Monthly Archives: December 2009

The Art of Life

You’d think that increase in wealth would increase happiness, but it doesn’t.  It appears to  just increases crime:  

“All the available empirical data suggest that among the populations of affluent societies there may be no connection at all between rising affluence, believed to be the principal vehicle of a happy life, and greater happiness…On the whole, only a few percentage points separate countries with an average annual income per capita between 20,000 and 35,000 dollars from thoe below the barrier of 10,000 dolars…on the other hand, one social index that seems to be growing most spectacularly in line with the level of affluence…has so far been the incidence of criminality: of burglary and car theft, drug trafficking, econimc graft adn business corruption. And of an uncomforable and uneasy sensation of uncertainty, hard to bear, let alone to live with permanently.” –Zygmunt Bauman, “The Art of Life”

My new favorite author is definitely Zygmunt Bauman. He is a Jewish ex-communist from Poland who has taught in Britain since the 60’s and is now 84 and professor Emiretus at Leeds University.  He has written a lot on postmodern consumer culture.  I’m just finishing his “The Art of Life” (2008) and have really found it to be powerful, challenging, and well put. In sum: we generally think wealth will bring us possibilities which in turn will make us happy. We give up non-market paths to happiness (having leisure time, close friendships, home cooked meals in common with others, work-life balance) in order to accumulate money, in our pursuit of objects and experiences which will bring us our desired end: happiness. But in this pursuit we give up what actually would make us happy (friendships, leisure, etc). Our consumer culture pushes us towards this frenzy. We can purchase our identity and security through consumer labels and so remake ourselves constantly. In our ‘liquid modern’ age, things change so rapidly that the notion of revolution is redundant and trivialized, as things constantly change. Virtues have been radically shifted, so that stability and steadfastness, which were once considered assets, are now seen as liabilities while the ability to efface oneself and recreate, to let go of the past, ignore it and forget it– and instead be flexible always forever towards the future which is effaced as soon as it comes and become ‘history’– this is the new virtue. Bauman challenges us to be authentic selves who choose for ourselves how to live rather than adopting the consumerism of our age as he refers to many great and lesser known thinkers along the way. Here I will highlight some of the things that challenged me most in this book. While I do not agree with Bauman on all points, I certainly think he does a fabulous job explaining our current culture and our place in it, and I thoroughly agree with his challenge that we should authentically live our lives and take both personal existential and civic responsibility for the choices we make, as well as his concerns about the gradual erosion of civil society.

So the introduction to the book is called “whats wrong with happiness?” Whats wrong with it is that we tend to think happiness is increase in GNP– the wealthier a people become, the more likley they are to be happy, on the whole.  But studies seem to have shown clearly that happiness does not rise after you get to a basic level of economic development. More economic increase beyond that basic level does not increase happiness, but actually can decrease it. He has a great quote from Robert Kennedy from 1968:

“Our GNP…registers the costs of the security systems which we install to protect our homes and th eprisons in which we lock oup those who manage to break into them…It includes the production of napalm, nuclear arms and armed vehicles…It records…television programmes that florify violence in order to sell toys to children. On th eother hand, GNP does not note the health of our children, quality of our deducation or gaiety of our games. It does not measure the beauty of our poetry and the strength of our marriages. It does not care to evaluate the quality of our political debates and integrity of our representatives. It leaves out of consideration our courage, wisdom and culture. It says nothing about our compassion and dedication to our country. In a word, the GNP measures everything, except what makes life worth the pain of living it.”

Bauman points out that much of what is crucial to human happiness is not something you can buy: “Whatever your cash and credit standing, you won’t find in a shopping malllove and friendship, the pleasures of domesticity, the satisfaction that comes from caring for loved ones or helping a neighbour in distress, the self-esteeem to be drawn from work well done, gratifying the ‘workmanship instinct’ common to us all, the appreciation, sympathy and respect of workmates and other people with whom one associates; you won’t find there freedom from the threats of disregard, contempt, snubs and humiliation.”

