of IVP’s religious ideas. The college suggests that the group can fulfill its goals even without a leader who is committed to Christianity. There is a religious tradition that transcends the one’s actual religious faith. This tradition is that the same God in Christianity is the same one in Judaism, Islam, Eastern religion etc. In this sort of religious tradition, it really would not matter if a Christian runs a Christian organization. In fact, an agnostic humanist could technically run the organization as long as they promote beneficial values. I am not going to comment on the theological soundness of this perspective. I respect the right of individuals to hold to this perspective. However, many Christian groups do not share such a perspective. They believe that the different religious traditions are incompatible and that they have chosen the proper path. For them, it is unthinkable to seek religious enlightenment from a non-Christian, even one with solid values. College administrators, in their role of administrators, should not choose sides in this theological debate. But when they imply that a Christian group should accept a non-Christian leader, then they have entered that debate. That Christian group has decided that leadership must be with their same religious tradition and does not accept the premise that all religions led to the same God. The college has no business dictating otherwise.
Certain arguments have been used to support the Bowdoin’s policy. One is that it is not a policy that requires leaders who are not Christian but merely states that they should be allowed to apply for leadership. However, as I noted above, the college should not dictate to organizations how their leadership is picked. But some will say there is no way that a non-Christian will be voted into power of a Christian organization. If that organization does not want a non-Christian then they only have to make sure that one is not voted into office. If we are talking about a large well-established organization, then this is true. But some Christian groups are rather small and a mischievous atheist may get a kick out of bringing some of his/her friends and getting voted as president of the local Christian student group. That atheist might think it would be cool for that Christian group to sponsor an “Emperor has no pants” program. “Nonsense” some will say. No one will take the time to infiltrate a religious group they do not believe in. (According to what I have heard the Intervarsity group has about 25 people. If only about half show up during a meeting then a dozen non-Christians is all that is needed to elect a non-Christian leader – not necessarily a very difficult task.) I have seen non-Christians flood a Christian website. I have seen speakers on college campuses shouted down. Is it really hard to believe that some students will believe that it is their right and duty to take over a Christian group and shut down that religious voice? Why would we provide such individuals with such an opportunity with the foolish Bowdoin policy?
Ironically, the Bowdoin policy is more likely to have an opposite effect than promoting a diversity of ideological and religious opinions that many of the supporters of this policy will profess to support. Small groups who have beliefs that contrast with popular views are the ones that can be taken over by a larger group of dissenters. If that becomes a common pattern, because believe it or not fads do happen on college campuses, then a vibrant group of diverse groups can become a homogenous set of groups based on the same progressive humanist values. Do I know that this will occur in time? No, but neither can those supporting the policy offer any real assurances that such a process will not occur. It is even possible that some may hope that such a process occurs so that those “intolerant” Christians will be unable to spread their “bigoted” beliefs. Policies likely to discriminate against minor groups should require powerful justification to be accepted and such justification is lacking for the Bowdoin policy.
The last sentence leads to another defense offered for this policy. That defense is that a college or university should not support a group that promotes discrimination. Individuals who offer this defense tend to speak of Christians as bigots and thus are not sorry to see them lose their recognition. Of course bigotry is in the eyes of the beholder. If bigotry is, as George Haggerty suggests, the opposite of respect and tolerance, then the support of policies out of a lack of respect and tolerance towards conservative Christian groups can be an anti-Christian bigotry. Indeed, Haggerty argues that bigotry is a problem on college campuses since it prevents the free exchange of ideas. It is ironic that some use claims of bigotry to support a policy that likely will inhibit a diversity of ideas on college campuses. The bottom line is that some individuals exhibit little concern about pushing policies that negatively impact groups they do not like, which is the opposite of the tolerance they profess to admire.
Finally, some argue that losing recognition is not a big deal. The de-recognized groups are free to meet off campus to their heart’s desire. But the college should not have to support the ideals of their group. However, the college should not support the ideals of any student group. Remember that college administrators are not supposed to take sides. They are supposed to allow students to associate, and form groups with whom they choose. Treating groups differently because they insist on leaders who actually believe in the mission of the group is choosing sides. It really does not matter what issues of recognition are at stake. If some groups get to use the college’s name, have access to student funding, use campus rooms or whatever while others do not get the same treatment based on their belief about group leadership, then the college is taking sides. They are giving some groups advantages over other groups. These are not the actions of those who support religious neutrality.
This is a policy with a disparate impact on conservative Christian groups. I have little doubt that if it has such an impact on other groups, that the administrators would be more sensitive to the concerns of the group. If this policy threatened a women’s rights organization since it made it possible for a bunch of men to take the organization over, I am certain that Bowdoin would think more than twice about the policy.

