Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review (#20 of 2010)

I read exactly the same number of books in 2010 as I did in 2009. Make of that what you will.

Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality by Donald Miller.

So I'm the last American Christian to read this book (except my wife, as we listened to the audio together, which is also updated with a "where are they now?" afterword. Read by the author, which always makes it better) and I know I should have read it years ago. But, as usually happens with these things, it was probably more timely for me to read now as Miller works through several issues that have been heavily on my mind this year.

Do you use love like money? I mean, do you withhold love from others in an attempt to get them to change their ways? There's an essay in this book about that, I found that convicting. Miller works through how to love people like Jesus did; namely, how to love those Christians who are different than you even if you think they're on the wrong track in their beliefs or attitudes or actions. That's what I currently am thinking about.

I would give the first half of this book to any non-believer as a great witness and apologetic for the Gospel. Miller's adventures and conversations at Reid College are great and extremely thought-provoking. The second half of the book, starting with the part on relationships and Emily Dickinson are only so-so as they are mostly his introspection and stories of him learning to live in community. Helpful, but no moreso than just talking to a fellow believer in your Sunday school class about what they're thinking about. Miller probably didn't intend for this book to be the best-seller that it was as it's simply a compilation of his personal essays. (I now see that he blogs, too.)

How do non-teenagers who aren't raised in the same Southern Baptist context (or someone who was not raised at all in church) that I was come to Christ? What does meeting Jesus look like to them? I find that most of my friends through life were raised in church and struggle with this question, struggle with loving those who come to Jesus differently. It's easier to think of sharing the Gospel cross-culturally in another country than it is in America. That's a problem.

I find myself thinking of Rodney Reeves' guest sermons at my church this year. "If you think someone isn't a Christian because he smokes and cusses, you might be a pharisee." or "If you think God loves you more than someone else because you've been a Christian longer and have read the Bible more than he/she, you might be a pharisee." (Read Matthew 23:33 for why it's not good to be a pharisee).

Overall, I give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. I need to reconcile a few of Miller's thoughts, which are logically sound, with Scripture. I also need to read Francis Chan's Crazy Love. Hopefully I won't read that book 5 years late.

This is my last book review for 2010. I still have at least a dozen physical, paper books on my bookshelf that I bought either long ago or last Christmas that need to be "read and released." So, I'll be getting to work on those starting tomorrow.

Book Review (#19 of 2010)

Turbulent Times for the Soviet Church: The Inside Story by Kent R. Hill.

I found this book in a closet so it was added to my "read and release" list. I bought it from a bargain bin years ago, not sure when. It was published in 1991 and is an abridged version of Hill's more complete piece: The Soviet Union on the Brink. Hill has an interesting resume.

This book gives a fascinating picture of the Church in the midst of glasnost in the late 1980's. So much was changing so fast and Hill does his best to sort it all out. While glasnost was a time of more openness in some areas, Christians were still being martyred and the Church was very much struggling with its identity.

Hill gives a history of the Church in the Soviet Union. I found part of the pre-Lenin history fascinating as Hill gave a solid case for how Marxism and Christianity are incompatible. Hill has researched various Christians and former Marxists who wrote essays prior to 1917 of how Marxism was a huge threat to the Russian Church because it is predicated on atheism. I find this interesting in light of how people like the writers Jesus Radicals seem bent on reconciling the two.

The author also recounts the story of several known martyrs of all denominations throughout the decades and how the Orthodox church struggled with resistance and then capitulation and manipulation by the Supreme Soviet. These are all good things to know and remember.

As Russia moved toward a more open society and conformed to more Western standards on things like human rights, the media, etc. during glasnost, Christians were given much more freedom in the written laws. But the image of a government divided against itself, particularly in how it dealt with Christians, is obvious in this recounting of that period.

There is very little mention in the book of any Christian actions in the Central Asian republics. Of course there was not much action in those Muslim-context cultures but my guess is that Church history there probably was not well-known or reported. In his predictions for the future Hill mentions but downplays the problems that would arise between the Orthodox Church and protestants in many parts of the former USSR. He does caution the West in not making evangelization of the USSR a "photo op" type of thing once the doors cracked open, which unfortunately was probably not heeded.

