Google is presently in court, seeking a favorable decision on what could be one of the most important cases in history. The world's largest Internet company wants to create an online library of multiplied millions of volumes, featuring excerpts from or whole volumes of the greatest books ever written.
This is a very good thing. While undoubtedly a certain amount of trash will find its way to the Google stacks, that will be more than compensated for by the ability of people all over the world to access good books they otherwise might never be able to obtain. The possibilities are unlimited for opening important conversations about the great truths and abiding issues that confront human beings in every culture and time. There are concerns about monopoly and Google becoming a book cartel, but these seem small compared to having readily available great books from every culture and time.
Of course, the presumption is that people will actually want to read them. I doubt that cost is the primary factor keeping people glued more to their TVs and video games than the pages of a good book. However, given the growing Internet habit of just about anyone who knows how to use a computer, and the dominance of Google as a search engine, I can only believe that the availability of such a library as Google is arguing for will be a boon to interest in eternal truth.
We should pray that this project will come to pass, and that the Lord will be pleased to use it to open the minds of men and women to other ways of thinking and seeing the world besides the stale secularism of our present age. Through books people can gain experiences of beauty, goodness, and truth they might not obtain anywhere else, and if multiplied millions begin reading again with new interest and open minds, the possibilities for engaging in serious conversations about truth should begin increasing for the followers of Christ in no time.
I have been a reader of The New Republic for years now, which fact has on occasion raised the eyebrows of friends. Once, at a Christian conference, I had a copy of TNR in my backpack, sticking out in a back pocket. During a break one of the conferees walked over, bent down, and whispered quietly, "You know, that sort of thing can get you in trouble 'round these parts." He was joking, of course - mostly.
But I appreciate TNR's best efforts to get things right. The lead editorial in the current issue (September 23) raises concern about the blatant inconsistency of the Obama Administration and Speaker Pelosi when it comes to the matter of corruption in politics. The editors remind the readers that Democrats - especially Obama and Pelosi - campaigned on promises to clean up Washington, drain the swamp of stench, bring an end to politics as usual, and so forth.
And yet the undeniable corruption of Congressmen Rangel and Murtha goes completely unaddressed by Democratic leaders. Everyone in Washington, and, I would bet, even a few university professors, knows that these men are not playing by the book. Yet they continue to serve in important leadership roles, without a word of caution or comment from the President or the Speaker.
TNR is outraged. They want these guys out, and they want Democratic leaders to stand up like men and do the right thing. But why? Is it because it's the right thing to do? No. I mean, come on, it's still TNR. Their point is that if Democrats don't get rid of these guys now it will hurt them big time in the next round of congressional elections. They don't want corrupt congressmen around to become "potent symbols" for the Republicans.
So this is the way we think in secular America: The only determiner of right and wrong is what works to achieve political agendas. Pilate would have nodded politely.
We now know what the President wants in the way of health care reform. He has said plainly, firmly, and, apparently, finally what he will and will not accept in a bill from Congress. At the moment there is only one option on the table for health care reform, that of President Obama. Fair enough. Many questions remain unanswered, many even unposed, but I'm sure these will come out in the days ahead. For now, I have a few of my own.
How are health insurance companies going to be able to conform to all the new requirements without significantly raising the premiums of existing policy-holders? And if they raise those premiums, based on what can only be a best guess about what future costs will be, will they have to continue raising them more than they typically already do? And will that make health insurance in fact less affordable than it is now? If people cannot buy the insurance companies are willing to sell them, will they not begin seeking out the public option? And will that not require the public option to grow in order to accommodate what will be presented as the needs and demands of the American people? Can insurance companies stay in business on that basis? Should we not expect the public option to follow the course of so many other government programs - bloat, corruption, inefficiency, and decline? Will we all become so finally fatigued with the issue that we will willingly place our health care in the hands of public officials, thus ensuring that those officials remain in office who promise to take care of our health needs in perpetuity? If this program is to be paid for by premiums - even, apparently, in the public option - and fees on companies who write big ticket policies, then what are we going to spend the $900 billion on over the next ten years?
This is another instance of government overstepping its bounds, transgressing onto the turf of families, private corporations, and even communities and churches. There is no Biblical mandate for government to ensure the health of its citizens. Christians who support this approach to health care reform will have to look for authority and validation somewhere beyond the pages of Scripture, but then they will be guilty of going beyond what has been written in allocating to government more than what God has decreed and can be expected to bless. Personally, I think we need to stop taking such steps and, instead, begin to rediscover the wisdom of God in His Word, and to insist of our Christ-professing President that he do the same.
