Posts Tagged transformation

Self-Denial as Self-Help: Avoiding ‘Eat-Pray-Love’ Self-Indulgence

Self helpOver at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I offer some critiques on Kathryn Schulz’s recent piece in New York Times Magazine on the modern age of self-help.

Schulz highlights a variety of approaches to introspection and identity-seeking, and although she briefly mentions the Christian “method” of submitting oneself to God first and foremost, she proceeds to casually shrug it off, using scientific non-consensus as her excuse, instead favoring a “promiscuity” in our approach-taking and hypothesis-testing:

Try something. Better still, try everything—throw all the options at the occluding wall of the self and see what sticks. Meditation, marathon training, fasting, freewriting, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, speed dating, volunteering, moving to Auckland, redecorating the living room: As long as you steer clear of self-harm and felony, you might as well do anything you can to your inner and outer ecosystems that might induce a beneficial mutation.

As I go on to argue, Christians should be cautious of this type of universalism:

Christians mustn’t give way to a life of random, impulsive decision-making, whether it’s geared toward curing a personal addiction or ramping up something as innocent and well-meaning as helping those around us. Submitting to a smorgasbord of humanistic experimentation in our identity-seeking may yield “beneficial mutation” for some, but “beneficial” according to whom and at the cost of what? In the end, Schulz’s proposed path of self-realization involves diminishing the mysteries of God-empowered transformation to an exotic menu option amid a buffet of Eat-Pray-Love self-indulgence.

Regardless of whether we’re able to fully rationalize God’s transformative effects over our deepest desires, attitudes, and decisions, in humbling ourselves before the Lord of Lords and asking what he would have us do in all of our endeavors, economic or otherwise, we can have confidence that he will follow through according to his will.

This doesn’t mean the process is easy. Seasons of introspection and self-evaluation are not typically resolved with the single thump of a Bible or the first implant of that seed of self-denial. But that’s certainly where we should begin. Living a life of whole-life discipleship requires earnest dedication and preparation, and a particular path for preparation exists—namely, submitting oneself to a real God with real purposes for real people with real needs. The marketplace of humanity gets much more interesting when the market information gets that good.

“Commit your way to the Lord. Trust in him, and he will act,” writes the Psalmist. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way.”

Read the full post here.

 

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Christian Mattress Merchants Reach Beyond Economic Exchange

Urban Mattress, Christian businessOver at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog, I discuss a recent article at Christianity Today on a mattress business whose Christian owners seek to transform what many see as “one of the sleaziest industries in the world.”

From the article:

Rietema and Steve Van Diest, both former campus ministers, are bringing rest—and integrity—back to a business largely devoid of it. Four years ago, a Christian entrepreneur invited the Colorado natives to begin deploying their relational abilities in strip malls rather than on college campuses. They now co-own three Urban Mattress stores in Denver and have franchised four more. And, they argue, their current work is just as important as their former ministry….

…”I don’t have to do mental gymnastics with the product I sell,” Van Diest says. “It’s not a frivolous item. It’s not an image-conscious product. People come here after being worn down by horrible sleep, replete with aches and pain. If we can provide them with a small glimpse of grace for a third of their lives, that’s kingdom work. That matters to God.”

There is plenty to admire about Urban Mattress, but one of the most striking features in the article is the intimate nature of many of their customer interactions. Here, I argue that Christians should pay close attention. The social, moral, and spiritual implications of Christian business – nay, all business – stretch beyond philanthropy and sound business practices:

On this, Urban Mattress provides a good lesson not only on the broader implications of our economic transactions, but also on the broader potential of Christian business in general. Far too often we confine our thinking about Christian business to areas like philanthropy or “corporate evangelism.” By going further and offering this type of personal customer service, these owners show us how there can be more exchange in exchange than we allow for or recognize, whether social, psychological, or spiritual.

When we engage in the marketplace, whether as producers or consumers, there is something transcendent Read the rest of this entry »

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American Idealism and Economic Opportunity for the Glory of God

flag, crossFrench Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain once wrote that Americans “are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage.”

Drawing on this sentiment, George Weigel argues that although materialism may reign in America more than it once did, “there remains a link between money-making and idealism in these United States that is distinctive, and perhaps even unique.”

Pointing to President Calvin Coolidge (no fan of materialism), Weigel emphasizes that Coolidge’s famous line—“the chief business of the American people is business”—shouldn’t be taken by itself. For Coolidge, and for most Americans (even today), promoting the dignity-conferring effects of business is part of a larger, deeper idealism.

As Weigel explains:

As for wealth, consider Silent Cal’s remarks at the end of the same speech: “We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element in all of civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists…”

And that, I suggest, is why Americans respond positively to presidential aspirants who lift up a vision of American possibility—prosperity linked to creativity, responsibility, and generosity—rather than candidates who play class-warfare politics, in whatever partisan form.

