Wednesday, February 27, 2008

How Rich Countries Got Rich . . . and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor by Erik S. Reinert


Erik Reinert's book, How Rich Countries Got Rich . . . and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, is one of the best I have read in a long time. (I know I said the same thing about Erwin McManus' Soul Cravings, but it is possible to read two great books at thew same time. McManus' book is great, Reinert's is GREAT.) I have no formal training in economics, so the only thing keeping me from raving about this book to everyone I know is that it is fairly technical and I lack the necessary skills to evaluate his arguments.

Reinert's thesis is that the unconditional free trade that the World Bank and Washington consensus is forcing on the Third World is what is making them poor, and that unconditional free trade is not what made wealthy nations like the U.S. rich. Instead, he argues, unconditional free trade widens the gap between the haves and the have nots because poor countries end up specializing in being poor and rich countries specialize in being rich.

The Washington consensus argues that each country should open its markets and specialize in goods in which it offers a "comparative advantage." So, countries in South American that grow the world's best coffee beans should focus on selling coffee beans to the world, and countries that develop the world's best computer software should focus on selling computer software to the world. By doing so, the Washington consensus argues, each nation would be doing what they do best and would be generating wealth most efficiently.

The problem, according to Reinert, is that the world's best coffee bean picker will always make less than the world's worst software engineer because computer software is comparatively more valuable. Until the coffee bean pickers learn how to make software, they will always be poor.

Reinert says that America did not get rich by opening its markets to the world. We imposed tarriffs on foreign steel so that the American steel industry could thrive. Now, we enforce patents on the software that we produce so that other countries can't duplicate it. In everything we do, we practice "unfair" competition ("unfair" in the sense that the government protects local innovators from foreign competition). Reinert says that true wealth comes through innovation, protection of this innovation, and then free trade once a nation has industrialized and caught up to the rest of the advanced nations.

What would happen if the South American nations developed their own coffee brewing companies with retail stores all over the world and said, "We are no longer selling our beans to Starbucks. They are on their own"? That would be a great thing for South America. It would generate true wealth for many countries down there beyond the meagre wages they get for harvesting the beans. If I am not misreading Reinert, that is the kind of thing that he thinks we should be doing for Third World countries--encouraging them to industrialize, not just focus on raw materials. But there is no way that America would encourage such a move because it would screw us over. We like the tax money we get from Starbucks.

Reinert's book is technical, but written in a way that a novice (like me) can understand. Unless an economist shows me how Reinert's thinking is flawed, I think this book is a must read for all Americans as we approach the ethical issue of equal distribution of wealth resources.

Monday, February 25, 2008

First Kainos Worship Service

My friends and I started a ministry at Believers Fellowship called Kainos, from the Greek word for "new." It started as a small group Bible study for people 18–25, but it is quickly growing into something more than that. Yesterday we had our first Sunday night worship service--it was awesome!

I love the "Kainos" theme that we have chosen. While studying Colossians, I kept coming back to Colossians 3:9–11 as a theme verse for the new humanity. I wanted to call the group "Anakainoo," after the Greek word for "renew" that appears in Colossians 3:10. However, everyone agreed that the word was too long and hard to pronounce, so we shortened it to the related word "Kainos" and kept Colossians 3:9–11 as our theme passage. There is kind of a double entendre to the name. On the one hand, people 18–25 are doing a lot of "new" things--they're leaving home for the first time, getting their first jobs, paying rent for the first time, etc. Also, we are the "new" humanity. I love that.

We started by reading Rob Bell's Sex God together. It was an interesting choice for a first book, but it's gone pretty well. The people in the group have been real about the things in their life, and the atmosphere has been pretty warm and non-judgmental. The group is quickly outgrowing my house, so we needed to find a place at the church to meet. At the same time, we wanted the group to be more than just a time to hang out and talk about a book--we wanted a chance to do church together.

All of these ideas came together last night for the first Kainos worship service. Like I said, it was great. We worked around the theme of spiritual renewal or transformation, and asked the question of what God wanted to transform about the culture of Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Then, we asked the question of what God was doing in our lives to make us a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. God is cleaning up our culture, we said, and He is starting with us--the new humanity. I am excited to see where this goes.