Serious Christians are wincing this week at the reports of stupid acts by fellow believers. First, the Bolivian pastor who hijacked an airplane to Mexico because it was September 9, 2009 (9/9/09), which he interpreted as an inversion of "666" and, therefore, a good reason to jeopardize the lives of over a hundred people and make the faith of Christ look stupid.
Second, the pastors of a central Kentucky Baptist Church who agreed to have a football team bused to their church on promise of hearing a motivational speaker, only to baptize 10 of the team members, without their parents' foreknowledge, and at school district expense. Smiling all the while as they dunked player after player, these two idiots are the kind of church leaders the world loves to hate.
And, frankly, I'm getting a little sick of them myself. We're all a little silly, and certainly prone to sin. But we don't all deliberately do things that, with just a little forethought, we can see would embarrass our fellow believers, make the faith look ridiculous, and rile up people against the cause of Christ. Stupid Christians should come under church discipline. Church discipline. You remember church discipline? Well, there used to be this procedure, practiced for years by many churches, where people who were convicted of scandalous sins were, you know, disciplined - even to the point of being removed from the ministry, if necessary. You can look it up.
Ah, but that would be a serious thing to do, no? And contemporary Christians, not being prone to seriousness in much of anything, will probably just shrug and say, "Oh well," and do nothing to roll back the blight of stupid Christians that seems to be gaining ground in the pulpits of the land. Do we need an act of Congress or a Presidential proclamation to stop this trend? But then...
President Obama has rejuvenated conversation about health care reform by his speech to Congress on Wednesday night. On its own merits, the speech, and the program the President set forth, offer plenty to critique. It seems fairly clear that some kind of bill is going to pass, sooner or later. Those who are concerned about government involvement in the health care system should be addressing themselves to the substance of what the President said. It won't do the cause of the best possible bill to keep talking about things other than what the President said.
Which is precisely what Fox News' Sean Hannity persists in doing. I caught a section of his program on Thursday night, and he was still ranting about the various bills in the Congress, which, if only by implication, the President has repudiated. Mr. Hannity talked about those bills as though they were written between the lines of his speech, for he accused the President of supporting health care for illegal immigrants and funding for abortions - both of which the President explicitly rejected. These are certainly aspects of health care reform that ought to be supported. But to act as if the President didn't say this, said something other than this, or didn't mean what he said is not fair, it's not balanced, and it is not wise.
The President insisted that his plan will not add to the national debt, or, if it does, appropriate cuts will be made elsewhere to make sure it doesn't. Mr. Hannity also denied this and acted as if the President was not telling the truth and didn't mean what he said, insisting that higher taxes and unsupportable deficits were on the way. Wouldn't it make more sense to agree with the President on this component of reform and help him keep his word?
Like him or not, and like his program for reform or not, we will not be able to engage this debate in a meaningful way without sticking to the substance of what's on the table - the President's proposal - and helping him to stick to it as well. If there are parts of it with which we disagree, then we must let our lawmakers know that we will only support other arrangements - and those who support those other arrangements.
But we will look like whiners, deceivers, and know-nothings if we continue to fight the President on things he has not said and if we refuse to give him his props in areas where we can agree. The followers of Jesus Christ must not bear false witness against their neighbor. I do not agree with the great bulk of what the President has proposed, but I congratulate him on certain aspects of his approach, in arriving at which, it seems to me, he has listened to the voice of the people, at least in some measure. Mr. Hannity's persisting in attacking a straw man as though it were President Obama is a breach of the ninth commandment. His example is not fair and balanced; his course is not wise or proper; and he is not a man whose tactic we should emulate.
President Obama gave Wall Stree a little what-for yesterday, warning business leaders that he's not going to put up with any of their shennanigans if they test him on questionable business practices. Mr. Obama considers himself the Ethicist-in-Chief of American business, and I suppose he just wanted everyone to remember that he's watching them.
I wonder why the President hasn't taken ACORN to the woodshed yet? Actually, I don't wonder at all. Mr. Obama knows where his bread is buttered, and he's not about to antagonize the "grass roots" people and organizations he counts on for political power. But business is an easy target, and, with a few exceptions, the President probably figures these guys are no friends of his anyway. So he pounds away at business leaders, hammers insurance companies, slurs physicians, and ignores hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk gathered in the nation's capital and elsewhere over the weekend.