Full blog post

 

Gordon College and the Next Major Religious Liberty Case

18 Jul

From the WSJ:

When D. Michael Lindsey, the president of a well-known Christian college in Wenham, Mass., called Gordon College, signed a letter to President Barack Obama with 13 other religious leaders on July 1, he can’t have known what he was getting into.

The letter urged the president to exempt religious groups from an executive order that will bar the government from contracting with organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. A week earlier, numerous other religious leaders—including many college presidents—had sent a similar letter.

But that was before the Supreme Court’s sharply divided Hobby Lobby decision holding that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate violated the religious-freedom rights of several for-profit corporations. Now it seems Gordon College has stirred up another big religious-freedom controversy.

The Obama administration announced its intention to issue the nondiscrimination order several weeks before the Hobby L obby decision, after the House failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in all employment contexts.

Gordon College students attend a required chapel service. Boston Globe via Getty Images

But the administration was waiting to see how the court would rule in Hobby Lobby. Though the decision did not involve sexual orientation, and for-profit corporations are not the focus of the executive order,Hobby Lobby might provide clues about the scope of religious freedom. But theHobby Lobby majority carefully sidestepped the issue, emphasizing that the ruling applied only to a few forms of contraception at issue in the case.

Despite its silence on sexual orientation, Hobby Lobb y‘s vindication of religious-freedom rights emboldened the leaders to send their letter. “We must find a way,” they wrote, “to respect diversity of opinion on [sexual orientation and gender identify issues] in a way that respects the dignity of all parties to the best of our ability.”

Media coverage in the Boston area quickly shifted from Michael Wear, a former Obama campaign official who spearheaded the letter, to Mr. Lindsay and Gordon College. The principal flash point was Gordon College’s code of conduct, which forbids its students and faculty from engaging in sexual activity except in a heterosexual marriage. The day after the letter, the city of Salem announced that it was canceling a contract Gordon has to use Salem’s Old Town Hall. Salem cannot work with “an institution that enables, and now advocates for, discrimination,” the mayor wrote.

The divisions didn’t end there. More than a hundred current and former students signed a letter urging Gordon to rescind its call for a religious exemption, and more than 3,000 people signed an online petition. Even the regional college accreditation agency—the New England Association of Schools and Colleges—has taken note. The Boston Business Journal reported that the Gordon controversy will be on the agenda when the agency meets in September. (The agency later clarified that Gordon’s accreditation is not at risk.)

Mr. Lindsay and Gordon College are unlikely magnets for the attention. A highly respected sociologist who made his reputation studying America’s business and cultural leaders and running an institute at Rice University, Mr. Lindsay likely travels in some of the same circles as the president himself. In his three years as Gordon’s president, Mr. Lindsay has steered clear of hot-button issues.

“In general practice,” he wrote on Gordon’s website after the controversy erupted, “Gordon tries to stay out of politically charged issues, and I sincerely regret that . . . Gordon has been put into the spotlight in this way. My sole intention in signing this letter was to affirm the College’s support of the underlying issue of religious liberty.”

An executive order that did not include a religious exemption might be upheld by the courts, since the government has broad powers when it comes to spending. But it would be a sharp break from political precedent. In 2002 President Bush signed an executive order decreeing that faith-based organizations be permitted to “participate fully in the social service programs supported with Federal financial assistance without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression, or religious character.” The Employment Non-Discrimination Act itself, as passed in the Senate before stalling in the House, also included an explicit exemption for religion.

If Gordon College fades from the news in the coming months, this likely will mean that pluralism is working. If not, it or another institution like it may find its name in the caption of the next big Supreme Court religious liberty case.

Mr. Skeel is a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the forthcoming book “True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World” (InterVarsity Press, 2014).

Lennon “imagine[d]” life without Christianity as liberating; so did Tim Lambesis, but…

18 Jul

John Lennon thought life would be much better if the world were filled with only the irreligious.  He wrote in “Imagine”

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too

Well, you could say he’s a dreamer, but he’s not the only one (see what I did there?).

Desiring to “live for today,” Tim Lambesis figured his life without Christianity would be better too.  Fraudulently pretending to be a Christian heavy metal singer, Tim Lambesis explains what dropping his faith meant for him (he’s now incarcerated for allegedly hiring a hit-man to murder his ex-wife).