Weigel then explains how the market economy supports such idealism (emphasis added):

A robust economy is not only an economic imperative; it is a moral and cultural imperative. A robust economy makes honorable work possible for all who wish to be responsible for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. And work, according to Blessed John Paul II in the 1983 encyclical Laborem Exercens, is an expression of our participation in God’s sustaining “creation” of the world.

A robust economy makes possible the empowerment of the underprivileged—the true “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social doctrine, according to John Paul’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus—even as it helps conserve public resources by making the resort to welfare less necessary.

A robust economy is essential in supporting one telling sign of America’s enduring generosity and idealism: the remarkable philanthropy of the American people. Americans, these days, give some $300 billion a year to charitable organizations, including religious institutions that fund vast networks of education, health care, and social service serving people in real need. There is simply nothing like this anywhere else in the Western world; if you doubt that, go to Europe or Canada, where the tradition of the benign, caretaker state (the contemporary version of the benign, caretaker monarch) has severely eroded charitable instincts—meaning giving.

Yet many of today’s Christians will shrug at any talk of an “American ideal,” and in some sense, rightly so. Our ultimate aim should be a Christian ideal, and we have a natural disposition to self-construct the latter for purposes of satisfying the former. But while we should be careful to make such a distinction, we should also recognize that a careful concern for the Gospel demands a careful concern for culture and country. Catholic social teaching aside, Weigel’s “vision of American possibility” fits quite nicely into the most generic understandings of Christian mission.

But we must dig deeper, even still, for just as American idealism has been watered down by self-centered post-modern thinking, so has our Christian idealism.

Even more fundamentally, the Christian should be concerned with the glory of God—an overarching, not-of-this-world notion that shatters our convenient cultural obsessions with “individualism” and “collectivism” and pushes us toward a different orientation altogether. Living a life focused on lifting up the King of Kings in all things will mean producing plenty of fruits that fit the current categories—responsibility, self-control, hard work, sacrifice—but I fear that we’re getting to a point where we can’t discern the fresh from the rotten from the poisonous. This is why the market, like any institution, needs to be analyzed first and foremost by how well it enables and empowers transformation at the root of individual worship. Otherwise, the byproducts we’re seeking will soon be replaced by nothing more than hollow do-gooderism cloaked in the lingo of the church.

Pro-market Christians can and should tout the market as the best mechanism for Read the rest of this entry »

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Get Personal: Restoring Individualism to Gospel-Worthy Conduct

Word versus Deed: Resetting the Scales to a Biblical Balance, Duane LitfinIn his new book, Word versus Deed, Duane Litfin contemplates how Christians are to be Christians at a time when the church seems bent toward what I might call representation without proclamation (and vice versa, though to a lesser extent, methinks). “Today some are emphasizing deeds at the expense of words, while others hold fast to ‘talking’ and forsake the doing,” Litfin writes. “This is an imbalance that must be righted.”

The book covers a range of topics, but for the moment I want to focus on an interrelated “imbalance” that Litfin briefly notes in his chapter on “gospel-worthy conduct” (i.e. the “doing” piece). Litfin encourages us to think of such conduct as being “lived out in five distinguishable circles of application”: personal life, family, God’s people, society at large, and the natural world.

These are all good “circles” for us to think about, yet we must also take care to order them properly. For example, as Litfin duly notes, the church has, as of late, begun to shift its focus directly to the social realm, ignoring the “personal life” or “private dimension” altogether—a faulty either-or approach that will not bode well if the church has any hopes of transforming the social sphere toward the heart of God.

According to Litfin, this switch has happened for the following reasons (quoted directly from the book):

  1. Our time and place in history is stamped with the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. In reacting against this imbalance some may be inclined to move directly, and perhaps too quickly, to the social and corporate implications of the gospel, bypassing the individual realm entirely.
  2. In certain Christian circles the personal dimensions of Christian living—issues of sexual morality, personal honesty, worldliness, etc.—seem to be as far as the demands of the gospel ever reach. These issues are stressed constantly but little is heard of the social implications of the gospel. Such a perceived imbalance undoubtedly prompts others to leapfrog these “overworked” private matters on their way to broader social concerns.
  3. Any emphasis on issues of personal holiness in the Christian life appears for some to be an embarrassment. They tend to write off such concerns as the unwarranted obsession of pietists.