I give the book 3 stars out of 5. I'm sure his more complete version (which is three times the length of this one) is much better.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review (#18 of 2010)

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

A powerful autobiography, painful to read at every chapter. Ali has become famous for renouncing Islam and shining a harsh spotlight on the lives of women in Muslim context cultures all over the world. (Here is a recent op-ed piece by her.) Much of what she says isn't popular, Nick Kristof, for example reviewed her most recent book and her anti-Islamic remarks very harshly.

This is truly a rags-to-riches story. Ali was born into an unstable family in an unstable country (Somalia) and spends most of her life as a refugee. She recounts her life as a Muslim Somali growing up in both "Christian" Kenya and in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Female circumcision, beatings from her mother and one of her Koran instructors, family killed and dislocated in civil wars, a harsh life without much love. Ali escapes an arranged marriage and takes refuge in Holland, where she puts herself through school and eventually becomes a member of parliament. Now she's a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (unfortunately making her an enemy of the political Left).

If you have an interest in the plight of Muslim women, then this book is a must-read. If you're interested in what folk, every day Islam looks like and how rigid militant Islam has evolved in places like Somalia then this is also an informative book.

I highly recommend the audio version which is read by the author. The most important books to read are the ones that are the most difficult to keep reading. This was a tough book to finish.

In a related note, I would love to see a conversation between Ali and Ziauddin Sardar.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review (#17 of 2010)

"Church is just one part of our lives. For most tentmakers, our job is our church, and the work place is our place of worship. All Christians need to grasp the fact that business is a medium of pleasure to God and a tool of doing His good."

Tentmaking: The Life and Work of Business as Missions by Patrick Lai. This book is the bible of tentmaking. Lai has spent decades using business to enter into and plant churches in restricted-access countries. This book examines every aspect of tentmaking and tells stories from tentmakers to illustrate the highs and lows of the occupation. Lai did a survey of all the tentmakers he could find in the 10/40 window and examined what similarities and differences they had and to see if he could find any common characteristics of "successful" tentmaker church planters.

The book defines several forms of tentmaking and gives plenty of pros and cons of each approach. Lai discusses everything: dealing with the government, how to raise "third culture kids," how to do your home furloughs, how to get along with team members, and pretty much every other detail of life overseas. Even if you're going overseas on a missionary visa this book will has some great things to think about.

I give it 4.5 stars instead of 5 because he doesn't publish his survey data so you just have to take his word for it when he talks about the numbers. But the survey results are a very small part of the book.

Lai closes the book by driving home the point that many Christians today make the mistake of separating "secular" from "spiritual," as if some vocations (like professional pastor or missionary) are more spiritual than others (doctors, stock brokers, ship builders, etc.). If you don't believe you can worship God through whatever you do, then my boss would say you inherently believe in some sort of Gnostic dualism where spirit and flesh are completely separated.

Business isn't just some necessary evil, but something that God uses for His glory. We need Christian businessmen to redeem the fallen marketplace whether at home or among unreached peoples. This book gives you some "best practices" of using business to take the gospel where it might not get a foothold otherwise.

I'll hopefully get to meet Lai next month at this conference.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On Advent

Yesterday, Joni attended The Encounter (contemporary) service at our church while I was out listening to Ed Stetzer. They've been doing an advent candle and devotional as part of worship, and yesterday there was a reading from C.S. Lewis' essay* "Xmas and Christmas: A Last Chapter from Herodotus." The essay is a good read so I wanted to recommend it; here's an excerpt:

And they buy as gifts for one another such things as no man ever bought for himself. For the sellers, understanding the custom, put forth all kinds of trumpery, and whatever, being useless and ridiculous, they have been unable to sell throughout the year they now sell as an Exmas gift. And though the Niatirbians profess themselves to lack sufficient necessary things, such as metal, leather, wood and paper, yet an incredible quantity of these things is wasted every year, being made into the gifts.

