Saturday, June 25, 2016

Not the Sheeple You Thought They Were

from BBC.com
What the British people just did in the Brexit vote, regardless of whether or not it was wise, is extraordinary as an act of a free people. A majority of the people, after a lengthy and vigorous public campaign in which the entire political, cultural, and commercial establishment told everyone that remaining was the only sensible option, 52% voted to leave the EU. If you remove Scotland from the equation where people had good reason to remain, and discount the youth vote which I suspect was moved inordinately by celebrities like David Beckham and Keira Knightley, the remaining vote was even more decisive. Consider also that Greater London which, understandably, would want to leave the business environment unruffled also voted strongly in favor of remaining. Yet Leave won.

Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, puts it this way in today's Wall Street Journal:
Never has there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers’ federation. There were retired spy chiefs, historians, football clubs, national treasures like Stephen Hawking and divinities like Keira Knightley. And some global glamour too: President Barack Obama flew to London to do his bit, and Goldman Sachs opened its checkbook. 
And none of it worked. The opinion polls barely moved over the course of the campaign, and 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU. That slender majority was probably the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.
This is all the more reason for those who are in charge to take seriously what the people have just said. By the same measure, they should take just as seriously what Scotland has said with one clear voice.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Congratulations, John Bull. You Have Your Home Back.

A post-Hogarth, Napoleonic era (1803) John Bull
"If you won't let me eat my bread and cheese in peace and comfort, I'll blow you away"
According to Derek Jarrett in England in the Age of Hogarth, British satirist William Hogarth (1697-1764) transformed the familiar image of John Bull into "an archetype of the freeborn Englishman" overagainst the slavish and sluttish Frenchies of the pre-revolutionary, Bourbon era. Hogarth pictured him "like the animal from which he took his name: strong, virile...superbly stubborn and intractable, always ready to toss and gore those who tried to tame him" (p.22). It is the spirit of John Bull that made Great Britain, even after more than half a century of the welfare state, not quite a good fit for the European super-state and summon enough pluck to bid political adieu to their busily and efficiently benevolent overlords on the continent in the Brexit vote.

When the BBC announced just before midnight on June 23 that Leave had won the referendum on British membership in the European Union, I hurried upstairs to break the historic news to my children, two of whom were still bickering in their dark room. My 14-year old son interrupted my short history of the EU, asking me if I could put this issue in simple terms. "Syrians and sausages," I said. "Essentially, many people were upset at not having control over who comes into the country and how they make their sausages." Any citizen of the EU or anyone admitted to it by a member state (so, whether a Pole or a Syrian) is free to take up residence in Britain. Brits were looking at the flood of Middle Eastern migrants, their strain on social services, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium, and the problems they already suffer in these regards, and said, "Not on my island!"

Just as burdensome has been the flood of at times ridiculous regulations from Brussels, the natural product of  politically coupling, as Bret Stephens put it, "France's obsession with bureaucracy with Germany's obsession with rules." Eggs may not be bought by the dozen but only by weight. Cucumbers with greater than allowable curvature may not be sold. In a restaurant, olive oil at your table must be served in a factory-sealed, pre-packaged dispenser. Just do a web search for "silly European regulations" and explore.

In brief, as Boris Johnson said in his sober and statesmanly victory reflections, the British people decided 52-48 "to take back control."

When warned of, and at times even threatened with, dire economic consequences should they decide to leave, Britons on balance were more impressed with the money they could save as one of the three net givers in the 28-nation European partnership (along with France and Germany, obviously). Greece? See to yourself.

Scotland, however, voted uniformly to remain. I asked on Twitter why Scots would rather be governed by unaccountable overseas bureaucrats than by an assembly of their own elected representatives in London. My father, who emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1958, gave me the answer.

"I grew up in one of the satellite areas of the English realm. London looked after England and did as little as possible for the outliers. The EU with its laws and funds changed that and raised the status and profile of those areas. The UK became more of a reality. Brexit may put the Scots under London rule again, to their disadvantage. Scots say, "If its not Scottish it's crap." English normally say, "If its not English it's not British."

