2016 Books: 3Q

Books read from July through September. Annual running count: 24.

Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective – Peter Leithart (2012); Library // Interesting thesis of empires being either Babels (forced homogeneity) or Beasts (anti-church), how Babels transition to beasts, and how America fits into this (hint: Babel for now). A bit forced at times, but definitely interesting.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015); Library // Eye-opening, saddening, angering, intensely personal book on being a black man and not being in control of one’s black body (to vastly and unfairly over-generalize it). Recommended.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck (1952); Library // A masterpiece and my favorite Steinbeck work so far. A heart-wrenching and beautifully written story loosely based on the story of Cain and Abel. Highly recommended with reservations for occasional adult material.

Knowing Christ – Mark Jones (2015); Print // Excellent book and highly recommended. Written in the style of Puritans but much more readable; also similar in style to Ryle or Packer. Each short chapter is a reflection on an aspect of Christ and his person or work.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness – Andrew Peterson (2008); Print // Really fun young adult fiction by a master songwriter. First book in a trilogy/series. Not quite on the same level as N.D. Wilson’s similar books, but still really good.

The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church – Timothy Witmer (2010); Print // Eminently practical and readable. Makes a biblical and historical case for church leaders as shepherds (especially pastors and elders), and provides an in-depth framework for implementing a shepherding ministry.

Side by Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love  – Edward T. Welch (2015); Print // Had high expectations for this, and it didn’t meet them. Practical and somewhat helpful but not particularly inspiring or deep.


Americanist as Apple Pie

What makes us [America] exceptional is not our self-interest or the fact that we fight wars or the fact that we fight to win. We are exceptional in our blindness to our use of power. [The religion of] Americanism fools us into thinking that we are acting for high-minded ideals rather than for grubby national advantage. Worse, Americanism mythologizes and sanctifies our not uncommon big-country-on-the-planet bullying and hypocrisy. We protect our favored industries yet demand open doors into small, developing Asian economies. We sing the praises of democracy while sending CIA operatives to overthrow elected rulers. We meddle in other nations’ business in ways that we would not tolerate for a moment if we were on the receiving end. We pile up burning corpses and tell ourselves we are regenerating the world. We can get away with all this because Americanism persuades us that we are invariably, no matter what the cause or how we behave, the global good guy.

Babel-like, we believe we have brought history effectively to its conclusion: American democracy is everyone’s tomorrow. Babel-like, we want everyone everywhere to confess with one lip our American creed of liberty, democracy, and free markets. Babel-like, we are anxious until everyone looks like us – with a McDonald’s in every major city, and a Walmart to boot – or until we can force most everyone to play by our rules. American power in the world might be entirely nonviolent and benign were it not for the third plank of the Americanist creed, the sacrificial consecration of war and violence. Vast and complex as it is, the United States does act consistently in terms of its Americanist convictions, but it is no aberration when it does. When we violently impose our will on the world, we are acting against the better angels of our nature. But we are not betraying our true selves. We are being as Americanist as apple pie.

-Peter Leithart in Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (2012), pp. 134-135

Political Brain Disease and Actual Thinking

Wendell Berry in a rare moment of biting sarcasm, in an essay on the dangers, fallacies, and atrocities of factory farming.

“Animal factories ought to have been the subject of much government concern, if government is in fact concerned about the welfare of the land and the people. But, instead, the confined animal feeding industry has been the beneficiary of government encouragement and government incentives. This is the result of a political brain disease that causes people in power to think that anything that makes more money or ‘creates jobs’ is good.

“We have animal factories, in other words, because of a governmental addiction to short-term economics. Short-term economics is the practice of making as much money as you can as fast as you can by any possible means while ignoring the long-term effects. Short-term economics is the economics of self-interest and greed. People who operate on the basis of short-term economics accumulate large ‘externalized’ costs, which they charge to the future – that is to the world and to everybody’s grandchildren…

“If the people in our state and national governments undertook to evaluate economic enterprises by the standards of long-term economics, they would have to employ their minds in actual thinking. For many of them, this would be a shattering experience, something altogether new, but it would also cause them to learn things and do things that would improve the lives of their constituents.”

-Wendell Berry in “Stupidity in Concentration” (2002), collected in Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, p. 12-13

Prohibition & Temperance: Grape Juice in Communion Since the 1800s

I happen to disagree with Keith Mathison on one point in the quotation below. The Grand Failed Experiment called Prohibition does not have only one lasting “success,” it has two. The first is described below. The second is that Pennsylvania still has antiquated and ridiculous laws related to state-run stores, liquor licenses, and a monopoly held by distributors and their unions. Besides this minor disagreement, I think Mathison lays out irrefutable arguments for using wine in the Lord’s Supper in his book Given for You.

“The history of the temperance movement and Prohibition is fascinating, but it is beyond the scope of this work to trace it in any detail. Suffice it to say that the temperance movement was a moral, political, and cultural failure. The movement failed culturally because it shared one of the flawed presuppositions of Christian liberalism. It placed the responsibility for sin in an external object rather than in the human heart. Getting rid of alcohol did not and could not get rid of sin and evil in the heart of man. The movement failed morally because it allowed itself to be deceived into setting up a higher standard of righteousness than the word of God. By prohibiting what God allowed, the movement fell into self-righteous legalism. The movement’s only lasting ‘success’ is found in those churches that used its logic as the basis for replacing wine with grape juice in the Lord’s Supper.”