We've been doing this daily Advent devotional as a family, hanging an Advent ornament on a tree each day. It's been a nice reminder that the entirety of OT Scripture points us toward the coming of Christ (Luke 24:25-27). It's been fun thinking through how to do Christmas as a family, what values we want it to display in our home and what we want gifts to mean. (It's made it more fun for me this year.)

*update*: Joni informs me I have the wrong C.S. Lewis essay. This is the correct one, "What Christmas Means to Me." He more plainly condemns the commercialism. Here is an excerpt:

"We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don't know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I'd sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance."

I like that paragraph.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My questions for Ed Stetzer

If having more than 20 people gather together for church inevitably leads to a platform/stage "show" setting that can become "dangerous" because it fosters a spectator ("80/20") mentality among group members which causes the church to "plateau," then why push for more growth instead of smaller groups and multiplication?

This is the question I'm left with after hearing Ed Stetzer, Director of Lifeway Research and church planter in residence, preach at Freshwater Church, a 14 month old church plant here in Bolivar which he says is "one of the 20 fastest-growing churches in America" having grown from zero to 750 in 14 months. He gave this stat as evidence of "God's hand" on the church and encouraged them to grow further.

Dr. Stetzer got my attention when he said that he won't complain about the setup of our Sunday mornings as spectator events because he finds a stage and pews inevitable when 20 or more gather. But he said the setup was also "dangerous" because it promotes a spectator's mentality. The challenge he presented, which echoes his latest book and blog series on "kick-starting" growth, was simply for church members to exercise their gifts in ministry and not just be spectators (text: 1 Peter 4:8-10). If the number of "customers" grows faster than the number of "workers," then needs will not be met and the church will "plateau or decline as customers leave to go find a different Wal-Mart."

It seems to me that Stetzer's logic has a circular problem: "Plateaued" churches need to motivate members in order to "kick-start" growth, but the more you grow the more the 80/20 problem is exacerbated, and the 80/20 problem is what creates the plateau in the first place.

Using numbers as both the goal of the church and measure of its health brings up bright red flags for me. The IMB trains its workers to plant small rapidly-reproducing autonomous house churches ("multiplication by division") while the SBC itself seems to focus more on growing church numbers; that dichotomy has always bothered me.

HOW a church grows is more important to me than how fast it's growing. You can attract more customers simply by lowering your price, which strikes me as the way many churches try to kick-start growth (I'll save that thought for another day). You can also grow a church without adding a single new Christian. Now, growth through "sheep stealing" isn't so bad because competition and variety are always welfare-enhancing. But is it really evidence of God's hand when you're growing primarily by people transferring their membership from other Bible-believing churches?

A former church planter once told me that his church lost its parent church's support when they did not achieve a certain growth rate. It didn't matter that they had 100 people who were growing in the Word and ministering to each other every week, it mattered more that they weren't growing by some percentage a year and had "plateaued." The removal of the parent church's blessing caused the church plant to fall apart. I see Stetzer's talk of church growth as a measure of "God's hand" as encouraging this type of behavior--although I'm sure that is not his intent.

Freshwater is a plant of Second Baptist in Springfield. Second Baptist is a very large church but it appears deeply committed to plant churches around the world rather than simply growing itself. (It gives to the Cooperative Program but also insists on spending a large percentage of its budget self-funding and sending its own missionaries as it is more Scriptural for the local church to do that than to create a denominational body to do it.)

So, another question I have is why would Freshwater, which is an example of "multiplication by division," want to grow larger rather than multiply?

If you're new to my blog/thoughts, I have previously written criteria of truly "Spirit-led" churches, ones that cannot be easily explained by rational human behavior:
1. Clear violation of the 80/20 rule (my original criteria says 90/10, a lower bar).
2. Wide diversity in race and incomes in the church (I'm finding out that racial diversity is extremely rare everywhere in the world among all people groups... there's an argument that in Revelation we see that each people group must have its own church so that this is natural and as-it-should-be. So, maybe I should just go with incomes here).
3. Staying relatively small and multiplying rather than focusing on growing larger.