“The first time I cheated on my wife, my interpretation of morality was now convenient for me,” Lambesis explained. “I felt less guilty if I decided, “Well, marriage isn’t a real thing, because Christianity isn’t real. God isn’t real. Therefore, marriage is just a stupid piece of paper with the government.”

I don’t like him, but his logic is compelling.

Oh, he also offered this little inside information for what it’s worth (consider the source, of course).

“We toured with more ‘Christian bands’ who actually aren’t Christians than bands that are,” Lambesis stated. “In 12 years of touring with As I Lay Dying, I would say maybe one in 10 Christian bands we toured with were actually Christian bands.”

Understanding unemployment, underemployment, labor force participation and the sluggish labor market

17 Jul

From WSJ:

The American labor force, as a share of the overall population, has been shrinking for more than a decade. A detailed new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimates the majority of that decline has been driven by the retirement of the Baby Boom generation and that only one-sixth of the decline is clearly attributable to the weak economy.

The so-called labor force participation rate, which tracks the share of the population either working or currently looking for work, climbed from around 60% in the late 1960s to over 67% in the year 2000, driven largely by a strong economy and by the increasing number of working women. Beginning in 2000, however, the labor force began to shrink and the decline has accelerated since the recession that began in 2007.

The decline has sparked a divide among economists, some of whom have attributed most of the gains to the simple fact that the Baby Boomers, who were born after World War II, are now reaching retirement age. Other economists, however, have argued the Baby Boomers explain a small part of the decline and the reason the labor force has fallen so much is that the economy has been historically weak and unprecedented numbers of Americans have lost their jobs and given up hunting for another one. (Research from different arms of the Federal Reserve, such as this paper from a Boston Fed conference and this paper from the Philadelphia Fed, have reached contradicting conclusions.)

The CEA’s paper lands in the middle of this debate, saying that of the 3.1% drop in labor force participation since 2007, 1.6% can be explained by demographics. About 0.5% can be explained by the historical pattern that some people in a weak economy are more likely to give up on the labor force. The CEA says the remaining 1% drop results from “other factors, which may include trends that pre-date the Great Recession and consequences of the unique severity of the Great Recession.”

The number of workers who left because of the weak economy but may return has been shrinking, the report concludes. By many measures the economy has been improving, albeit slowly, and around 1 million workers who were sitting things out may have already returned to the labor force, leaving fewer left sitting on the sidelines.

For many economic policy makers, the key question has been how much of the decline in the labor force could be reversed. The Fed, for example, generally believes that monetary policy cannot entice retirees who have reached their late 60s to return to work. But workers who abandoned the labor force out of frustration may be willing to resume their job hunts if the economy returns to strength.

The CEA’s conclusion is that 1.6% of workers are probably gone to retirement, 0.5% may return as they only left because the economy was weak, and that the divide among the remaining 1% is unclear.

Some economists have hoped that as the job market strengthens workers will flood back into the labor force, yet the CEA throws cold water on those hopes: “absent changes in policies, a meaningful increase in the participation rate from current rates appears unlikely.”

The CEA analyzes several scenarios for what could happen in coming years. In a best-case scenario, the labor force participation rate would rise from its current level of 62.8% to a little above 63%.

In most scenarios, however, the rate would hold steady for a few years and then resume its decline as more and more of the Baby Boomers born in the 1950s hit retirement age.

The report concludes by noting public policy still has a role to play, and suggests several parts of the White House’s economic agenda could help stem the flow of workers from the labor force. Training programs, working-families policies and the Earned Income Tax Credit all help promote labor force participation, the report says.

“Probably the most significant policy response to falling labor force participation rates is immigration reform,” the report says. “On average, immigrants are younger and participate in the labor force at higher rates than native-born Americans.”

Living as Exiles is nothing new to Christianity and best explained and accepted in Reformed Theology

16 Jul

From Carl Trueman:

We live in a time of exile. At least those of us do who hold to traditional Christian beliefs. The strident rhetoric of scientism has made belief in the supernatural look ridiculous. The Pill, no-fault divorce, and now gay marriage have made traditional sexual ethics look outmoded at best and hateful at worst. The Western public square is no longer a place where Christians feel they belong with any degree of comfort.

For Christians in the United States, this is particularly disorienting. In Europe, Christianity was pushed to the margins over a couple of centuries—the tide of faith retreated “with tremulous cadence slow.” In America, the process seems to be happening much more rapidly.