These realities have largely shaped the focus of Remnant Culture (thus my focus on “Radical Individualism”). From Shane Claiborne to David Platt (in varying degrees, to be sure) we are consistently sold on the idea that misaligned, Enlightenment-style individualism is the only kind there is, and the only way the American church will get past it is by bloodying itself on a self-constructed altar to abstract social goods. Under this perspective, anything that might result in individual advancement or recognition, regardless of what is driving it, must be too individual-oriented, and thus we are told to compensate by injecting our actions with impulsive socially conscious do-gooderism. We may still be trying to push Christians toward obedience to God (Platt certainly is), but we will continuously miss the mark if we “leapfrog” past the messy, complicated subject of (1) what this all means at a personal, individual level, and (2) how that translates into the social dimension holistically (i.e. encompassing all of the circles Litfin mentions).

The fundamental problem with the American church is not that we are too focused on our private lives and need to go on more mission trips or curb our incomes at a certain level. It’s that we are not recognizing that our private lives need to be broken by God’s grace and our social responsibilities need to be rightly ordered in turn. We want a quick-fix answer for everything—as nearly every observer of the West will recognize—but such an orientation does not stop at the electronic store check-out line; it drags itself into every element of our vocation-building and world-changing, prodding us to skip pass complicated questions of individual purity and purpose and jump straight to easy-and-convenient “social” arguments, whether we’re talking about sexuality, mega-church management, or global poverty.

We need to take a step back and make sure our hearts and our deeds are on the right path, and that means doing a lot of difficult work at the individual level. We need to cry out, as David did, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We need to pause and pray, asking Read the rest of this entry »

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Chuck Colson on Transformation & the Human Heart

“I did everything my way and it crashed and burned,” said Chuck Colson, famous Nixon “hatchet man”-turned prison evangelist, who recently passed away at age 80.

After his conversion to Christianity, Colson not only set an example for effective Christian service, but understood that the heart of such service was the only reliable antidote to social decay. “I’m not soft on crime,” said Colson. “I want to stop crime, but I want to stop it by the only way it will ever be stopped, and that’s changing the human heart.”

The Acton Institute recently released a video celebrating Colson’s life, focusing heavily on his striking tale of transformation and redemption. Watch it here:



“The problem is not education, the problem is not poverty, the problem is not race,” said Colson. “The problem is the breakdown of moral values in American life.”

Colson moved beyond recognizing this problem to doing something about it, yet his doing was guided directly by the voice of God, which shouted in what he describes as the darkest moment of his life. It’s one thing to see past the inadequacy of your own political game-playing and humanistic scheming; it’s another to identify the need you are uniquely called to and move to perform the subsequent heavy lifting.

As he says in this video, such service was only possible and could only be effective through a broken, transformed, and realigned heart. That heart could only ever exist in dirty ole Chuck Colson by the grace of God. For Colson, authentic compassion and Read the rest of this entry »

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Working and Keeping the Garden: The Human Body in Earthly Engagement

Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our FaithI have previously examined the ways in which sociability and strong relational bonds can impact societal health and economic prosperity. Likewise, I have persistently emphasized that spiritual transformation through Christ and subsequent obedience to God play crucial roles in strengthening such bonds.

Without recognizing and embracing such an alignment, I have argued, we will be severely impaired in identifying real value as God sees it, and will be ill-equipped to pursue our proper mission.

Yet throughout all such considerations, I have rarely (if ever) contemplated the role of the body in the spiritual and intellectual workings that drive our stewardship. This is strange, to be sure, for despite the great importance of all the other inputs to our actions, it is the body that actually does the doing.

But alas, even this basic realization does not go far enough, says Matthew Anderson, editor of Mere Orthodoxy and author of the new book, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter To Our Faith.

For Anderson, the body is much more than some tool we use to move our spirits from here to there; it is an essential and inextricable part of what it means to be human, a truth affirmed and amplified by the reality that have we been created in the image of God. For Anderson, the connection is crucial, but has been largely ignored by an increasingly dualistic culture. For many of us, the body has become nothing more than a mere means for pleasure or a “prison for the soul.”

Yet for those of us who over-emphasize the spiritual side of man, Anderson argues that any such transformation will never be complete without a full understanding the bodies position therein:

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is a gift for and to human bodies, and as evangelicals, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Holy Spirit shapes our flesh. In a world where the body’s status is in question, we have an opportunity to proclaim that the God who saved our souls will also remake our bodies; that the body is nothing less than the place where God dwells on earth.

Anderson proceeds to tackle a number of issues through this approach, from tattoos to homosexuality to death (and beyond), yet throughout each revealing insight, my mind consistently flashed back to his chapter on how our bodies more simply relate to the other (Chapter 4). It’s easy to understand how an appropriate body-faith orientation might improve our marriages or our churches, but what about our larger socio-economic engagement and overarching earthly stewardship?

“We are social even in the womb,” says Anderson, and that sociability “is inextricable from the structure of our bodies.”