 -Keith Mathison in Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper (P&R, 2002), p. 305

Fiddling and Laughing

I don’t have a strong opinion on gun control, and won’t give one in the spirit of Neil Postman. But I do have a strong opinion on abortion. Some random thoughts I’ve had lately:

  • Christians on both sides of the political aisle are fired up about gun control. Some don’t want our guns taken from us. Others want to make it harder to obtain a gun. If we, as believers in the image of God, are concerned about life, shouldn’t we be able to come to an agreement?
  • Thanks to living in Lancaster County, I’ve learned that “assault rifle” isn’t actually as James Bond-ish of a weapon as it sounds.
  • Isn’t a founding principle of the Republican Party to protect life? Isn’t a founding principle of the Democratic Party to look after the least of these?
  • While both parties fiddle, we’re approaching the 56,000,000 (56 million) mark in children “legally” slaughtered in this country.
  • In the time it took someone to enter a school and kill 20 children in Connecticut, 90 children in utero were murdered. And gun control is the issue conservatives are viewing as the last straw? It’s like they are saying, “You can take our children, but don’t take our guns.”
  • Well, the last straw also includes a media-driven, alarmist, artificial, political chess match “crisis” called the fiscal cliff.
  • Until we turn off the news and stop supporting their bloodthirsty, alarmist “coverage,” we and the media will continue to give school shooters the outlet they lust after: recognition and vilification. In other words, school shooters won’t stop because of increased gun regulations. 
  • Just like in the wildly successful and efficient disaster naively called the War on Drugs, evil people will still find ways to get their hands on guns no matter how illegal they are. This, tragically, probably also applies to abortions, too.
  • Does anyone else see the inconsistent, self-serving “logic” used by the Vice President? In between laughs, during the vice presidential debate Biden waxed long about how he agrees with the Catholic Church on their stance on abortion, but that he doesn’t want to push his beliefs on others. But recently he jumped at the chance to head a gun control committee to push his beliefs on others through executive order? Come on, Joe.
“They were laughing instead of thinking, but they did not know what they were laughing about.”
-Aldous Huxley in Brave New World
“He was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”
-Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death


It’s Not Even Cool

This quote is spot on, especially considering it’s coming from a liberal-leaning Democrat author. We’ve been trying to save for a car (not to mention a house down payment down the road), but keep falling behind, in part because of taxes and rising prices for pretty much everything. Maybe we should just forget about down payments and go into mounds of debt, since the government rewards that behavior?

“The policies of the U.S. government reward people who go into debt and spend, and punish people who save. If you borrow a million dollars to buy a McMansion using an interest-only mortgage, you get to deduct the entire amount from your taxable income. If you decide instead to save a thousand dollars a month so that you can pay cash for that McMansion, the government taxes the interest on that savings. It also taxed the money when you first earned it. In short, the government pays Americans to take significant risk and live beyond our means. 

“More generally, the government taxes savings but not spending. If you buy a new car, you pay zero federal tax (only local sales tax). The federal government puts no barriers between you and buying a car. If you put $30,000 in the bank instead, you get taxed on your interest, even though that interest is primarily making up for inflation. At the current low interest rates, if you put money into a standard savings account you are actually losing money in real terms every year as a result of inflation and taxes. No wonder people don’t save. 

“One big solution is to stop taxing savings, stop paying people for going into debt, and start taxing consumption. Called the ‘fair tax’ by supporters, this tax plan advocates replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. Most proposals allow some nontaxed consumption to make sure that lower-income people are not unfairly taxed. Dismantling the IRS is a tough sell, but the fair tax would reward success instead of punishing it with higher taxes. Taxes would incur only when you consumed goods. As a Democrat with a high mortgage deduction, [this author] came to agree that it is one of the only ways that Americans could be instantly incentivized into savings instead of spending. At the very least, the income tax on savings accounts should be eliminated. Why punish saving? It’s not even cool. But it is beneficial in the long run – otherwise known as the time when even the narcissists wish they hadn’t blown their cash on a BMW.”

-Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Free Press, 2009), 300-301

Are you reading, Sarah Palin?

I’ve been casually interested in the “Christian America” movement and reinterpretation of America’s Christian founding (or questionable history thereof). I gravitate toward books that attempt to show that America was not founded as a Christian nation, and find them compelling, especially in the face of all the ill-founded, poorly researched, right wing over-generalizations. Thus, I found this brief passage from historian Carl Trueman to be provocative in that it points to contemporary appropriations of this topic, while most book-length treatments on the subject mainly examine the historical evidence. The context of this passage is in a discussion of the “genetic fallacy,” which happens when “historians are guilty of the error of allowing the origins of something to determine its current nature or meaning” (p. 158). Whether America was founded as a Christian nation or not, this excerpt is dedicated to Sarah Palin.

“Many readers might well be thinking at this point that this fallacy is so obviously problematic that it cannot possibly have much force within the writing of history today. True, its flaws are obvious; but, in fact, it does enjoy considerable vogue in some quarters. Take, for example, the most radical wings of the Christian America movement where the argument is that America was founded by men motivated by and large by their commitment to the Christian faith and their desire to build a Christian nation. Thus, America was and is – or at least, ought to be – a Christian nation, and her founding documents embody Christian virtues. This leads to interpretations of the present that can engage simply in anachronistic value judgments on actions and events; or, perhaps in a more sinister way, connect America to events in biblical prophecy, God’s providential plans for the world, etc.

“Few would deny that America’s founding documents embody civic virtues, though what makes those virtues distinctively Christian is surely rather debatable. Thus, the significance of the impact here is perhaps less on the actual writing of history than on the subsequent use of such history in contemporary politics; but it is useful to identify exactly what the underlying problem with such history is.”

-Carl Trueman in History and Fallacies: Problems Faced in the Writing of History (Crossway, 2010), p. 159