Category Archives: Resources for Radical Living

Reflections on living the compassionate life, the prophetic life, the penitential life, the devotional life, and the communal life

How can John Wesley help us find social forms geared to human flourishing?


wesleyAs I mentioned in a previous post, back in April of this year (2013) I spoke twice at an event centered around a new book by Indiana Wesleyan University Provost David Wright, How God Makes the World A Better Place: A Wesleyan Primer on Faith, Work, and Economic TransformationI was invited to introduce a couple of the meetings at the conference with some remarks tied to David’s work and to Wesley’s thinking on work and economics.

This is what I said at a lunch event with a roomful of SPU professors:

“How God Makes the World a Better Place: Wesleyan Contributions to a Social Framework for Human Flourishing”

Introduction

First, I want us to understand the service that David has done to the church by opening the conversation on Wesley and economics in this little primer.

When I first knew that I’d be here today with you to think together about this topic, I contacted the smartest scholar of Wesley and things Wesleyan that I know: Randy Maddox, who is now at my alma mater, Duke University. “Randy,” I said, “A group is getting together in your old stomping grounds in April to talk about what Wesley can teach us about work and economics. Can you point me to some sources on that?”

Now I had full expectation that Randy would set me in a good direction. After all, this was the man who decades ago, in a chance conversation on an airplane, basically gave me an entire starting bibliography for my dissertation on the American Wesleyan holiness movement.

Instead, Randy said: “That’s great. So glad you’ll be talking about this. But this is a seriously understudied area. Almost nobody has written about this. There just aren’t that many sources I can point you toward.” Shocking! One of the world’s leading experts on Wesley not only couldn’t tell me much about this topic, but he couldn’t even point me to scholarly sources on it. That’s when I knew I had my work cut out for me. Continue reading

What does John Wesley teach us about work and economics?


David Wright bookA couple of months ago, Seattle Pacific University held a conference centered on a new book by Indiana Wesleyan University Provost David Wright, How God Makes the World A Better Place: A Wesleyan Primer on Faith, Work, and Economic TransformationI was invited to introduce a couple of the meetings at the conference with some remarks tied to David’s work and to Wesley’s thinking on work and economics.

This is what I said at a breakfast event with a roomful of eager SPU school of theology students and fellow-travelers:

Where can we learn from Wesley in the area of work and economics?

Theological first principles

The focus of this primer is “Work as cooperation with God.”

“In the Wesleyan view, godly work is not defined by what one does, but by the way one does it,” says David. I think that’s fair to say, and I would add, not only the way one does it, but the motivations and character out of which those actions flow. In examining the motives behind John Wesley’s extraordinary lifelong dedication toward bringing material as well as spiritual flourishing to the poor, Duke’s Richard Heitzenrater argues that it comes most fundamentally from a Christian virtue ethic, not an ethic of obligation.

An ethic of obligation sets the rules and laws for behavior, and then lays down the imperative: Go and do it! A virtue ethic recognizes that despite what Nike would tell you, you can’t “Just do it.” You have to “be it” before you can “do it.” Ethical behavior flows from ethical character. And ethical character is not a matter of gritting your teeth and performing a series of actions. It is about having your heart changed. Continue reading

Education for the heart: A “Lewisian” reflection from former Christianity Today editor-in-chief David Neff


education heartOne of my favorite pedagogues these days is James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In his series-in-progress entitled Cultural Liturgies, he argues that human beings are not primarily thinking animals but must be regarded instead as “desiring animals.” Head knowledge, especially head knowledge gained from an instructor who is “teaching to the test,” is aimed at the wrong part of the moral anatomy to make good citizens. We need a pedagogy that “aims below the head,” says Smith, in order to help students rightly order their loves and desires.

. . .

The kind of close reading advocated by Lewis meets what I believe is an innate desire for self-transcendence. “We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own,” Lewis writes. He compares close reading with love, with moral action, and even with the fundamental act of learning. “In love we escape from our self into one another …. [E]very act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place .”

