Posts Tagged sin

Celebrate the Stuff: Avoiding Anti-Capitalism Hum-Bug and Advent Gnosticism

Sufjan Stevens, Christmas, gnosticism, anti-capitalismChristmas is a season that now comes pre-packaged with critiques of capitalism and consumerism. Although carefulness and concern over hyper-consumerism is always appropriate, in our desperate efforts to disassociate ourselves with Black Friday materialism, too often we push too far, yielding to a creeping dualism that’s unproductive for our economic culture and hazardous to Christmas cheer.

Over at Values and Capitalism, Elise Amyx provides a great critique of one such manifestation, Sufjan Stevens’s Christmas album, which seeks to expose Christmas for what he believes it’s become: “an annual exploitation of wealth, a festival of consumerism, and a vast playing field for the voyages of capitalism.”

Again, critiques of a “festival of consumerism” are on target in certain respects, but by taking us through a variety of Stevens’s “carols,” Amyx demonstrates how Stevens falls into the trap of taking these themes too far.

Her conclusion: (1) “he confuses the market economy with consumerism,” and (2) “he elevates the spiritual above the material.”

As she goes on to explain:

Stevens seems to hold that capitalism is evil because it necessitates materialistic consumerism. But he misunderstands the difference between consumerism and the market economy…When the goodness of the material is lost, capitalism is an easy scapegoat for consumerism.

Stevens’s misconception of capitalism also reflects a broader theological underpinning of all material things, reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism and some modern evangelical movements today. He claims Christmas should be about the spiritual aspects—what we feel and known inside—not material traditions…

Stevens wisely critiques the worthlessness of placing one’s hope solely in the material aspect of Christmas, but he misses a great opportunity to distinguish between worship of the material and worship of God through the material. He fails to point out the goodness that physical things can bring at Christmastime. Advent candles, nativity sets, presents, Christmas lights and ornaments need not distract us from Christ, but exist as physical reminders that lead us to worship Christ…

…Stevens’s Christmas message is one of massive spiritual and material discord, yet Advent embodies spiritual and material harmony that God intended for the world—and that’s the redemptive beauty in all the silver and gold adorning your Christmas tree.

In the same vein, though without reference to Stevens or capitalism, Douglas Wilson offers a similar perspective, noting that “a godliness that won’t delight in fudge and Read the rest of this entry »

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Free Markets as a Fruit of the Gospel

fruit merchantIn our discussions of the pros and cons of various socio-economic models, Christians have a common tendency to forget what should be our more fundamental aim: spreading the message of salvation through Jesus Christ and living as Christ would have us live.

In a recent post, Doug Wilson helps us remember (HT), noting that we should stop critiquing such systems in and of themselves—i.e. separated from the reality of sin and the project of salvation—and focus instead on how they impact each individual when it comes to realizing the life-giving freedom Christ has made possible.

As Wilson explains it:

I have written many times that free markets are for a free people, and that only a free people can sustain them. But slaves to sin cannot be a free people. And the only way to be liberated from slavery to sin is through the gospel that brings new life.

Another problem is that when slaves to sin spiral down into the civic slavery that is their natural civic condition, their masters will also be slaves to sin, albeit usually somewhat shrewder — at least for a short while. At some point the whole thing blows up for everybody, but the bottom line is that sin is the fundamental set of chains. You cannot hope to be enslaved by them, and yet be free in any sense that matters anywhere else.

Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises cannot keep people loving the freedom of markets any more than the wisest geologist who ever lived could have kept Cain from hitting Abel with that rock. Knowledge of the world is not the same thing as knowledge of the human heart.

…Other foolish observers within the Christian tradition have seen that this is true, and concluded that the problem lies with Hayek, et al. “We need to have values other than free market values, etc.” This is to say that since sinners cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, we need to haul out the chains of compassionate statism. Make ‘em do compassionate stuff and everything….