The ironic fact is that as people attempt to buy consumer goods in order to be happy, their pursuit of that often leads them to give up these non-market avenues to happiness: “It may easily happen, and fequently does, that the losses exceed the gains and the capacity of increased income to generate happiness is overtaken by the unhappiness caused by a shrinking access to the goods which ‘money can’t buy’. Consumption takes time (as does shopping), and the sellers of consumer goods are naturally interested in tapering to a bare minimum the time dedicated to the enjoyable act of consuming. Simultaneously, they are interested incutting down as far as possible, or eliminating altogether, those necessary activities that occupy much time but bring few marketing profits.” (5)

In pursuit of wealth, to purchase commodities and experiences, people often neglect and so lose really meaningful avenues to authentic happiness: “Even the agreeable taste of the restaurant food or the high price tags and highly prestigious labels attached ot the gifts sold in the shops will, however, hardly match up to the value in added happiness of the goods for whose absence or rarity they are meant to compensate: such goods as gathering around a table laid with food that has been jointly cooked with its sharing in mind, or lenghty, attentive listening by a person-who-counts to one’s intimate thoughts, hopes and apprehensions, and similar proofs of loving attention, engagement and care.”

Many are unreflective about their consumerism, and the way it provides their goals, meanings, and basic framework and directives for their life.  People get the magazines which show them how to dress, they get their ideas of normal and new style from movies, television, media and the consumer culture experts.  Bauman points out that our culture trains the young in consumer savy before we teach them about wisdom: “Thanks to the diligence and expertise of the advertising copywriters, such life-and-(high)street wisdom tends nowadays to be acquired at a tender age, well before there is a first chance to hear subtle philosophical meditations on the nature of happiness and the ways toa happy life, let alone a chance to study them and reflect on their message.” So the young consumer-girl who knows already “how to make her wardrobe work well” makes regular and frequent trips to the best department store where she can be assured she will be ‘in fashion.’ “What the ferequent visits to Topshop means for her is first and foremost a comforting feeling of safety: Topshop’s buyers confront the risks of failure on her beahalf and take the resonsibility for the choice on themeslves…Liberty does not trust her own taste and discretion sufficiently to buy (let alone don in public) just what has caught her eye; but things she bought in that shop she can parade in public with confidence– confident of recognition, approval and, in the end, of th eadmiration and high status that closely follow it…” (10)

We buy our identity. We are in some sense considered by others (and then because of that by oneself) to be what we own– what we wear, drive, where we eat, where we live, what we live in. In this society of self-creation through consumption, “Labels, logos and brands are the terms of the language of recognition. what is hoped to be and as a rule is to be ‘recognized’ with the help of brands and logs is…identity…Once a ‘whole life’ project, idntity has now turned into an attribute of the moment. Once designed, it is no longer ‘built to last forever’, but needs to be continuously assembled and disassembled.”  And wemust do this in consumer culture.  The ironic twist to this is that this necessity– this requirement and responsibility to consume does not seem a burden because it is packaged and sold to us as “freedom”– freedom to choose who I am and what I will become.  But that it will be done through consumption is necessary– to be a good citizen of consumer culture. 

We live as a society of shoppers: “In a society of shoppers and a life of shopping we are happy as long as we haven’t lost the hope of becoming happy; we are secure from unhappiness as long as some of that hope is still ticking. And so the key to happiness and the antidote to miserty is to keep the hope of becoming happy alive. But it can stay alive only on the condition of a rapid succession of ‘new chances’ and ‘new bginnings’, and of the prospect of an infinitely long chain o f new starts ahead. That condition is brought about by slicing life into episodes…” Any indefinite, interminable commitment would severely limit the range of plots available for the succeding episodes. An indefinite commitment and the pursuit of happiness seem to be at cross-purposes.”

Bauman discusses how that today people fear the responsibility of ownership– so much so that his example is Fexpetz, a firm which rents pets to people so they don’t have to deal with the ‘pain of ownership’.  We fear getting locked in– because such duration, such ongoing stability, is likely to be a liability not an asset in a value system which prioritizes the potential to ebb and flow with the constantly changing environment in which we find ourselves in liquid modernity.  We must continually create and recreate ourselves. 