The President's lust for attention and power would be embarrassing if it weren't scary. He acts as if he were President of the Democratic Party and Democrats in general; he has no time for Republicans, conservative news commentators, or people across the country who are concerned about the nation's drift toward socialism. But we have a resilient system, a gift of the Founders, who understood the dangers of sin and lust for power. I feel pretty sure the nation will weather this storm, but I wonder if we'll learn anything from it. We all have these same propensities; the same desire for autonomy and recognition infects us all. Some are better than others at keeping this tendency in check. But absent the power of God and a clear map for righteous living - such as the Law of God - once this President has had his day, will we just - as is too often the case - be treated to more of the same from the other side of the aisle?
Recent debates and changes in the political arena have caused a number of Americans to wonder aloud if the country is beginning to disintegrate. Not dissolve or disappear, but lose its essential federal and republican integrity. As more and more power is drawn to the Oval Office and White House advisors are selected without Congressional approval, it's easy to speculate about the long-term implications of such moves, especially given the durability of bureaucrats in the federal government. States, for the most part, eagerly accepted bailout money from the Altruist-in-Chief, making even that level of government more dependent on White House largesse than ever before.
At the same time, some folks see such developments as a spark to renewal of the Constitutional system our Founders created. The rising anger and unrest among the population, as witnessed in D. C. and around the country last weekend, give conservative pundits and grass-roots organizers hope that the "sleeping giant" has "awoken" - to cite one interviewee - and is lumbering to renew its strength and return government to "we the people." Are we witnessing the disintegration of the republic or its renewal?
If by "renewal" we mean nothing more than the recovery of a system of politics that stands in the way of socialism, I for one am not encouraged. That system will be managed and guided by sinful men and women who, once they splash on the fragrance of Foggy Bottom seem to lose all their best ideals and settle into the same song, next verse. What social or moral gains did the nation make under Republicans that approach anything like the moral consensus within which the Framers crafted the design of our government?
Politics alone cannot restore moral decency, civil debate, responsible government, or rule without self-interest and corruption. No change in the players will matter as long as the system is amenable to manipulation for political purposes - and it always will be. What is needed is a fundamental change in the character, not of government, but of those who govern, beginning with "we the people." The only kind of renewal that can effect such change is spiritual renewal, namely, Christian revival. I hear those Amens out there.
But revival does not come without prayer - prayers for repentance, prayers of submission to the Lordship of Christ and His Law, prayers for boldness to pursue righteousness and fulfill the mandate to bear witness, and prayers for the pure and unadulterated preaching of the Word of God in the pulpits of the land. Where are the people who will pray for such revival? Pray regularly, together, at extraordinary times, and without ceasing for God to do what only He can do in sending a fresh upwelling and outpouring of His Spirit to revive the churches, renew our mission, and awaken the lost to their need for Christ? Frankly, I don't see it. Do you? Do you see it even in yourself? Because without prayer there will be no revival, and without revival neither disintegration nor renewal will make one bit of difference in the long run.
Suddenly, racists are everywhere in America. According to President Carter, who apparently knows a lot, scores of thousands of racists assembled last weekend in Washington and elsewhere to vent their diabolic rage against the President on the grounds of his race. In today's enlightened America, we just can't seem to get past this stumbling stone. With political opposition now officially branded as hate speech, we should soon enough see the end of anyone daring to protest any policy of the present Administration. After all, who wants to be seen as a racist?
Racists, mainly. Most true racists are not nearly so circumspect about concealing their real motives when they vilify a member of another race. They're racist and proud, and they typically say it loud. Perhaps the new racists who are spewing their hate speech into the political atmosphere are just timid? Or unskilled in the art?
Well, if opposition to the President be racism, make the most of it. I don't think those whose honest objections to Administration policies lead them to protest loudly are, in the main, racist. Unless being a progressive is a racial group previously unrecognized. We note that the people making these ludicrous charges are leaders of various sorts - journalists, Congressmen, even a past president. Either we have a really great educational system, which has managed to turn out some people with truly remarkable skills of discernment, or a lot of adults who should know better are just stupid.