I think what made the time so special for me was that it was real. When you are in the ministry, it is so easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of what goes into church so that you lose sight of worship. Last night, I wasn't worried so much about what I was going to say, or how it was going to come across. I just spoke from my heart. During the worship time, I wasn't worried about how the worship sounded, I simply focused on God. Johnny, the worship leader, did a great job of leading us in worshipping the Father. To me, last night was everything I want from a worship service--a time to be real with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and a time to worship God together with them. Good stuff. Can't wait until the next one.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Good Life and The Gospel according to John

Well, I have one lesson left in my Roots series on Colossians at Believers Fellowship, and then I will be on to the next one, The Good Life, based on John. I did this series in an adult Bible fellowship in Dallas at The Heights and it was pretty well received. So, I am going back through John and turning into a bigger, better, sermon series.

I am having a tough time structuring the series because John is such an intricate piece of literature. Last time, I focused on Jesus' encounters with various people in the book, but this time I think I want to go deeper and look at the theology of the narrator. At the same time, I want the series to be practical, emphasizing living "The Good Life," i.e. living counter-culurally for Christ in a suburban culture that emphasizes privacy, status symbols, ambivalence to the poor, ambition, etc.

I have been working a lot with Raymond Brown's ideas this time through, and I am noticing a lot of language in John about "in" crowds and "out" crowds. The Jewish leadership is "out." The world is "out." The disciples are "in," but not all of them (Judas). A lot of the characters want to be "in," but when push comes to shove they show that they are really "out." Peter denies that he is "in," but then later Jesus lets him back "in." I can see how John has been accused of being a racist or a reactionary. (I don't think he was, but I see the basis for the accusation.) As my theology develops, I think I want to start paying more attention to the New Testament writers' use of "in" crowds and "out" crowds, and what that means for us as we are building the kingdom of God.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008 and Cedarville University

Scot McKnight's blog,, had an article about Cedarville University yesterday (with a follow-up today). I guess Cedarville invited Shane Claiborne to come speak at the school, but when some watchdog blogs disapproved of the invitation, it was revoked. McKnight's blog had an interesting discussion about academic freedom in evangelical universities, and whether or not Cedarville did the right thing when they pulled the plug on Claiborne. (I have heard that they have since re-invited him to come speak at a later date.)

I wasn't surprised at the move at all. Cedarville has historically been a very conservative school. I don't know much about Shane Claiborne, but from what I gather about his theology, he doesn't fit the Cedarville mold. (That's okay, I'm all for diversity of opinion.) Cedarville, being a private school, relies heavily on financial support from alumni and other conservative groups. If their financial support is against one of their decisions, it makes good business sense to change the decision. I don't have a problem with that.

I do, however, think it's sad that Cedarville'c onservative support is afraid of Claiborne speaking at the school. It's not like they were going to make him chair of the Bible department. Further, I think it's sad that "watchdog" blogs exist to call people out for being "heretics." On what authority do they make these claims? It's a pretty bold move to call someone a heretic, and it presupposes a lot of spiritual authority on the one making the proclamation. Does anyone today in America have such authority? Even real heretics like Arius were condemned by councils of churches representing all of christendom, not by individuals on their blogs.

I'm glad Cedarville re-invited Claiborne, and I hope he says something controversial that gets the campus talking. I'm all for theological dialogue.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Family Happiness" by Leo Tolstoy

I am reading The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Short Stories by Leo Tolstoy. The first short story in the book is "Family Happiness"--wow! What a profound and yet depressing story. I think in its day it was supposed to be some kind of social commentary about the role of women in society, but to me it was an eerily accurate portrayal of the way "love" blossoms in a woman (and to a lesser degree in a man, too).

"Family Happiness" is a short story from the perspective of a 17-year-old Russian girl (Marya Alexandrovna, aka Masha) who falls in love with an older friend of the family (Sergei) shortly after the death of her mother (her father having previously died, as well). The story traces their courtship and early days of their marriage until they have a young child. The depressing part of the story is the first-person narrative of Masha's thoughts on love.

At the beginning of the story, Masha is young, naive, and hopelessly romantic. She has dreams of her future husband sweeping her off her feet and carrying her off to eternal bliss ("wild delight," as she refers to it). She marries Sergei (the older friend of the family) and they move off to the country. The two of them live a happy, quaint, newliwed life, but she gets restless and wants to move to the big city. When they move, Masha gets active in the urban social scene, but Sergei prefers to stay at home and stick to his business. Over time, the two of them drift apart and Masha realizes that her childhood dreams of "wild delight" aren't going to happen. (The urban social scene brings her to the brink of an affair.)