At the end of the introduction Bauman sums up life as art:

“Our lives, whether we know it or not and whether we relish the news or bewail it, are works of art. To live our lives as the art of life demands, we must, just like the artists of any art, set ourselves challenges which are difficult to confront point-blank; we must choose targets that are well beyond our reach, and standards of excellence that vexingly seem to stay stubbornly far above our ability to match whatever we do or may be doing. We need to attempt the impossible. And we can only hope, with no support from a trustworthy favourable prognosis (let alone from certainty), that with a long and grinding effort we may sometime manage to match those standards adn reach those targets and so rise to the challenge.”  This description of life as a work of art is not so liquid– it is old school in that Bauman talks about trustworthiness, long and grinding effort, stubbornly setting goals far beyond what we can accomplish at present.  So we see that Bauman’s description of liquid life in the liquid modern world of change and lack of commitments is really a critique of this consumer culture.

Perhaps the best quote in the whole book follows:
Our lives are filled with uncertainty. They are frail, fragile, changing and little is secure. In the face of this, we attempt to build identity through consumption, in a fruitless hope of gaining some sort of stabilization through objects and experiences outside ourselves.

This frenzied pursuit of goods– particularly of ostentatious consumption of exclusive products and high end commodities– actually shows how desperate and fragile people’s lives are: “The struggle for legitimacy through magnificence and excess implies instability and vulnerability” If I think my identity is made stable by purchasing a particular car or an expensive bottle of champagne, I definitely have an instable identity, shown to be vapid as soon as the champagne is gone. This one-upmanship consumerism is a failed project, and it ultimately leads to resentiment.

In chapter 1, Bauman refers often to ancient sages. I want to share just a few of the best quotes which he brings up:

Epictetus: “Think of your life as if it were a banquet where you would behave graciously. When dishes are passed to you, extend your hand and help yourself toa moderate protion. If a dish should pass you by, enjoy what is already on your plate. Or if the dish hasn’t been passed to you yet, patiently wait for your turn. Carry over the same attitude of polite restraint and gratitude to your children, spouse, career and finances. there is no need to yearn, envy and grab. You will get your rightful portion when it is your time.”  This patient mindfulness of self and others which can slow to appreciate the moment instead of rushing on to the next thing is a result of life choices contrary to the fast paced blur of liquid consumer life.

Seneca: “A nobler mind never wavers in its resolutions, neverbecomes  of self-contempt, never changes anything in its best way of life. it is the other way round with sensual pleasures: they cool down the moment they boil at their greatest heat. The volume of sensual pleasure is not great, and so it fills up rapidly, pleaure turns into surfeit and the original animation turns into dullness and sloth.”  Here Seneca reminds us of the long lasting sustainable profit of the non-sensual pleasures of a disciplined life of stable character. 

Epictetus: “If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’;s opinions, you will never be rich.”

epictetus: “There is nothing that brings greater trouble on us than the fact that we conform to rumour, thinking that what has won widespread approval is best, and that, as we have so many to follow as good, we live by the principle, not of reason, but of imitation’;”

Epictetus: “a mass crowd is particularly important to avoid [since] the larger the size of the crowd we mingle with, the greater the danger.”

Pascal: “The sole cause of human happiness…is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” (we run out and about doing all sorts of things to distract ourselves and to keep from thinking or reflecting)

the last quote I will share is from bauman himself at the end of chapter 1:
“Twenty four hours a day and seven days a week humans tend to be drilled, groomed, exhorted, cajoled and tempted to abandon the ways they have considered right and proper, to turn their backs on what they have held dear adn what they thought had been making them happy, and to become different from what they are. They are pressed to turn into workers ready to sacrifice the rest of their lives for the sake of competitive enterprise or enterprising competition, into consumers moved by infinitely expandable desire sand wants, into citizens embracing fully and unreservedly the ‘there is no alternative’ edition of the’ politcal correctness’ of the day, which prods them, among other things, to be closed and blind to disinterested generosity and indifferent ot the common weal in case it can’t be deployed to enhance their egos…”

I hope that in this somewhat random series of quotations of and from bauman you get the idea of what he is saying– We are free to choose how we will live our lives. In our present culture we seem to be very influenced and affected by consumerism, which encourages us to think of ourselves and our happiness in terms of what we can buy– clothes, restaraunts, events, etc. He wants us to think: how does our consuming make us happier or less happy? What do we give up to consume? What do we gain? To what extent are our identities wrapped up in what we own? (perhaps the best way to evaluate this is to consider the time and thought we put into what we own– clothes, cars, etc) What are the non-market sources of pleasure that I do and can rely on which require little or no purchasing?