It is also being driven by issues that few predicted would have such cultural force. It is surely an irony as unexpected as it is unwelcome that sex—that most private and intimate act—has become the most pressing public policy issue today. (Who could have imagined that policies concerning contraception and laws allowing same-sex marriage would present the most serious challenges to religious freedom?) We are indeed set for exile, though not an exile which pushes us to the geographical margins. It’s an exile to cultural irrelevance.

American Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism start this exile with heavy baggage. Evangelicalism has largely wedded itself to the vision of America as at heart a Christian nation, a conception that goes back to the earliest New England settlers. An advertisement for The American Patriot’s Bible (2009) proudly boasts that it “connects the teachings of the Bible, the history of the United States and the life of every American” while “beautiful full-color insert pages spotlight the people and events that demonstrate the godly qualities that have made America great.” Yet a nation where the language of “choice” and “freedom” has been hijacked for infanticide, the deconstruction of marriage, and a seemingly limitless license to publish pornography is rather obviously not godly. That’s a hard truth for those who believe America belongs to them by right.

For Roman Catholics, the challenges of our cultural exile are different. Rome has somehow managed to maintain a level of social credibility in America, despite holding to positions regarded as intolerable by the wider secular world when held by Protestants. Her refusals to ordain women or sanction the use of contraception do not seem to have destroyed her public reputation. But if, for example, tax-exempt status is revoked for educational and social-service nonprofits opposed to the increasingly mandatory sexual revolution, the Church will face a stark choice: capitulate to the spirit of the age or step out into the cold wasteland of cultural and social marginality. When opposition to gay marriage comes to be seen as the moral equivalent to white supremacism, it is doubtful that the Roman Catholic Church will be able to maintain both her current position on the issue and her status in society. She too will likely be shunted to the margins.

Elsewhere—in France and in Poland, for example—Rome has, of course, proved resilient in much worse circumstances. Yet in America, in recent history, she has no real experience of the ignominy of marginalization from which to draw strength. The Know-Nothing era was long ago. It seems to me most Catholics today are very comfortable in, even jealous of, their place in mainstream America. They may not buy patriot Bibles, but Catholicism’s institutional footprint is so large—and Catholic theological (and emotional) investment in it so significant—that the temptation to preserve the Church’s place in society will be very great. This preservation will require compromise, even complicity, and it will very likely blur the clarity and undermine the integrity of Christian witness.

Perhaps I am mistaken and have portrayed my Christian brothers in a way that over-emphasizes weaknesses and downplays strengths. But of this I am convinced: Reformed Christianity is best equipped to help us in our exile. That faith was forged on the European continent in the lives and writings of such men as Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin. It found its finest expression in the Anglophone world in the great Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans of the seventeenth century. It possesses the intellectual rigor necessary for teaching and defending the faith in a hostile environment. It has a strong tradition of reflecting in depth upon the difference between that which is essential and that which, though good, is inessential and thus dispensable. It has a historical identity rooted in the wider theological teachings of the Church. It has deep resources for thinking clearly about the relationship of Church and state.

It’s not surprising that Reformed Christianity equips us well for exile, because it was itself forged in a time of exile, often by men who were literal exiles. Indeed, the most famous Reformed theologian of them all, John Calvin, was a Frenchman who found fame and influence as a pastor outside his homeland, in the city of Geneva. The Pilgrim fathers of New England knew the realities of exile, and the conditions that it imposed upon the people, only too well. Winthrop’s famous comment about being a city on a hill was not a statement of messianic destiny but a reminder to the colonists of the fact that their lives as exiles were to be lived out in the glare of hostile scrutiny. Exile demanded they have a clear and godly identity.

The Reformed Church has its own baggage, but given the nature of its origins and our own moment, it is the right baggage: light when it needs to be light and heavy with the Gospel when it needs to be heavy. A marginal, minority interest in America for well over a century, she does not face the loss of social influence and political aspirations that now confront Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism. We do not expect to be at the center of worldly affairs. We do not imagine ourselves to be running indispensable institutions. Lack of a major role in the public square will cause no crisis in self-understanding.

This does not arise from indifference or a lack of substance, but instead from clarity and focus. Doctrinally, the Reformed Church affirms the great truths that were defined in the early Church, to which she adds the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. She cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise. We do not draw our strength primarily from an institution, but instead from a simple, practical pedagogy of worship: the Bible, expounded week by week in the proclamation of the Word and taught from generation to generation by way of catechisms and devotions around the family dinner table.

Full Essay (great read)

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