There is no salvation without a savior, and Jesus is the only savior. And how will they hear without a preacher? What we need is the gospel, what we need is a reformation, what we need is revival.

But although our political systems and economic models can’t produce revival by themselves, they do make a difference in how we interact and what we pursue. This is where our discussions need to begin.

The damaging impacts of top-down control are a bit easier for Christians to understand when we observe various governments shutting down churches and persecuting Christians in the streets on the basis of their faith, but what about when the government shuts down, redirects, or prohibits a variety of our day-to-day economic activities? When the government seizes an industry or moves money around to fund Entrepreneur X instead of Entrepreneur Y, What might such a government be preventing or distorting in terms of Christian initiative, creativity, and collaboration? Are we always to assume the Bureaucrat Z is the preferred oracle of Jehovah?

Fundamentally, we must reject the materialistic, deterministic worldviews of self-anointed economic planners of all varieties. If Christians are serious about spreading the truth, we should go about offering the Read the rest of this entry »

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Divine Generosity: Making “Good Intentions” Good

God So Loved, He Gave, Divine Generosity, Kelly Kapic, Justin BorgerI have previously written on the importance of the Holy Spirit in aligning our lives to God’s perfect will and have also noted the limits of a spiritually dead worldview as it relates to generosity. What I haven’t done, however, is examined what will emerge — and how it will emerge — if we get all of our ducks in a row.

What might it look like if we were to actually succeed in avoiding the desires of the flesh, producing the fruits of the Spirit, and leveraging the subsequent alignment toward reaching the Lost, healing the sick, and helping the needy? What might it look like if our actions were guided by the Love of God rather than the Love of Man?

My friend Robby Moeller recently wrote eloquently about having a “head for the poor,” but while this is an important point, I am also concerned that our hearts might be further off than we think (hint: we’re sinners). Like anyone else, Christians are prone to what the Apostle Paul calls “futile thinking” and “foolish hearts.” We are constantly struggling to overcome a debased, idolatry-prone worldview.

In short, I fear that we often give our “good intentions” the benefit of the doubt.

What is “good” in the first place, and according to whom? Does it have anything to do with truth, and if so, how does that impact our view of love? What does “effective” mean under such a framework, or what about “compassion”? Are there any intentions worth esteeming if they fail to orient themselves correctly?

We need to correct our brains, yes, but more fundamentally, we need a spiritual revival that aligns our hearts and minds accordingly. This will certainly impact our perspectives on loftier political and philosophical levels, but more importantly, it will transform the way we approach our most mundane of day-to-day tasks and choices. Unbeknownst to many, God actually speaks, and we have the amazing opportunity to listen. Sound “radical” yet?

As Kelly Kapic argues in his recent book, God So Loved, He Gave, we have been called into a movement of divine generosity — one in which we reject bondage of this world and embrace God’s absolute ownership over our lives. “When captured by the depths of God’s gifts in the gospel,” Kapic states, “we discover that he frees us to participate in his work of grace, hope, righteousness, and love. This is the generous life: this is what belonging to God is all about.”

Sin is all around us, and although we are typically good at talking about it in church (or at least we used to be), we seem to forget that it’s a constant competing force in our fundamental decisionmaking. “No human relationship is free from this corrosive power,” as Kapic states, yet in our attempts to build relationships and community we seem to think that “good intentions” are all Read the rest of this entry »

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Agents of Faith: Pursuing the Pillar of Fire

Moses Crossing the Red Sea, Pillar of Fire, RaphaelIn times of uncertainty, we tend to look for the quickest path to security. We want solutions that are neat and tidy, direction that is clear and comfortable, and a future that is pretty and predictable. No one wants to be unsure about tomorrow, and no one likes to be exposed.

When it comes to looking for security in God, we are no different. Not only do we want a tangible sign that God is real, but we want a flashy display of his guidance, outlining exactly what to do and how to do it. We want to know which job will be profitable, which relationship will endure, and which parenting strategy will empower our children to the fullest.