When we score a goal, we like to bump chests and give high-fives, the act of which is sometimes followed by hazardous, celebratory dives into a large piles of teammates. When socializing with friends and family, we often prefer to do so over a cup of coffee or a meal, sharing in the most basic bodily necessities as we relate to each other, pour out our hearts, and foster social bonds. These shared bodily pleasures and activities “not only curb our loneliness,” says Anderson, but are “a manifestation of our gratitude for the goodness of the created order that God has placed in us.”

Yet, as is the fundamental premise of the book, Anderson believes the distortion of the body’s place in such interactions has by and large distorted God’s created order in the process. Thanks to the rise of a self-absorbed, short-sighted, and materialistic culture, the social ties necessary for a healthy and flourishing society have largely vanished, and our views of the human body have corresponded accordingly. No longer are our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, but rather, we have perverted them into serving as temples unto ourselves.

As Anderson explains:

In our late-modern world, the body’s basic dependency upon the world for both its sustenance and its pleasures has been distorted to the extent that what we consume has become central to our identity as persons. What we wear, what we eat (or don’t eat), what we endorse—these become the means by which we construct ourselves…

….In a consumerist society, the world is flattened out as everything becomes an instrument for the individual’s well-being. Things only have value when a consumer desires  them, which means that there is no order of goods to which our desires should confirm.

At the root of this, then, is a sort of “degraded” individualism, as Anderson calls it — the type of misaligned, atomic hedonism that submits to no authority other than its humanistic God of Autonomy. Edmund Burke railed against such an approach back when we Read the rest of this entry »

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The Scope of the Gospel: Balancing the Spiritual and the Social

Wedding at Cana, Paolo VeroneseI have written numerous times about the tendency within human nature to embrace the Love of Man rather than pursue the Love of God. Even in our striving for compassion and through our attempts to help the needy, we tend to execute a Godly imperative according to our own debased ways.

As Russell Moore explains it in a recent piece, the tension often plays out as being between evangelism and “public justice” — spiritual transformation vs. social reconciliation. Yet this tension, Moore argues, need not be a conflict, and in turn, cannot be resolved through an “either-or” solution.

As Moore explains:

[The mission of the church] is summed up in the gospel as a message of reconciliation that is both vertical and horizontal, establishing peace with both God and neighbor. The Scripture tells us to love neighbor “as yourself” (Lk. 10:27-28).

Sound familiar?

Indeed, the call of the church is not to be founded on some gnostic, dualistic divorce of the spiritual and material – whether or not one prefers one or the other. Jesus didn’t spend all of his time praying on the hillside for soul-winning, yet he also didn’t perform physical miracles and wonders without transcendent, spiritual demands and implications.

This is not simply a “spiritual” ministry, as the example Jesus gives us is of a holistic caring for physical and economic needs of a wounded person, not to mention the transcending of steep ethnic hostilities. As theologian Carl F.H. Henry reminded evangelicals a generation ago, one does not love oneself simply in “spiritual ways” but holistically.

Of course, Jesus’ ministry would be about such things. After all, the Bible shows us, from the beginning, that the scope of the curse is holistic in its destruction—personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Gen. 3-11) and that the gospel is holistic in its restoration—personal, cosmic, social, vocational (Rev. 21-22). (emphasis added)

Moore then points to a similar(/interrelated) tension in the church as an example of Read the rest of this entry »

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You Can’t Plan a Market: Transforming Culture from the Bottom-Up

The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyWhy has post-Soviet Russia not panned out to be the bustling, prosperous economy that the freedom folks predicted it would be? Is this the fault of the free market, or is there something deeper at work?

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I examine the question, channeling economist William Easterly to make the case that “you can’t plan a market.”

Although many Western tinkerers wrongly ignore the structural limitations in improving developing economies, many on the opposite side make the mistake of pretending that the structural stuff is a cinch.

I argue that it isn’t:

In our modern, polished system (with the wear-and-tear steadily increasing), we are tempted to look at other countries and think their problems are simple enough to be fixed by scribbling a couple solutions on paper and circulating it through the right hands. Even for free-market types, there is a rash assumption that all it takes is a magical structural concoction and a semi-functional government to get a poor country in motion.

Forget the individual habits and beliefs of the people on the ground. Forget the spiritual and cultural factors that limit or propel that society forward. Forget the psychological damage caused by previous (or current) totalitarian rule. “Just give them a market,” we say, “and let them be.”

As I say in the piece, “spontaneous order is not spontaneous order unless it is spontaneous.” Even in America, lest we forget, our thriving economic system did not come from the wave of a magical capitalism wand. Look no further than the 19th century to behold the painful and chaotic emergence of what we know today (and appreciate it).

To demonstrate this lesson, Easterly’s book points to several key market components that are difficult to “invent,” particularly from the top down: trust, property rights, social relationships/unity, peace, etc.

Such features — what Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling call “intangible assets” — must originate from 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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