Thanks, David Neff, for your reflection on education today. You (and C. S. Lewis and James K. A. Smith) hit the nail on the head.

Continue reading

Beyond labels: Alan Jacobs defends three “potentially conservative” ideas, not caring whether he is actually “a conservative”


Good brief article from Wheaton English professor and C S Lewis biographer Alan Jacobs over at the American Conservative website.

Here’s how he starts off:

Am I a conservative? Heck if I know. All I know for sure is that the good people here atThe American Conservative are interested enough in what I have to say to give me a platform on which to say it. For which I am genuinely grateful.

I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.

So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.

Jacobs goes on to articulate three stances that he holds that may be considered “conservative”: (1) a consistent pro-life position, (2) support for the principle of subsidiarity in political and social thought, and (3) need to interact with tradition/the past.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the positions Jacobs identifies here. I am especially delighted to see subsidiarity articulately described and defended. I am with Novak, Nisbet, Chesterton, Belloc, certain encyclicals, and others on the necessity of protecting folks from “the ravishments of the centralized political state” (Nisbet). I also find this a powerful statement of one of our most urgent current tasks: “A great deal of suffering in America today is caused by the evacuation of intermediary structures: the church, the family, voluntary organizations. These intermediary structures are in desperate need of renewal and that can only happen if there is a systematic shift of power, wealth, and influence from state and national governments to local units.”

Deeds over words: a Jesus priority?


Francis and leper

Love this reflection on the relationship between right action and right belief by Franciscan Richard Rohr. It is available here.

Orthodoxy over Orthopraxy

A Christian, or any holy person, is someone who is animated by the Holy Spirit, a person in whom the Spirit of Christ can work. That doesn’t have to mean that you consciously know what you are doing, or that you even have to know, or that you even belong to the right Jesus group. As Paul said to the Athenians, “The God whom I proclaim is in fact the one you already worship without knowing it” (Acts 17:23).

In Matthew 25, the dead say, “When have we seen you hungry? When have we seen you thirsty?” And the Christ says in return, “Because you did it for these little ones, you did it for me.” In each case, they did not know, at least consciously; that they were doing it for God or Jesus or even love. They just did it, and presumably from a pure heart, without any obvious religious affiliation or other motive.

It never depends upon whether we say the right words, or practice the right ritual, but whether we live the right reality. It is rather clear to me now that the Spirit gets most of her work done by stealth and disguise, not even caring who gets the credit, and not just by those who say, “Lord, Lord!” (Matthew 7:21). Jesus seems to be making this exact point in his story of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32). The one who actually acts, even if he says the wrong words, “does the Father’s will,” and not the one who just says the right words.

Adapted from Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go, p. 193, Day 206

Before you Reformed types dismiss the thrust of this reflection as universalist, check out this article on Jonathan Edwards’s willingness to think of the Stockbridge Indians as “noble pagans,” where Edwards scholar Gerald McDermott insists that “Edwards praised these Indians not for the truth of their ideas but the quality of their lives, just as Luke had commended Cornelius for the quality of his practice.”

And once and for all, NO, Francis of Assisi never said “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words.” Or at least, there is no evidence that he did. See here.

Is it hard to be a Christian actor? This Two and a Half Men star thinks it may often be.


Modesty!, etching, published by G. Humphrey , ...

Modesty!, etching, published by G. Humphrey , London, 7th June 1821, (Caroline of Brunswick, wife of King George IV, at a theatre in Genoa, with her secretary and constant companion Bartolomeo Pergami) Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Museum number: S.51-2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“What I would say to a person who is firm in their faith and wants to go into an acting career: It is such a difficult thing to do without compromising your beliefs. Even though you are just pretending, if you sign the contract and agree to do what they are doing, even if your character is not evil or doesn’t compromise your belief, you are in a world similar to that of Alexander the Great. Everything the Greeks did was to promote their own worldview, their schools, their theater, their religion, and their sports. You are either in the world or with God. Committing yourself to some kind of job that isn’t committed to God is going to bring so much trouble into your life. It’s not good and not something I would suggest that someone seek.”