In many ways, God has already given us the answers to these questions, and he has done so in a direct and persuasive way — through his Word. Not only does the Word take the form of written guidance for our daily lives, but it also became flesh in order to deliver us from sin and send us the Holy Spirit (aka “the helper”). In this sense, the answers are largely available. What more could we want?

The problem is that God does not answer such questions on our terms. If you’re anything like me, you’ve asked the following question at least once in your life:

If God is real, why doesn’t he just come down from heaven, tell me the Bible is true, and give me his phone number in case I have any questions?

The answer lies in the reality that God created us to be agents of faith, which is necessary for us to be agents of love. God yearns for relationship with us, and real relationship requires faith in the sense that real relationship requires trust.

The struggle of faith — of believing in God and doing what he says— is part of Read the rest of this entry »

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Instruments of Righteousness: Leveraging Human Nature through Capitalism

Apostle Paul, Rembrandt

The Apostle Paul recognized human depravity, but he also saw redemption.

In a recent piece at The American, Arthur Brooks and Peter Wehner write splendidly about the connection between vision and political execution. After summarizing three basic views of human nature — what Thomas Sowell would call “visions” — Brooks and Wehner dive into the issues involved in executing each vision in the political sphere.

The three primary views, as the authors see them, are as follows:

  1. Humans are flawed but perfectible (a la Jean-Jacques Rouseeau and Karl Marx).
  2. Humans are flawed and cannot change (a la Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville).
  3. Humans are flawed but “under the right circumstances, human nature can work to the advantage of the whole” (a la Adam Smith and James Madison).

Brooks and Wehner side with the last option, and after exploring the political implications supporting it, they explain its overall consistency with Biblical teaching:

This last view of human nature is consistent with and reflective of Christian teaching. The Scriptures teach that we are both made in the image of God and fallen creatures; in the words of Saint Paul, we can be “instruments of wickedness” as well as “instruments of righteousness.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, the Bible declares — yet it also tells us to be holy in all our conduct, to walk in His statutes, and not to grow weary in doing good. Human beings are capable of acts of squalor and acts of nobility; we can pursue vice and we can pursue virtue.

But how does this vision of human nature connect with the political realm? How do we take the Pauline view of human nature and translate it into a proper political framework?

Brooks and Wehner explain:

As for the matter of the state: Romans 13 makes clear that government is divinely sanctioned by God to preserve public order, restrain evil, and make justice possible. This, too, was a view shared by many of the founders. Government reflects human nature, they argued, “because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice without constraint.”

This brings the authors to the subject of self-interest. After all, it is capitalism’s reliance on self-interest that leads its opponents to ridicule it as immoral and Read the rest of this entry »

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The Ultimate Resource: Investing in Human Potential

What if misery was a product?” asks June Arunga.

“Assume for an instant that it is one of Africa’s exports, and that the money sent to relieve it by many well-wishing humanitarians is a form of capital. The amount of capital expended to purchase this product makes it as great an export — if not greater — than Nigeria’s oil or Congo’s gems.”

This comes from a speech by Arunga at a recent event sponsored by The Economist. I highly recommend watching the video in full (HT).




Arunga covers a few specific areas related to the ineffectiveness of foreign aid, but her main concern seems to be this:

The scary thing for me might be that [foreign aid is] not merely ineffective, but that it is in itself a form of investment in misery…It is a choice to invest in pain and suffering rather than in aspiration and human potential…It is a choice between on the one hand, a blinding pessimism, and on the other hand, an illuminating optimism. It is a choice between denial and acknowledgement of human potential.

Arunga provides a few scenarios to illustrate how aid proponents typically approach Africa’s downtrodden, focusing primarily on Read the rest of this entry »

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Regulating Temptation: How to Cut Off Your Own Hands

I have a new post at Common Sense Concept discussing Jesus’ advice on dealing with temptation. Specifically, I look at how Christians like to implement such teachings using political force.