These are questions Christians ask too seldom. If they are asked, it is usually in the context of helping the poor or needy or missions with our money. But there is another question which needs to be asked– what are our values, and how are we spending our lives? One can continue to be a workaholic and divert much of one’s money to missions or the poor, but in that case have you really begun to live an excellent life? But Bauman is not calling us to a life of leisure and relaxation. He clearly says that an excellent life is possible when one expects the impossible and sets extraordinarily high goals for oneself. Mindlessly working 80 hour weeks in order to be a high level consumer of exclusive goods is fruitless. But for the rest of us the question still remains: what are we doing with our lives? Our lives are a work of art– there is potential for amazing lovely greatness, but only if we work hard and expect great things from ourselves. This life-stewardship is an essential part of the Christian Gospel– our lives have been bought with a price, and the life we now live is to be lived not for our own selfish pursuits, but in service to God and others. If our lives are not reflective of real others-centeredness, then we need to reconsider how we are living our lives.

May God have mercy on us all…

More books by Zygmunt Bauman:

  • 1998: Work, consumerism and the new poor. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-20155-5
  • 1998: Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-7456-2012-4
  • 1999: In Search of Politics. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2172-4
  • 2000: Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity ISBN 0-7456-2409-X
  • (2000 [ed. by Peter Beilharz]: The Bauman Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-21492-5)
  • 2001: Community. Seeking Safety in an Insecure World. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2634-3
  • 2001: The Individualized Society. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2506-1
  • 2001 (with Keith Tester): Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2664-5
  • 2001 (with Tim May): Thinking Sociologically, 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. ISBN 0-631-21929-3
  • 2002: Society Under Siege. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2984-9
  • 2003: Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds, Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-2489-8
  • 2003: City of fears, city of hopes. London: Goldsmith’s College. ISBN 1-904158-37-4
  • 2004: Wasted Lives. Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3164-9
  • 2004: Europe: An Unfinished Adventure. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3403-6
  • 2004: Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3308-0
  • 2005: Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3514-8
  • 2006: Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3680-2
  • 2006: Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-3987-9
  • 2006: Moralność w niestabilnym świecie [Morality in an instable world]. Poznań: Księgarnia św. Wojciecha. ISBN 83-7015-863-3
  • 2007: Consuming Life. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-4002-8
  • 2008: Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-6740-2780-9
  • 2008: The Art of Life. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-4326-4
  • 2009: Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo. Cambridge: Polity. ISBN 978-0745647388
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    The Birth of Christ

     The people walking in darkness  have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

    For to us a child is born,  to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

    Merry Christmas. Here in Nebraska it is snowing like mad. A lot of the Christmas Eve services in Omaha were cancelled, and people are holed up at home. Although its wonderful to get to celebrate Christmas with fellow believers and family and friends, the snow can force us to stop and be still. I hope you will find time to think about the Gift of Christ, and what that means for you and the world. If its helpful for you, we have passages to reflect on during the day on our Scripture readings page, but here they are:

    Christmas morning:
    Psalm 96
    Isaiah 9:2-7
    Titus 2:11-14
    Luke 2:1-20

    Christmas noon:
    Psalm 97
    Isaiah 62:6-12
    Titus 3:4-7
    Luke 2:1-20

    Christmas evening:
    Psalm 98
    Isaiah 52:7-10
    Hebrews 1:1-12
    John 1:1-14

    I know of a number of people who are alone for Christmas.  If you know people in that situation, pray for them today, and maybe call to encourage them.  Its hard to think of a better gift to Christ on this, his day.