Westminster governed as though Scotland were the crazy aunt in the attic. Scots would send MPs to London only to see them co-opted into the power circuit and social scene and forget who sent them. But the EU didn't know enough to treat Scots like irrelevant blue-painted savages, so they provided the same funding benefits (i.e., statist redistribution of wealth) that they supplied to every needy region. Caledonia will soon find herself once more alone in the home with her self-absorbed husband who doesn't provide. It is expected that she will soon want out. Whether by that time there is still an EU to which they can flee for refuge is yet to be seen.

As for Europe, they would be wise to pull back and retrench. Refuse Turkey. Deregulate. Prefer the harmony of local diversity to harmonization by centrally issued edicts. I think of the king who ceded power to the demos and received scorn from his friends who shamed him for handing down to his son a diminished crown. He responded that it would be a more long-lasting one. Just as David Cameron promised Scotland meaningful reforms and a better partnership in the future after he turned back their independence bid, Europe, having lost Britain to their independence and seeing others now call for the same way out, should re-envision their union for the times -- less ambitious, less intrusive, but more durable.

But they won't. They are in their positions of power and in this position of crisis because they are people of a self-righteous and controlling nature. So they won't.

Friday, June 17, 2016

God’s Candidate

I was recently interviewed by a small Brooklyn media outfit on how evangelicals see the current election. Several times I was asked, “So who is God’s candidate?” I didn’t give a straight answer because it’s a complicated question. But it’s one that Christians are required to ponder.
On one level, “God’s candidate” means the one who perfectly conforms his policies and judgments to the mind of God. But there is not, and cannot be, such a candidate. Only King Jesus fits that description.
But the question can also be asking which of the candidates, given what God has revealed of himself, does God want us to select. In the past, that question has seemed deceptively easy to answer. In 1980, the choice was arguably the Moral Majority backed Ronald Reagan, despite his divorce and irregular church attendance. In 2000, it seemed to be George W. Bush, the born again Reaganite. In 1976, the Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter was the evangelical choice. But some of these weren’t so obviously the godly choice further into their presidencies.
In 2016, however, God has really stirred the pot. Donald Trump says he’s Presbyterian, but he has spent his churchless life in the pursuit of mammon, and not for charitable giving or serving people through commerce – just filling bigger and bigger barns. Hillary Clinton is nominally Methodist but shares this obsession with self-enrichment and adds the progressive agenda of radical human autonomy, a religion of its own.
Bernie Sanders, though Jewish by birth, is an atheistic socialist. Interestingly, a poll revealed that more people see his policies reflecting the ethics of Jesus than see it in any other candidate. (Admittedly, all the numbers are low.) Surely they have in mind his concern for the poor. But he cares in a way that God has not instructed us to care for them. In fact, his proposed remedies undermine our ability to love them biblically. Vastly higher taxes leave people with less money to give either directly or through churches and charitable organizations. This is true of the well-to-do and ordinary income earners alike. We would also have less inclination to give. “The government will provide.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such policies actually end up hurting the people they attempt to help.
But all three candidates share in that spirit. Hillary Clinton is a statist for whom the federal government is the answer to every ill, though she is less convincingly concerned about the poor. Donald Trump has lived his life based, as he says, on three principles: grab, grab, and grab. Now he is promising to bring the rest of us in on the deal. But what does it profit a nation of voters if they can grab even a whole world of mammon but lose their eternal inheritance.

On yet another, quite unavoidable level, God’s candidate is the one he will raise up by our democratic republican system to govern us, and who is perhaps none of these three. But that’s his business (Deut. 29:29). Ours is to know his word, to know our world, and to apply the one to the other in the exercise of our civic duty on Election Day, whether it be to vote or abstain from voting.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Abortion, Francis Bacon, and the Abolition of Man


The Mechanical Governess, 
attr. to Vichy et Fils, circa 1880

It is not often that people across both the country and the media are shocked and sickened by the practices of a liberal darling organization like Planned Parenthood. Nonetheless, Cecile Richards who leads the group was defiant and many stood by the nation’s largest abortion provider including the White House and the Democratic 2016 presidential frontrunner. Their practice of harvesting the intact body parts of aborted babies and selling them is not an unfortunate departure from the modern world’s march of progress. It’s what happens when scientific civilization divorces Christian civilization and becomes a technologically empowered cult of selfish autonomy.