At the end of the story, Masha and Sergei get into an argument over what went wrong with their relationship and where their newliwed bliss went. Sergei, the voice of wisdom, blames it on time. He says that love changes over time, and it's no use lamenting over the past--what's gone is gone. Masha has a hard time believing this, but as the two part, she sees her infant son and realizes that this is where she will find the love she wants. The story ends, "With that day ended my love-story with my husband, the old feeling became a precious memory never to return; but the new feeling of love for my children and the father of my children laid the foundation of another life, happy in quite a different way, which I am still living up to the present moment." (Note how she no longer loved Sergei as her "husband" but as "the father of my children.")

Now, I am not a woman, and neither is Leo Tolstoy, but there is something sadly true about the theme of this story. I think both men and women are looking for "wild delight," though we might define it differently. Does anyone ever find it? Should we stop looking? Has God created us with this desire so that we will long for the kingdom of God--a place where we are perfectly loved? I don't know.

This is the first story I have ever read by Tolstoy. Maybe I'm way off base, but I feel that his narration from a female perspective was very believable. I think he's got some good insights into the human condition and I am looking forward to reading the next story, 'The Death of Ivan Ilych."

Monday, February 18, 2008

Soul Cravings by Erwin McManus

Every once in a while I read a book that reminds me why I am a Christian. Erwin Raphael McManus' book, Soul Cravings, is the latest book to do just that for me. It isn't so much that he gave me a profound thought of what it means to follow Jesus, or that he inspired me with a tale of a life lived for Christ, but that he got into my head and made me ask, like Peter, "Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life."

In the book, McManus draws on three soul cravings--intimacy, destiny, and meaning--and shows how these cravings in our soul point us to God. Each section is broken into twenty or so 2–3 pages chapters, so you can easily read one chapter a day and spread the book out over several months.

McManus' book was a great reminder to me of why I believe what I believe. I like to read stuff written from perspectives other than my own. I suscribe to atheist podcasts so that I am informed about the latest arguments against what I believe. I understand that Christianity is not an airtight philosophical system--there are some holes that are not easy to seal. At the same time, I think that the same can be said about any religious or philosophical system out there, and I have found Christianity to be the most satisfying of all of them. I haven't been impressed with any of the philosophical "proofs" for God's existence, and I certainly haven't been convinced by any of the "proofs" for His non-existence. I think that I am a Christian because deep down in my soul, I just know there is a God out there. That answer may not be too impressive to a modernist, but I think it's the most honest answer someone can give for why they believe what they believe.

In his book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton wrote, "The man who cannot believe his senses, and the man who cannot believe anything else, are both insane, but their insanity is proved not by any error in their argument, but by the manifest mistake of their whole lives." It's amazing how a brilliant person with sound logical reasons for believing he believes can prove himself wrong because his life screams "I have no idea what I'm talking about." I think the opposite is true of Christ. His sanity was proven by the manifest "truth" of his life. There is something about Jesus Christ that makes me say, "He was right."

Like McManus, I find the most satisfying answer in my quest for intimacy, destiny, and meaning, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe that I am a spiritual being, created by a spiritual God. I believe that this world is not as it should be. I believe that Jesus Christ came to earth from the Father, that He showed us the way that we are supposed to live, that he died to overcome the power that death has over the world through sin, and that God raised him from the dead to vindicate him as Christ and Lord. I believe that God is reconciling the world now through Jesus, and that the church has a major role as God's redeeming influence on the world.

Enough of my soap box. Thank you, Erwin McManus, for writing such a great book. Buy it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Church, State, Christ, and Culture Revisited

Yesterday, I was talking to my brother-in-law, Reid (who doesn't read this blog), about the issues I addressed in my last two blog entries. He pointed out that my two positions contradict each other, and I agree. I just don't know how I would change what I believe. In the post, "Christ and Culture," I said that I believed that God is building his kingdom through the church and that we should redeem culture. In the post, "Separation of Church and State," I was kind of critical of the American church for surrendering our influence in politics. Without political teeth, the church is powerless to make any real change.

So, Reid and I talked about a number of issues, what we think the church's approach should be, and how those approaches fit into my two models. The issues we discussed were: The International Justice Mission's work in southeast Asia freeing sex slaves, the civil rights movement in America, abortion in America, and John Calvin's Geneva.

We agreed on most issues. On the one hand, we were both kind of apalled at John Calvin's disaster in Geneva, in which he tried to establish a state that was run by God's law so that adultery was punishable by death. We both agreed that it is inappropriate to try to regulate non-Christians by kingdom ethics. On the other hand, we both applauded the work that IJM is doing and the work that Martin Luther King, Jr., et al did in America in the 1960s.