    I hope you have a meaningful and blessed Christmas Day!

    Andy Gustafson

    Christian Venture Capital Group and a Homeless Art Center: Two Ideas to Help Transform Community

    This is a post about two different ideas. Idea One: Christian Social Venture Capital Group where Christians pool money together to loan at interest to people who want to make significant improvements to their neighborhoods. (this must be happening in other locations) Idea 2: Homeless Hot Shops– where homeless create art and then sell it. (This idea is happening in Mexico and other places, from what I’ve been told)

    Idea 1: Christian Social Venture Capital. I’ve been fixing up houses and buildings for about 10 years. Usually they are kind of run down, and in disrepair. Those kinds of buildings are a blight on the neighborhood. Nothing saps morale and pride in a neighborhood like a boarded up house or building. I talk to others who are interested in doing such projects.  But its difficult especially in the current market for enterprising home fixers to get loans from the bank. Usually 20% down is expected. This is where the Social Venture Capital group would come in.

    Lots of Christians have money, but don’t live where the poor live. These Christians put their money in CDs which gain 2% interest (give or take). There are also Christians who are interested in fixing up houses in depressed areas and helping improve communities, but they don’t have the capital to do it. So the social venture capital group is a way to connect the capital from those Christians with money but without time or connection to do the transformative work to those Christians who lack the moneay but have the connections and time to do the transformative work.   Its not habitat– the venture capital group doesn’t build houses, or own property– they simply pool their money together and loan it to people who know how to do such things.

    Those Christians who agree to put their money in this venture capital fund would receive, for example, 4% interest to loan their money to the home-fixer. The collateral would be the house. So if the home fixer wanted to buy a house for 50,000, the bank would want 10,000 as 20% downpayment. The social venture capital funders would loan the entrepreneur the 10,000 at 4%, and take second position– that means if in the unfortunate situation that the entrepreneur failed and the project did not work, and the house was sold, whatever money came from the sale would go first to pay the bank, and secondly the venture capital lenders. Normally the Christians with money give their money to the bank, who gives them 2% interest, and then the bank lends it to the entrepreneur for 7%.

    This model does a direct loan from the Christian with money who would rather a. have his money used for socially beneficial projects and b. get better interest return on his money. The entreprenuer also wins because they get a lower interest rate on the 20% and they also then can get the loan from the bank (so the bank actually wins here too because they will have more people able to get loans from them due to the venture capital group).

    The main obstacles to making this idea come to fruition are: a. figuring out how to have oversight of the funds and the decisionmaking process as to who to fund and how to work out the arrangments of repayment etc. B. Finding qualified entrepreneurs who have a vision for renovating areas of town which need it for the betterment of the neighborhood.

    The second idea is to have a community homeless hotshops– hotshops in omaha is a very cool artists collective space where artists create their art and sell it. The idea for this community homeless art center would be to help homeless either hone or learn some skills– whether it be painting, sculpture, carving, making purses out of old bags, woodworking (birdhouses, etc), or even glassmaking– I can imagine someone making a set of 12 cool glasses out of 12 empty miller-light bottles, for example. Then these artists would sell their wares at the community art center too.

    People would want to buy these art pieces because a. they would be cool and b. it would help homeless people. It would help homeless people because a. it would give them something to do where they could make something to be proud of and b. it would provide them some money. The main obstacles to overcome for this project would be a. people to help train the homeless in some of these skills b. a place to make this happen.

    There are lots of possibilities like this staring us in the face. The obstacles keeping it from happening are not really that huge. I’m curious if others know of examples of either of these two ideas happening already somewhere…  There are lots of ways to use what we have to transform our communities– not only spiritually, but also physically.  There are also ways to help people use the life they have more fruitfully and creatively for the fuller glory of God.  In whatever way we bring about this kind of fruit for Christs sake, it is worship and it is done to honor God.