Growth in numbers alone does not make the list for a variety of Scriptural and microeconomic reasons, which you can click on the link to find more about. (I leave "miracles" off the list for a couple of other reasons, but if your church is raising people from the dead it's pretty impossible to explain rationally. :-)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

When useful technology bites the dust

About a year ago I was bummed that NewsGator was discontinuing its RSS feed publishing features as well as support for its Symbian app. This was after they merged services with Google. I got over that when I found Delicious, which allows me to bookmark into the cloud and publish an RSS feed from those bookmarks. I did a presentation for faculty on how they could use Delicious to keep better track of articles and assign them to students.

Now, Yahoo! is eliminating Delicious and other services. This had been coming; they never fixed problems with their iPhone app after Yahoo! bought them and their site was in disrepair. But I had no problems with their app or their service. The latest productivity-enhancer I found was, which lets you tweet links to Delicious for bookmarking.

So, when I'm sitting in a waiting room surfing with my iPod and see a really great article to use for an assignment, I bookmark it via Delicious. In 2 seconds, I have forever (or so I thought) preserved it's location someplace where I'll always find it when I need it.

I have over 1,000 tags on articles via Delicious, most of them divided up by subject matter for my classes (so, about 1,000 tagged articles). When I need to find that article on hangar tariffs, I simply search my "microeconomics" tag for the keyword. When I want to give students a research source for a project, I simply give them the RSS for the class and that gives them hundreds of articles to search via Google Reader or whatever feed reader they want to use.

I thought I would just go ahead and post my RSS feeds here by subject, in case anyone wants to check them out before Yahoo! discontinues supporting the feeds (assuming they will). Some articles have multiple tags because they're relevant to multiple courses/topics so will appear in multiple feeds.



Personal Financial Planning.

Money & Banking. (313 articles in this. I spend more time reading for that class than any other and assign more articles in it than most other classes, 20 article assignments this semester).

International Economics/Finance.

History of Economic/Financial thought (Winterfest course)

This feed is articles related to the financial crisis for students creating a wiki last year.

Insurance and Risk Management.

Anyone have suggestions for a replacement service for Delicious? What else is out there that allows me to publish my bookmarks as an RSS feed?

*UPDATED* - the belated news from Yahoo! and Delicious that they will likely survive as a spin-off is welcome news.
Though my transition to Diigo is probably inevitable. Diigo doesn't have a functional iPhone app, so that's a bummer.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Augustine and Private Property

Recently I engaged in discussion with a friend of mine who I met at Baylor while he was finishing a MDiv at Truett Seminary the same time I was finishing an MA in Economics. The discussion was over issues of capitalism, private property, and the Bible (check the comments). Lucas and his family just moved to Bolivia to work with a Low German Mennonite agricultural-based community. About the only thing Lucas and I have in common is a desire to find common ground, which is how we met. (If you only talk to people you agree with all the time, you never learn anything.)

Most of the people I encounter in my "circles" tend to accept the basic tenets of capitalism at face value. Some have worked to give a Scriptural defense of the major pillars of capitalism including the most important-- property rights.

I read an interview with Nobel laureate and erstwhile free market & globalization skeptic Dani Rodrik at Five Books yesterday in which he said about the collapse of Communism:
"I think one good thing is that pretty much everybody understands that there really is no alternative to market-based systems. "
(read the whole quote to get his meaning). Lucas, however, has introduced me to some who do not hold much love for markets and also claim Christ. He referred me to a post at Jesus Radicals about Augustine by Boyd Collins that Lucas says basically sums up his own views. The author gives an interpretation of some writings by Augustine on property. There are some interesting parts, which I will highlight. I should note I've not read any complete works by Augustine, only works about him and other citations of him.

Collins begins with the assertion:
"Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice, rather than the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution"
"True ownership is granted only to the one who uses property justly – otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those who will use it rightly."
The problem here is that "justice" and "right use" can be highly normative. If you don't like how I use my property, is that unjust? Collins claims that doing ecological damage with your property is unjust and grounds for expropriation. Reading through Deuteronomy I find that the Israelites cut down a lot of trees, leveled cities, and slaughtered a large amount of people and animals-- what many would call ecological damage. Those being slaughtered (and many readers today) probably considered it unjust, but it was just and righteous because God commanded Israel to do so.