Modern people expect to control the world. It’s what modern means. The world out there is a chaotic and dangerous place in need of taming to make it predictable and safe. Modern science promises and provides that. Ancient and medieval inventions improved life, but they were few and haphazard. Modern inventions have flowed like a river with an ever wider and stronger current. This was no accident of time. The distinctly modern understanding of reason as calculating and production-oriented directed the efforts of the mechanically ambitious through a disciplined method toward the conquest of nature for the relief of our estate.

But the blessing has been mixed. The information revolution of the internet has given us easy access to vast reservoirs of information and rapid email communication, but also a deluge of pornography and shattered spans of attention. Infant mortality rates have plummeted, but abortion technology has made pre-natal infanticide “safe,” clinical, and somewhat respectable. And so on.

The problem is not just the technology that appears equally open to good or evil uses, but the view of creation both human and non-human that technology assumes. God commanded us to “take dominion” of the earth (Genesis 1:26), which modern technology helps us to do. But that requires that we see ourselves as God’s image bearers in God’s world under God’s authority for God’s purposes. Without that understanding, we are left with tyrannical domination over the universe—including the human, even the soul, the psyche—with no moral guidance except our selfish desires. Whatever we can do we should (e.g., human cloning, designer babies), because mastery must extend as far as possible so that my autonomy may be as wide as possible.

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis warned that man’s control of the universe through an atheistic science necessarily becomes the power of some people over most people. And because reason is no longer also for hearing and understanding God but now only for conquering and calculating, we are left only with the passions for guiding our use of that power, most often the selfish ones.

Sir Francis Bacon, the early 17th century author of the modern scientific project to make us masters of the universe, tried to calm people’s fears (notice, there were fears even then) that this greater power over nature would bring even greater evils upon us. The products of the new science, he assured us in New Organon I.129, would be governed by “sound reason and true religion” (recta ratio et sana religio). But he knew that both of these are historically rare and that his new science would undermine both. He expected this modern empire of man to be pagan and dangerous though peaceful and comfortable, and, as Christian restraints are falling away, that is precisely what it is showing itself to be.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama defended abortion rights as necessary to "ensure that our daughters have the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities [control] as our sons to fulfill their dreams [selfish desires].” For women to share equally with men in modern personal autonomy—unconstrained by God, morality, or nature—they must have free access to abortion, even, if necessary, as the baby is being born.

It is this morally and spiritually unrestrained drive to conquer the world technologically for the sake of comfort and convenience that underlies not only the horror of selling fetal body parts but the horror of abortion itself. Employees at Planned Parenthood can discuss the enterprise over salad and wine and haggle over the price list as though she were selling old housewares at a yard sale simply because they’re consistently modern people. They believe the world exists to be transformed and conformed to my desires.

The prophet Daniel confessed that the sins of his people were his own sins too (Daniel 9:4-11). The sobering truth is that modern Christians share in this morally and spiritually unrestrained drive to conquer the world technologically for our comfort and convenience. Until we properly distinguish the uniquely modern from the Christian, a form of distinguishing Christ from the world, we will continue to be complicit in these horrors.

[Portions of this post first appeared in my Worldmag.com column, August 10, 2015, "Abortion and the Modern People We Are."]

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Christ in the Charleston Massacre

Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel AME, Charleston SC
In his sermon on the mount, our Lord Jesus exhorted his weak little flock of disciples, saying, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16 KJV). Last week, the relatives of the slain in the Charleston Massacre embodied, with stunning humility and love, the character of Christ as they addressed the killer, 

Dylann Roof, face to face in the courtroom. One after another, tearfully, they forgave him, prayed for God’s mercy on him, and called him to repent. In effect, they called the killer to become their bother. The life of God in the souls of men, the overcoming love of Christ before the powers of hell, was movingly on display before a watching world.

Rev. Clementa Pinckney, descended from the slaves of the signer of Charles Pinckney, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was clearly a great pastor. The response of his church to his murderer shows that Jesus is a great Savior. Here is the testimony.

Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance: “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul. You’ve hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you. And I forgive you."

Anthony Thompson spoke for the family of Myra Thompson: "I forgive him. My family forgive you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most, Christ, so he can change your ways no matter what happens to you, and you'll be okay. Do that! And you’ll be better off than you are right now.”

Felicia Sanders, mother of young Tywanza Sanders: “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifullest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero! But as we say in the Bible study, we enjoyed you, but may God have mercy on you.”