I focus on the following passage, which is Jesus’ response to his disciples’ inquiry on “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”:

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

So if we do try to look at this passage politically, what can we gather from it, if anything?

Here’s an excerpt of my response:

We are tempted to act on Jesus’ words by rashly rolling out some kind of policy to deal with people’s junk. We don’t try to channel human nature through incentives or think about public sins vs. Biblical sins. Instead, we rush to seize the objects of our temptations, and in our attempts to do so we instantly rob Jesus’ message of everything that makes it unique.

This is not the Quranic message of “cut off his or her hands.” We are not called to put our sisters in burqas just so the men won’t have to deal with their lust. Jesus’ message is the entirely different, non-political, non-coercive message of “cut off your own hands.”

To read the full article, click here.

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Envy and Economics: Grieving the Good of Others

Victor ClaarLast Monday I had the great pleasure of participating in an event at the American Enterprise Institute titled “Grieving the Good of Others: Envy and Economics.” The event was organized by AEI’s Project on Values and Capitalism.

The primary speaker was Victor Claar, associate professor of economics at Henderson State University and co-author of the book Economics in Christian Perspective: Theory, Policy, and Life Choices (my review is forthcoming).

Claar offered many insights on envy, discussing its implications both as a personal sin and an economic motivator. Although he briefly touched on the envious impulse behind Marxism (a common tack), the majority of his talk focused on how unequal outcomes in capitalism can lead to envy.

The question? What, if anything, are we to do about that? Can we actually limit envy by forcefully suppressing “opportunities” for it to manifest? What are the secondary impacts of such a scheme?

After Claar’s talk, I was allowed a few minutes to respond along with AEI’s Emily Batman. In my response, I pulled the scope back a bit and talked about the overall limits economic policymaking has on shaping individual morality. To make my point, I talked about authentic morality vs. artificial morality, drawing a few economic parallels along the way (e.g. authentic prices vs. artificial ones).

Following our responses was a Q&A session, which led to its own assortment of insights.

I encourage you to check out the event for yourself, which is posted online in Read the rest of this entry »

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The Ultimate Exchange Rate: Real Value in a Material World

The Parable of the TalentsIt’s easy for us economist types to get caught up in earthly measurements of value — partly because it’s fun, but mostly because it’s important.

Even more important, however, is the pursuit of real value in heavenly terms. When it comes to this, we all struggle with getting the earthly “exchange rate” down, and as long as sin is around, we always will.

But Jesus gives us a pretty clear image of what it might ultimately look like in these back-to-back examples.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

In other words, no matter how much we have accumulated in our own lives, whether it’s wealth, skills, prestige, or status, none of it matches up to the value of a life transformed and saved through Christ.

But how do we purchase such a life? How do we make this ultimate trade-in?

The first and most important answer is that we can’t — Jesus already paid the ultimate price through his blood, which pays for our entrance into the “kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son.” It is only through this propitiation that we can be saved.

But there is still this central notion throughout the Gospel of obedience, which Jesus often illuminates by talking about trade. The question rises: If the ultimate price is already paid, what is left to trade in? What are we Read the rest of this entry »

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The Sin Police: Can the State Redeem You?

If you haven’t heard yet, Republican candidate Rand Paul made some controversial remarks about the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Paul’s basic argument was that we should prohibit racial discrimination by the government, but we should not intrude on the right of private businesses to practice bigotry.

The media firestorm over Paul’s comments seems to have subsided (for now), but the massive reaction affirms how many people believe it is the role of the State to be the sin police.

Pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson was recently asked to comment on the controversy, and his response brings up many issues worth thinking about.

Watch the video of his response here:

Wilson begins by saying the reaction and hype was spawned by a root problem in our society:

The problem that plagues us in our political discourse is that we don’t understand the difference between sins and crimes.

What Wilson means is that we always rush to pass laws to prohibit things we don’t approve of.  For Wilson, this common perspective comes from a misplaced worship Read the rest of this entry »

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