Collins projects Augustine here:
"True enjoyment is found only in God. Other realities are to be used as pathways which bring us closer to God. Earthly realities find their fulfillment only by leading us to God. All lower values point toward the highest value – our hearts are ever restless until they rest in him. Since property is an earthy reality that tends to possess its possessors, tempting them to enjoy it as if it were an absolute value, how should Christians use it?"
This could be a John Piper quote. Indeed, Jesus warns us about possessions and James blasts the rich (the rich and wicked or all rich?). Any possession we love more than God is idolatry.

But does that mean that possessions themselves are sinful? Property doesn't always "possess its possessors." Saying no one should own property because of this risk is like saying no one should eat food since sometimes the taste of food tempts us to eat too much.

Augustine seems to say that the right to property is a human--not divine--right. Augustine:
“Whence does anyone possess what he or she has? Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s (cf. Psalm 24:1); the poor and the rich God has made from one mud and the poor and the rich he sustains on one earth. Nevertheless, by human law, one says, ‘This estate is mine, this house is mine, this servant is mine.’ This is by human law therefore – by the law of the Emperors.”
I would argue that God clearly affirms a person's right to possession in various places in Scripture. While we are stewards of God's creation, God's law (which is perfect [Ps. 19:7]) clearly outlines man's property rights. Exodus 20:

v. 15- You shall not steal. v. 17- "you shall not covet your neighbor's house...or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

God clearly acknowledges possession here and commands us how to use our possessions and how to respect our neighbor's possessions. Man could say "this estate is mine" not because of "human law" but because God said "this estate is yours." Perhaps a more full quote from Augustine would shed some light on his thinking, but it's not given in the post. I find it interesting that God's design for Israelite society involves ownership of property.

I would contend that property wasn't an idea present at creation, when the world was sinless (because sin introduced scarcity into the world). Just as thorns and weeds didn't grow in gardens before sin, and clothing was never necessary, property was probably inconceivable. So, I wouldn't say that property is "God-ordained" in the sense that He originally intended it. But He clearly affirms the right to ownership throughout Scripture--nowhere does it say ownership is in and of itself sin. That's like saying struggling to accomplish a task is sin-- tasks are difficult because of sin.

So when, if ever, is ownership sin? Collins interprets Augustine:

"For Augustine, private ownership was an expression of sin when it was not used to fulfill God’s plan for the just distribution of the world’s resources. This sin was a failure to recognize that all being participates in God, the source of being. Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation."
That first sentence is loaded, but let's think about it. We've already established that God affirmed individual right to ownership. Here Collins (and Augustine?) moves into the use of property and not the actual ownership-- and that's a huge difference. A read through Leviticus shows us plenty of laws about how God's people were to use their property, but in doing so God affirms the right to ownership. Just because I own something doesn't mean I am using it unjustly. What does "the just distribution of the world's resources" mean? It sounds highly subjective (and dubious) to me. I don't see any clear statements from God in Scripture that outline a plan for exactly how He wants resources distributed.

Leviticus 25 is the closest that I can think of. Here God outlines how we're to use property, including landowners giving back property to the original owner, and slaves being freed, every 50 years. However nowhere does it state how big a person's property can be or how many possessions she can have, etc. God isn't a central planner that decides who gets what, he affirms His people's ability to trade and make those choices.

He does command that a certain portion of property be sacrificed or given away. That appears to be a way of His people acknowledging that everything is ultimately God's and we are stewards (back to Ps. 24:1). If I refuse to sacrifice or do not allow my gleanings to fall to the ground for the poor to pick up (Leviticus 19) then I am ultimately saying that I love my possessions more than God--idolatry. (I'll come back to this idea later.)

"This sin was a failure to recognize that all being participates in God, the source of being." I'm not sure I understand or agree with that interpretation. Since I don't follow Collins' thought about a "plan for the just distribution of God's resources," I also don't understand his definition here.
"Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation."