So says Angus T. Jones, the 19-yr-old star of Two and a Half Men. Now, I would have to agree with Jones that this particular show, which has for years made Jones himself one of the wealthiest child star on television, has few if any redeeming qualities. “Filth” may not be too strong a word. But he is raising a larger question here: Is it possible to be an actor and a Christian?

The 3rd-century Roman Christian Tertullian thought not. And he had some good reasons: “The Shows” of his time included nudity, sexual acts, and violence–including gladiatorial contests and the public execution-by-wild-animals of many Christians. They also took place in settings explicitly dedicated to idols. Here is Tertullian, in his de spectaculis (“The Shows”): Continue reading

Is everyday work spiritually second-class? Not according to these Christian thinkers


Refocused Vocation

Thanks to Leadership Journal for asking me to write the following. It’s now up at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/
winter/refocused-vocation.html
.

Refocused Vocation

Over the centuries, it’s been distorted, but history also sharpens our view of every Christian’s calling.

Chris R. Armstrong

In the first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, I have my students talk about their sense of calling. Many of them tell a similar story: “I quit my job to go into the ministry.” What drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work. They didn’t see their workas pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom. The frequent assumption is that ordained ministry is where people are really working for God.

If that’s true, where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of their lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours in non-church work? Can they see secular jobs as a holy vocation? Can non-church work be a means to serve others, giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Mt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Those in secular work often feel like only those doing things of significance in ministry positions will get to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class isn’t so much taught as caught. Continue reading

Jazz, entrepreneurship, and tradition


Keith Jarrett

As an enthusiastic jazz fan and an appreciator of business entrepreneurship, I enjoy watching folks make it up as they go along. Nothing affirms my sense of human beings as “co-creators” with God (a favored term of that great co-creator, J R R Tolkien) more than listening to the swooping, soaring melodic lines of a skilled jazz musician. Nothing hits me more powerfully with the great practical power of creative thinking than seeing an entrepreneur take the germ of an idea and spin it out into products, services, jobs that turn raw materials into something of value to the world.

But as a historian, I am reminded that when true jazz musicians hear an improviser who has not studied the traditions handed down through generations of jazz men and women . . . they shake their heads and turn away. And when veteran businesspeople see a young wannabe rushing out to potential consumers without proper understanding of their needs, or building financial castles without grounding in economic knowledge and financial principles . . . they wince, knowing the inevitable failure that will follow.

So why can’t the American church learn this lesson? Why do we keep rushing to and fro launching all our creative ministries, church growth strategies, and grand “missional” plans, unequipped with even a basic acquaintance of those giants whose shoulders we are standing on? What is it that, unlike any other craft or business on earth, leads us to think that we can ignore history and still succeed? Why do we think we can bypass 2,000 years of wise thinking (and lessons learned the hard way) about the Gospel, about what it is to Be The Church, and bring our fevered plans about how to “Do Church” to fruitful reality?

OK, flame off. As you were. I’m going to go think about New Years Resolutions . . . AND the Great Cloud of Witnesses.

And by the way: R.I.P. Dave Brubeck–one of the greats. And long live Keith Jarrett (pictured above), a living legend and influencer of a whole new generation of skilled, creative players.

Max Weber was wrong: greed does not make capitalism thrive, it ruins it


My friend Greg Forster has written a thought-provoking article on the humane roots and recent corruption of capitalism. I recommend this as well worth reading. Here’s the first bit, to whet your appetite:

Last week John Starke wrote for TGC about “The Myth of the Protestant Work Ethic.” I’m grateful to Starke for exposing the egregious theological errors in Max Weber‘s theory of capitalism’s origins. But Weber’s theory of what happened next, the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” thesis, has done just as much damage. Christians ought to understand how Weber’s view of capitalism undermines the moral foundations of a humane and genuinely productive economy, promoting materialism, greed, faith/work dualism, debt, and crony capitalism. Continue reading

What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man. Continue reading