Mr. Carter is the worst offender, because, like our sitting President, he claims to be a Christian. Christians are supposed to judge with right judgment, and not just from the hip. But that hasn't hindered Mr. Carter. He probably thinks it's just the Christian thing to do to presume to know the hearts of scores of thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans, whether or not he can cite any real facts to support his claims. Maybe he's just doing "research" for another "book"? At least the media which have been covering Mr. Carter's numerous allegations and bald assertions of baseless fact haven't been chiding him for being a Christian. Or, maybe, because of the complete inconsistency of Mr. Carter's charges with anything even remotely corresponding to Biblical morality, they've decided that he couldn't possibly be a follower of Christ.
The tongue is a deadly fire, indeed. We may not be able to prevent the scorched earth comments of the terminally knuckle-headed, but at least their stupidity is a good warning to the rest of us: make sure to get grace in gear before you engage your tongue.
A brief report in The Economist (September 12th) raises a question about who should preserve the treasures of the Church. What treasures? Not monetary, to be sure; cultural, primarily, but also, foundational. Should Christians over the world be troubled by the fact that so many of the cultural and spiritual contributions of our forebears are in the care of people whose worldview is inimical to the mission of the City of God?
The Economist reports on excavations being done on Skellig Michael, an abandoned medieval monastery perched atop a desolate island off the west coast of Ireland. We know almost nothing about the people who inhabited this bit of real estate during the Middle Ages, but they have left buildings and other artifacts that witness to the austerity and rigor the Christian life demands of its adherents. At present, Ireland's Office of Public Works oversees the efforts of island caretaker Grellan Rourke, but questions are being raised about the care and quality of digging presently underway there. UNESCO, which has declared the island a "World Heritage Site" (which world? what heritage?) is getting involved, just to make sure that everything is done decently and in order. Hopefully, they'll do just that.
But what guarantees do we have that they won't come in and recommend building a theme park there? Or sell off the island to some wealthy eccentric looking for a remote retirement home for his pup? The point is, having such treasures in the hands of national governments, private institutions, and international service agencies may not suit the needs of the Church in an age that is becoming increasingly hostile to the things of Christ. All the rarest manuscripts of the Old and New Testament are scattered about in museums from Russia to England and other places. The great paintings and sculptures of the Church are the possession of museums in almost every developed country. I recall an exhibition at the Walters Museum in Baltimore some years ago in which the captions accompanying beautiful medieval illustrated manuscripts treated the faith of Christ like it was a relic from a bygone era. The Library at Yale University proudly holds the original manuscripts of Jonathan Edwards, and the same is true elsewhere for most of the great thinkers and writers of the Christian past.
Church treasures are resting in the hands of those who value them primarily as relics recording the evolution of human beings and their culture. Should they decide to squrrel these away - or worse - from the public eye and the reach of Christian scholars, what do we stand to lose? Sadly, for most contemporary believers, we wouldn't lose much, because most Christians have almost no idea that there is anything like a treasury of the Church, bearing witness to Christ as King and Savior, in the form of liturgical artifacts, manuscripts, paintings and sculptures, original musical compositions, and much more, the vast majority of them in the keeping of people who do not understand and therefore cannot appreciate their real value.
I don't think anything can be done about this, except to plead with God to keep His common grace flowing to benighted curators and caretakers, that they will not in any way seek to erase, obscure, or abscond with the greatest cultural heritage of the human race, the treasures of the Church. Something to add to your prayers every now and then.
In the main, I appreciate Fox News Network. I only watch in the evenings, and I don't watch everyone. I think the 6:00 and 7:00 news programs are what they claim, fair and balanced, which is more than I can say for the network news programs I used to watch. I do not watch other cable news programs, but I do watch Fox. Starting at 8:00, however, with Bill O'Reilly, Fox News goes downhill for me.
I like Bill O'Reilly. Mostly. He seems honestly to enjoy his work, and I like that he has an array of guests whom he seems to take great delight in using as foils to make his points. My biggest problem with Bill O'Reilly is his continually referring to himself, his program, and his network - and, of course, his book - in the most glowing of terms. Or at all, for that matter. Do we have to hear every night that Fox News is drubbing the competition? That his show beats this or that cable or network news program by x to 1? Or that his book is yet another week on the best seller list of the New York Times (which he otherwise scorns and vilifies)?