Collins' thought seems to be that if a person believes she owns her property it therefore means she sins by not understanding that ultimately she and her property are God's. Hence, states that uphold and enforce property rights in their laws are instruments of sin. I think the fact that God outlined His people's rights to property and established ways they could arbitrate with one another when someone violated those rights is a solid defense against this idea. God also never gave His people free reign to conquer and take property from whoever they pleased-- Gentile nations around them also are said to have property rights in several places. So, property rights aren't just for God's people and sin for everyone else.

Yet this autonomy is exactly what Milton Friedman and other neoliberals praise as “freedom” as in the famous phrase, “Free to Choose.” To be encased in “one’s own choice” is to be the slave of sin. Such “freedom” is slavery to one’s own will which has not yet been healed by God’s power.
Again, God's clearly established that people are free to own, buy, sell property. So, I think much of Collins' argument begins to break down. As I mentioned above, God didn't outline specifically how He wanted resources distributed-- he left that up to us to do with some basic guidelines and commands of usage. That reads a lot like "freedom" to me. And Gentile nations who did not "recognize God's sovereignty" were also permitted that freedom. Their ownership of property was not in and of itself sin. Non-Christians who own property aren't sinners because they own property, they're sinners because they have not experienced redemption through the blood of Christ.

If you follow Collins' logic, the idea of property ownership is sin because it is rebellion against God--something God never says and would be contradictory to the Scriptures above. Therefore any institution that upholds that idea (be it Roman or American) is sinful. (Given all the pages on anarchy on the Jesus Radicals website, perhaps his thinking begins to make sense-- government can inherently be sinful because of its enforcement of property rights. But I personally think I've debunked this notion pretty well here--since property ownership isn't sinful then simply enforcing that ownership isn't either. )

Collins quoting Augustine:
"If one therefore keeps more than what is sufficient, ethically speaking one is really keeping others’ property, because these others, by virtue of their need, have a fundamentally greater right to those material goods.”
Clearly that is Augustine speaking and not Scripture (ie: Jesus). Like it or not (and many psalms complain about it), inequality exists and sometimes by the direct hand of God. Job was a rich man before God allowed everything he had to be taken-- and then God gave him much more than he'd ever had before. You get the picture that Job had more than "sufficient," but it pleased God to give him more. Nowhere does Scripture say that someone has a "right" to your property because they need it more than you do. Nowhere does it say you are stealing from someone if you have an extra something and someone else does not. "Sufficient" and "need" are also quite normative. But this brings up Collins next quote of Augustine:

“Gold and silver therefore belong to those who know how to use gold and silver. For even among human beings themselves, each must be said to possess something [only] when he or she uses it well. For what a person does not treat justly, that person does not possess rightly. If one should call one’s own what one does not possess rightly, this will not be the voice of a just possessor.”
I've outlined above that God clearly gave commands and guidelines for use of property and in doing so he inherently affirms the right to ownership. Here, Augustine says that if a person doesn't use his property "well" or "justly," he forfeits the right to ownership. It's an interesting thought but is it backed up anywhere in Scripture? Clearly, God deposed and stripped kingdoms away from kings who did not obey or acknowledge Him. That was clearly God's doing and not man's. But in terms of actual property, the closest I can come is Matthew 25:
28'Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.' 29 For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
(By itself, verse 29 would be problematic to Collins, I think.) Here we have a slave who misused a talent given to him and it was taken from him. But it was not the slave's money to begin with. "A ha!" you say-- but wait. Money is property just like land, slaves, cattle, etc., and God clearly affirms a right to ownership. The master took it from him, not anyone else. No one else had a right to take the property but the master. Just as no one had authority to take away a kingdom from a king unless God took away that king's authority (several places in the OT, but Jesus affirms this in John 19:11) Which is problematic for Collins next assertion, which are his words and not Augustine's:

True ownership is granted only to the one who uses property justly – otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those who will use it rightly. Those who abuse their property and by extension degrade the ecological integrity of God’s earth, “…have forfeited their participation in God’s true ownership”
(boldface mine) I think I've already established above that we don't have any Scriptural backing for the idea that misuse of property is theft. But remember that in Collins' logic even the idea that you own property is sin because it is rebellion against God and sets up a "fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation." Hence, since just the idea that you own property is sin, you are therefore misusing the property, and forfeit ownership rights of it (Augustine) which Collins takes a step further to say is actual theft if you still maintain ownership. Collins then says that because you have committed theft your property can be "justly expropriated" by those who will use it "rightly." (and does Collins get to define "rightly?")