Alana Simmons, granddaughter of 74-year old Rev. Daniel Simmons: "Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul is proof—that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love, so hate won't win."

The sister of DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, admitted, "For me, I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I am very angry.” But she remembered her sister teaching her, “We are the family that love built! We have no room for hate so we have to forgive. And I pray God on your soul. And I thank God that I won’t be around when your judgment day comes with him. May God bless you.”

The late Christopher Hitchens, a notorious atheist, claimed that "religion poisons everything." These people are evidently not poisoned. Indeed, just the opposite. They are being perfected in love. Ask yourself: Is my church and my personal discipleship in Christ helping me (and my children!) grow to become more like these people?

In his diabolical ignorance and confusion, this miserable young man wanted to provoke a race war. Instead, he got deeper sympathy and understanding between black and white Americans than we've seen in a long time, perhaps when we need it the most.

When times are darkest, Christ shines the most brightly. Consider the cross itself. Satan's death blow was the triumph of Christ. What Roof meant for evil, God is using for good. So ask, “How can I be part of this good?”


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Anchoring in the Basics of the Christian Faith

Jules-Alexis Muenier - La Leçon de Catéchisme (1890) Musée d'Orsay, Paris
For a thousand years, we have lived in Christendom, the Christian West, in which the truths of the Christian faith have been taken for granted societally. This is no longer so. Mothers can be denied custody of their children for being "religious extremists," i.e., biblically serious Christians. The cultural elite increasingly sees biblical Christianity as an appalling religion on par with the Taliban. Consider the Google homepage, a kind of town square. It offers well wishes to all sorts of groups for their special days and seasons, but at Christmas there are no holiday felicitations to Christians for the celebration of their Savior's birth. There is just a secular "Tis the Season" banner. They cannot even recognize the existence of what they obviously view as a dangerous presence among us. 

This shows how strange and even abhorrent biblical Christianity has become to many people. Now, just as in pagan Rome, Christians need a strong centering in the fundamental teachings of the Bible to be able to answer the scoffing, accusations, and distortions that come from the ungospelled world around us.

When the Apostle Paul was answering objections from his Jewish opponents in the first century, he made repeated reference back to the basics of the faith, the fundamental principles that are clear in the Bible and on which believers of good faith would never disagree. When you nail down the basics, you have the clear teachings in light of which you can navigate your way through the more complex truths of the faith. You are better equipped through the more clear passages and teaching to interpret the less clear. And you are less likely to be taken in by the seductive tends of the culture that pass themselves off as wisdom and goodness, less likely to be "tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Eph. 4:14).

We find these biblical basics in the ecumenical creeds, like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  These are good as far as they go, but they address fourth century issues (still important issues). They do not address issues of the twenty-first century like the inerrancy of Scripture and the way of salvation. Catechisms like the Westminster catechisms and the Heidelberg catechism collect and systematize these biblical basics so as to equip people of every age to believe and live in way properly glorifying to God. That's what a catechism does.

More than ever, Christians need to anchor themselves in the fundamentals of their faith, the biblical basics, even such starting points as creation, fall, and redemption...the garden, the curse, and the cross. 

Let me offer these 12 "biblical basics" from which you may launch into the wider fundamentals and the deeper truths of God's Word.

1. God is Sovereign – he created all things and governs all things.

2. God is Righteous – this includes that he is good, true, faithful, and just.

3. God is Trinity in unity – one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

4. God alone deserves glory  Ps. 115:1. The universe & even God himself are God-centered!

5. Christ is fully God and fully man – if you deviate from either one of these, you’re a heretic.

6. Christ is Savior – he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

7. Christ is Lord – he’s the boss; not me.

8. The Bible is the word of God  it is true in all that it teaches.

9. The Bible is the only rule of faith & life – what we’re to believe regarding God, love, and sin.

10. Man is created in the image of God – this should affect how you think of others.

11. Man sins in all he thinks, says, and does – this should affect how you think of yourself.

12. Salvation from that sin is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

Hold fast to what is true! You can have peace, and bring peace to others, when you clear away confusion and noise and focus on the fundamental truths of the Bible.

Look for the sermon on this topic delivered at Trinity Church (OPC) on Long Island (December 28, 2014) through SermonAudio.