The issue that got us talking was abortion. We both agreed that abortion is wrong and that nobody should have an abortion, that churches should discourage their members from having abortions, that picketing abortion clinics was more harmful than helpful, and that agencies like Care Net were the most effective way to reduce the number of abortions in America. (Care Net is a crisis pregnancy center. They give financial, emotional, educational, and spiritual support to pregnant women who are considering their options.)

We weren't sure about the extent to which the church should engage the issue of abortion. I thought that abortion was an IJM-type issue. It's an injustice, and we have the responsibility to step in and stop it. As long as abortion in America is legal, the church should be vocal about outlawing it. Reid was not so sure. He doesn't like the way that American evangelicals push the abortion issue in politics. He thinks that this has turned a lot of people away from the church. I would have to agree.

Maybe abortion is a Calvin's Geneva issue--outlawing it would be requiring non-Christians to act like Christians. While we're at it, we might want to outlaw adultery and make tithing mandatory. I haven't given up my stance on our response to abortion, but this has at least made me rethink my justification of that stance. What is the difference between an agency that says "sex slave trafficking is wrong and should be outlawed" and one that says "adultery is wrong and should be a capitol offense"? Aren't they both legislating Christian ethics? Why do I support one of those propositions and not the other? Can I justify my position philosophically/theologically?

I don't know yet.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Christ and Culture

I am reading H. Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture, right now. Wow. I should have read this a long time ago. The book has had a dramatic effect on the way people view Christ and culture, so I have heard a lot of Niebuhr's conclusions second-hand before. But still, he said it better than anyone else since.

I am reading through his models (admittedly, I am only in chapter 1) and I can clearly see where different traditions fit on his scale of Christ against, of, above, in paradox with, and the transformer of culture. I was raised in the "Christ against culture" paradigm--part of the General Association of Regular Baptists. In this system "the World" was out to get us and we needed to withdraw into our little holy huddle where we were safe. I think this model is alive and well in the Christian music scene. If U2 sings a song it's "worldly," but if a Christian band covers it, it is suddeny "safe." (Why do we need Christian music?)

Somewhere along the line I left the Christ against culture model, but I don't know where I have landed. I like a lot of the "Christ and culture in paradox" model because it closely resembles the thought of a lot of the New Testament writers. When you read the Gospel of John, Jesus has come "from above," His kingdom is "not of this world," and he refuses to pray for the world. I think there has to be serious merit given to the idea that there is a "two kingdoms" (of Satan and of God) motif in the New Testament. However, I disagree with Luther's conclusions that Christians are forever simultaneously a saint and a sinner. I don't think he gives enough weight to the change in nature that occurs when someone is redeemed by God. Paul says, "He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and caused us to stand in the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:13-14). It seems like our citizenship has changed.

So, that brings up Niebuhr's "Christ the transformer of culture" model, similar to the thought of Augustine and John Calvin. I haven't read this chapter yet, but I think I know where he is going. This is the realized eschatology, the kingdom is now, amilennial view of history. Again, I think there is a lot of merit to this view. Certainly, there was a drastic change in history when Jesus was raised from the dead, and the kingdom of God has been inaugurated. But does this mean that the world is God's kingdom and that we should militantly try to conform culture to the will of Christ? Yes and no.

Christ and culture was written in 1951, and I wonder if it needs updated. While previous New Testament scholarship settled either for a "fully realized eschatology" or a "fully future eschatology," most scholars today look at the kingdom of God in an already/not yet way. Certainly, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, but the kingdom of Satan is still alive and well. The kingdom of God will not be consummated until the future, when Christ returns. We will always live in tension between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world until the consummation of history.

So, I want to combine the "Christ in paradox with culture" model and the "Christ the transformer of culture" models. There are two kingdoms on earth--the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan/this world. Satan has already been defeated and he is on the way out. God is transforming our world, and he has invited us to be a part of it.

What is "the kingdom of God"? The kingdom of God is the church to the extent that it models God's rule on earth. (The church is not synonymous with the kingdom of God, it only equals the kingdom of God to the extent that it models God's rule.) I think God is building his kingdom through the church. That's where the transformation happens. People don't change until they have become a part of the kingdom of God. So, we need to be careful not to force the kingdom culture on people who have not joined it. At the same time, we need to be in constant dialogue with cultue of "the World," redeeming it for the kingdom of God.

Maybe that's where Christian music comes in. It's music that has been redeemed. (But please stop marketing it as "safe for the whole family.")