I see nowhere in Scripture, including the parts of Israelite law which outlines use of their possessions, where God gives a command to confiscate someone's property if they use that property "unjustly" or to the displeasure of the community. Nowhere do I see misuse of property considered theft (even in Augustine's writings). These are clearly Collins' ideas and not God's nor Augustines.

I see David and psalmists asking God to take away property, which apparently meant that they would not do so themselves (presumably because it would violate "you shall not steal.")! I see plenty of places where God says he will judge us for how we use our possessions. Collins:

A prime example of such forfeiture can be found in BP’s abuse of its undersea property in the Gulf of Mexico, Such behavior, though sanctioned by law, involves a direct violation of Augustine’s principles of right ownership... if BP’s concern for profit prevails over the obligation to set right what has been destroyed, world citizens have the right and obligation to expropriate the property which has been so abused for the sake of profit. God’s justice demands it.
Again, Collins (not Augustine, not Jesus) goes yet another step futher by saying people have the "obligation to expropriate" property. I assume if people don't meet their "obligation" here Collins means they are sinning. And how is saying that "God's justice demands it" not blasphemy when nowhere in Scripture do we see either a right of expropriation much less an obligation? Collins presumes to speak for God here, that's extremely dangerous ground.

The only clear command I can see about how we are to treat other people's property is not to steal it, and to compensate a person when we harm or kill his property. Where property is "expropriated" in Scripture it is done so by God (see the other red paragraph above).

Now, I will move down to Collins' closing.
Capitalism is often justified as a way to redirect the unalterable facts of human selfishness into socially beneficial channels, but the early Christians were not so pessimistic about human nature. For them, every earthly reality was a path that leads to God because God’s power to save was real.
I'll take his word for it about the early church fathers, but neither Jesus nor Paul were optimistic about human nature; and the idea that "every earthly reality" leads to God sounds like universalism to me. But capitalism does channel self-interested behavior into social benefit. The guy who sold you a sandwich for lunch didn't do so because he cares about how hungry you are, he did so because he needs the money to pay his family's doctor bills. You didn't care about him or his family, you bought the sandwich because you were hungry. But by pursuing those self-interests, you both benefited and got what you wanted.

Collins then backs off a little bit and just gives us Augustine's view:
Augustine did not believe that property was in itself evil. It was the Roman law of absolute ownership which permitted owners to wall themselves off from the human family that was evil.
This wildly contradicts so much of what Collins' has written above! But the underlying point remains, Augustine-- like Jesus, Paul, James, etc.-- warns of the evils of loving property more than God as that is idolatry.

But nowhere in Scripture does it say thinking you have a right of ownership means your ownership of the property is sin, and therefore you're misusing the property and therefore forfeiting right to ownership and therefore stealing from others if you continue owning it and thereby giving the rest of the world a right and obligation to expropriate it from you. (Nowhere in his writings does Augustine say all that, either.) However, several converses are found in Scripture-- and I'm always going to go with Jesus' words over a man's.

So, how can Christians make sure that their ownership of property doesn't become idolatry?

I look back to Leviticus 25 to say that the model is holding property loosely. What's yours will not always be yours, and ultimately it's all God's (Psalm 24:1).
I also look to Jesus to see that we should voluntarily forfeit our right of ownership (note: dramatically different from forced expropriation!)

"So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver" 1 Corinthians 9:7 (boldface mine)

Matthew 5:39"But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

It is "give," "let him have," etc. Not "You forfeit your right of ownership," "You have the right to take..., "etc.

I recently read testimony of a church planter who lent his stereo to someone who asked. He wanted it back but chose not to ask for it. The borrower brought it back months later and asked for a Bible. "Why?" the church planter asked, surprised. "Because if the stereo had been mine, it would have been my life. No way I'd have lent it out. But you were willing to, so now I want to learn about this Jesus you say you know." That's the way Jesus.