It's difficult to sit through all this self-referential journalism, even though I think he does a pretty good job at most of his stories. I just wish he would take Solomon's advice and let another man praise him, and not his own mouth (Prov. 25.2). But I'm sure Mr. O'Reilly would answer by saying that others are praising him - x to 1 and so many weeks on the best seller list - and all he's doing is reporting the facts. Maybe so. But he chides President Obama and occasional members of Congress for being arrogant and unwilling to listen to other people's point of view. At the same time, Bill O'Reilly strikes me as so full of himself, so sure of himself on most - to be fair, most - issues, that there really isn't room on his program for anyone other than him and his views.
Mr. O'Reilly makes me hope I don't come across that way with others.
My Sunday afternoon reading in Church history brought to light two episodes which seem to me to have distinctly contemporary implications.
We often hear, following some "natural disaster" or other, people musing about why God allows such things. Interesting to note that God rarely gets the credit for beautiful weather, but let an earthquake or tornado reduce a town to rubble, a tsunami overwhelm unsuspecting seaside dwellers, a hurricane inundate a city, or fires turn homes and communities to ash, and someone's going to raise the "if God/why evil" question, typically to condemn or eliminate the Deity.
I want to give those folks credit, however, at least for acknowledging the connections between "natural" events, including "disasters," and divine sovereignty. For, while we cannot plumb the depths of the whys and hows of God's working among men and across the planet, we nonetheless confess it to be so. Which makes the 5th century Empress of the Eastern Empire wiser than all the 14th century bishops of London.
The Synod of the Oaks was convened in July, 403, by jealous enemies of Chrysostom, Christendom's first mega-church pastor. They hated the "Golden-mouthed" one and were determined to send him packing. Which, by a lot of hi-jinks, they did. But an earthquake shortly after that so frightened the Empress, convincing her that an injustice had been done, that she speedliy returned the preacher to his pulpit. By contrast, the British bishops assembled at Blackfriars in London, 1382, condemned the work of John Wycliffe, fearful of the tremors of reform he portended - even as a powerful earthquake rolled through the city. To them no voice of divine warning or displeasure was in that quake. But they should have been listening, given the upheavals that rocked Christendom barely 150 years later.
God is speaking in all the events of creation. There are no "natural disasters," only mysterious developments indicating the progress of the divine economy. And, while we are not always permitted to understand what God may be speaking to us through storms, wars, and painful conditions of all sorts (Rev. 10.1-4), of the fact that He is present in them, and speaking to us, there can be no doubt (Job 38-41). God is all-wise and all-good as well as all-powerful. He also works continuously in the things He has made to make Himself and His will known (Ps. 19.1-4; Ps. 68.18; Rom. 1.18ff). At the very least we must, when "disasters" strike, weep for the victims, give for their relief, and ponder the state of our own lives, giving thanks for our many blessings and seeking to discern if anything offensive to the Lord is harboring in our souls.
When upheavals befall - remembering that judgment begins with the house of God - let us follow the course of the Empress, rather than the bishops, lest greater discipline befall.
There are indications that the Western world's infatuation with materialism may be waning. For as long as most of us can remember, the "good life" has been considered to consist in success, ease, and abundance. Advertizing, credit card companies, and governments have helped to fuel this vision, and the public schools are the official fabricator of this nation's getters-and-spenders.
Consequently, Western statisticians and economists have gotten into the habit of measuring wellbeing in terms of Gross Domestic Product, or, the economic value each person can expect to enjoy, based on a nation's overall economic output. The higher the GDP, the more, it has been assumed, the happiness and wellbeing of the people.
But this may be changing. A new report produced under the auspices of the French government suggests that material abundance is not the best measure of the good life. The French team insists that we have to factor in two other elements as well: what it calls "quality of life" - which is vaguely defined in terms of a sense of happiness and wellbeing apart from material wealth; and the state of the nation that will be handed down to future generations - debt, infrastructure, and so forth. The Economist (September 19th) admits, "Finding a single measure that captures all this, the report concludes, seems too ambitious." Indeed. More than money and things are involved in attaining to a good life.
But the important thing is not the French have found an alternative way of measuring happiness. The important thing is that people are looking for something other than stuff to direct them toward the good life. Stuff no longer satisfies; indeed, it never did. And this recognition that there is something more than stuff, more than wealth, that contributes to happiness, something related to "quality of life" and concern for the future - this may signal the beginning of the end of the materialistic charade.
Will believers be ready to step into that gap, once it collapses, to point to the "single measure" - knowing the living God - that alone can make men truly happy?