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Separation of Church and State

There has kind of been a renaissance of interest in social justice among American evangelicals over the past few years. For the past 20 or so years, evangelicals have stereotypically been interested only in issues such as abortion, God in school, laws against homosexuality, and regulation of the media. Typically they have been fiscally conservative and voted Republican.

The tide seems to be changing when it comes to you younger evangelicals. Most young people seem to be more interested in the issues that the previous generation surrendered to the Democrats and "liberals" (environmental issues, racism, etc.). I tend to fall somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, with the presidential election upon us, I have been thinking a lot about what the church's role should be in politics. A church cannot endorse a particular party or candidate at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status, but individual Christians have often been very vocal in national politics to try to rally others around their candidate.

Generally, I have ben very turned off from these movements. It seems like they do more harm then good. You mention groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition and most people just roll their eyes. There is a real distatste in this country for groups trying to "legislate morality" by pushing their religious agenda at the polls. Now, with younger evangelicals typically taking a more leftish stance on a lot of issues, these groups are even more suspect--they're pretty much ridiculed in most "emerging churches." I have tended to agree--the evangelical alliance with the Republican party is a bad idea and the marriage between the two has led to more problems than solutions.

However, in the last few months I have started to question this judgment. I was reading A Testament to Freedom, a collection of sermons, letters, and essays written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (one of my heroes), and I came across a letter he had written while staying in America. Bonhoeffer was used to the German system where church and state operated together so that pastorates were government appointed. He noticed that Americans took pride in the notion of separation of church in state, and he wasn't sure that this was a good idea. He said that when the church separates itself from the state, it loses it's influence to make change. In other words, the church in America is emasculated from making any real change in social issues. (This is what Hillary Clinton was getting at when she said that Martin Luther King, Jr. did a lot for civil rights in America, but it took Lyndon Johnson to enact into law the things that King preached. Without the state's intervention, the church's cries for justice would have been just noise.)

I think that Bonhoeffer was on to something. One of the main aspects of my job is getting the church involved in the community around us. I believe that God has special concern for the poor and disenfranchised and that it is the church should be leading the way in standing up for social justice. But how do we do that in a politcal system in which we have no power to make real change? We can continue to alleviate the symptoms of poverty with things like soup kitchens, but we will never be able to solve the causes of poverty without intervening in politics.

So, all that to say that I am second guessing whether the Christians-turned-politicians in the religious right were that far off of the mark after all. Even if I disagree with a lot of their policy decisions, I can't criticize someone who decides that they want to put their faith to action in a way that will be able to generate real change.

Maybe the church needs to form a new organization that does not line up with the Republicans or the Democrats, but with the Gospel. Maybe we need to be more vocal in challenging the Republicans to hold corporations accountable for their actions and the wages they pay their workers. Maybe we need to challenge Democrats to see abortion as a social justice issue. Maybe we need to challenge both parties to find a way for all Americans to afford basic health care.

Regardless, at least we need to vote.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Prayer, Meditation, Confession, and Repentance

It seems like ages since I have posted in this blog. (That is because it has been ages since I posted in this blog.)

Back in October I started experimenting with what it takes to change. I feel that the Christian culture spits out too many easy answers when it comes to spiritual transformation, and I don't want to be a part of that. I was teaching through the Book of Colossians and dealing with the topic of spiritual transformation, and I wanted to make sure that the opinions that I offered had some substance to them. I didn't want to say, "This is what should be true based on what I read in the Bible," but rather "This is what is true for me based on what I have implemented in my life." The theory that I worked with was that spiritual transformation occured through spiritual disciplines and connection to the spiritual comunity. Specifically, I wanted to test the effectiveness of prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, and accountability on producing real change. Not coincidentally, I think that "accountability" is just a modern word for the ancient disciplines of confession and repentance (also huge parts of the messages that John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles preached).

My theory worked. I was able to change something about myself--something that had been bothering me for a long time that I had not been able to change. After my last blog post, I found an accountability partner and decided that I was really going to change (repentance). Then, I met weekly with this guy to talk about how things were going (confession).

Its a shame that we are so hesitant to be vulnerable with the Christian community because repentance and confession are integral to spiritual transformation.

Now that I have a system in place for confession and repentance, I really want to grow in other areas of spiritual discipline as well. As I mature as a follower of Jesus, I would like to have a stronger prayer life. I don't know what it is about me, but it is a struggle to slow down and spend real time with God in prayer. I think my challenge for the next few months is to develop in this area.

On a side note, I hope to keep this site updated with my thoughts. I have a lot on my mind right now. However, before I get in to that I thought it would be helpful to include an update about my spiritual transformation theory.