In short, if God had wanted things to be Collins' way or Augustine's way, he would have spelled it out in Scripture. Collins appears to take Augustine's views, even where they contradict Jesus, and take them as a prescription for life. The problem is compounded when Collins clearly adds his own words and thoughts to the mix.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Economics and Climate Change

Greg Mankiw, whose textbook I adopted for Micro this semester, posted a link to a review by Yoram Bauman giving each major textbook a grade for how it deals with climate change. Mankiw aced it, while the previous textbook we used received the lowest score ("F").

I like that the Mankiw text clearly discusses Pigovian taxes. If there is an activity that causes a negative externality (like pollution) you can either tax it directly or use a permit (cap-and-trade) system that has the same effect--raising the price and reducing the quantity of the activity and its externality. Both are market-based approaches and are more palatable than government decree. Mankiw's book illustrates how both work very simply and clearly.

In discussing a tax on gasoline, which is a Mankiw staple, Mankiw writes:
"the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline is widely believed to be the cause of global
warming. Experts disagree about how dangerous this threat is, but there is no doubt that the gas tax reduces the threat by reducing the use of gasoline."

It's a factual statement and pretty even-handed. You don't need to believe climate change is real or that pollution is a problem to study how the government can best correct negative externalities.
The text we formerly used (Gwartney) includes a special topics chapter on environmental issues and the role of government. It states:
“[T]he earth has experienced both warming and cooling trends in the past,
and the current warming trend may well be unrelated to the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.”

Note the difference between that and the "widely believed" phrase from Mankiw. Bauman points out that:

This statement is not only out of line with the 2007 IPCC report, it’s even out of step with the conservative Cato Institute, which says in its 2009 policymakers handbook that “[g]lobal warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975.”

Which is why Bauman gives the Gwartney text an F. This is a pretty clear example of a very subtle political slant. The Gwartney text is clearly more conservative, but I think the Mankiw text is far more useful for students to understand real life. If they graduate from a Principles class and don't understand the logic/method behind a major (but very straightforward) piece of economic legislation being debated by Congress, then that's problematic to me.

In the supplemental text I have adopted, North & Smietana's Good Intentions (my review), there is a chapter dealing with the environment and climate change. I utilize a message board for students to discuss issues related to the book. I asked the following discussion question related to that chapter (copied from a study guide accompanying the book):
What do you think keeps many Christians from being involved in the issue of global climate change?

One student wrote the following answer. It's anecdotal at best, but there were enough answers similar enough to it that I wonder if it's not a common thought for sophomore-level students here:
"I'm wondering if this climate change thing is talking about 'global warming' because it was already proven that that doesn't really exist & it was just a political scam. It seems like it is kind of just something people laugh at now."

I think this example also illustrates the stark difference between living in a"red" state (or "red" part of a "purple" state) and living in a blue state or more urban setting. Over 95% of our students are from MO, AR, OK, and KS. Conservatives like Ross Douthat writing for the NY Times and the Cato Institute in D.C. assume climate change to be real and man-made. They can't comprehend that a part of the educated populace doesn't assume that. Neither can Yoram Bauman, apparently. In any case, I'm pleased with my choice of textbooks.

Budgeting decisions

Suppose we have disposable income that would buy one of the following items, which cost roughly the same amount:

1. An iPad.
2. A Dell tablet/notebook combo (or other computer).
3. Dental appointments for the family.
4. A vasectomy.
5. Repairs for the Mazda.
6. A few days away for vacation.
7. A flat-screen plasma TV (to replace our 1998 old-school box).*
8. Save the money for probable unbudgeted expenses in the coming year.

I go over this list in my head trying to rank order them. The "wants" and the utility they bring are vividly clear, but acquiring them would bring some negative utility in the form of guilt over not purchasing a "need." There is a time-consistency problem here as well.

Kids, this is how you know you've gotten old.

*A toddler visited our house recently and couldn't find the TV. He didn't recognize the box we had as being a TV. (Similar to how Elias doesn't understand that our television doesn't operate as a touch-screen like the iPod does.)