    Juneal Pratt — Redemption

    A man is acused of rape and put in prison for 35 years. He denies it for 35 years, and various organizations and civic leaders attempt to assist him in his plight. Had he said he was guilty he would have been released years ago. Now as he comes up for parole he needs help from the outside. He was taken from society in 1975– before home computers, internet, cellphones, walmart, atari, simpsons, Jimmy Carter, or many things most of us take for granted. How should Christians live? What does it mean to live lives of grace and redemption?  How can we help such a person.  This is what we’ve been thinking about and praying about at Simple Free.

    I got a call a little over a month ago from a woman working with Innocence Project Nebraska, who had heard I might be able and willing to help Mr. Juneal Pratt, a man who has been perhaps wrongfully imprisoned for 35 years. He is coming up for parole January 13th. I said I would like to hear more. Today (Dec 16) I met Juneal at the correctional facility out by the Airport and we talked for an hour. He was kind, soft spoken, very thoughtful, and showed me a pile of certificates he had earned taking classes in prison on carpentry, electrical, plumbing, and many other skills. He said “I could have become cynical in here, but I’ve chosen to improve myself”. He told me “I sometimes wonder why this happened, but I trust that God has me in here for some reason. The serenity prayer has helped me get through this, since I cannot change my circumstances” I asked him what he thinks will be the biggest challenges for him when he gets out and he said that the technology advances are going to be a big adjustment. We talked about my projects and properties, and possible housing situations.

    Innocence Project people hope we will invite him into my house so he will have some other guys around him just to help him get reaclimated to life outside. When prisoners get out of prison, things are difficult. No one wants to hire you (many companies have policies strictly prohibiting it) and most apartments don’t want you. He will be listed as a sex offender, and if he lives with us, our house will be on the internet map identifying such houses. If he lives in any of my apartments, that would be made known to the other tennants.

    But I think he is innocent. And if Christians do not extend grace to someone like Juneal, then who in the world would we expect to do so? Could he be guilty? Yes. He could have been out 8 years ago if he had admitted guilt though, and he has had no incidents in the last 20 years of prison life. What more can we ask of someone?

    It is easier to feel sorry for someone and help them from a distance. And if I had a wife and kids I may not be willing to have Juneal in my home. It is not only my decision, it is the decision of all the men in my house, and so far they have been positive.

    If we do not spend our lives risking for good causes, then what is our purpose? If we do not give grace in ways that cost and make us get personally involved in the lives of those who need, then what is our purpose really?

    Simple Free has been praying about this, as have other friends in our neighborhood. I hope you will pray for us too as we make some significant decisions in the next couple of days. Thank you! — Andy Gustafson

    For a sequential history of the case, see this link:

    Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and Liberal Kitsch Christianity

    “Kitsch religion” wrote David Klinghoffer, “seeks to do an end run around Truth, providing a feeling of ‘spirituality’ without the requirement of orthodox belief and action. That is its downfall. From a strict marketing perspective, this strategy can never work for long. In the end, the problem is a simple one of reduncancy. You can think of many nonreligious institutions in American life ready and willing to provide precisely the benefits offered by liberal religion.” This was what I was reading this morning at 6am in an essay called “Kitsch Religion” in a book entitled”Dumbing Down: Essays on the Stripmining of American Culture” which is a nice book from the 90’s. Klinghoffer (I know little about him)  is Jewish, and was speaking about liberal religion in general: “Rouchly speaking, liberal religion in ssynthetic religion, kitsch religion…Kitsch religion reflects only the world: its political interests, its desire to be free of troublesome moral obligations.”

    This article was of special interest to me because we have just finished a study group on the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Fundamentalism a movement of the later 18 and early 1900’s responding against liberalism.   Those who continued to hold to the fundamentals of Christianity– that the Bible is true in its account that Humanity is sinful in need of a savior, who is Jesus Christ, both God and Man born of a virgin who pays for the sins of the world through his death on the cross– and these tennants were under fire from Liberal Christianity at the time.  Liberal Christianity was a powerful force from the mid 1880s until the mid 1900s.  According to J.I. Packer in the 1958 essay we read, Liberal Christianity could be summarized as follows:

    1. God’s character is one of pure benevolence without standards. 

    2.  All humans are good at heart and just need to be encouraged rightly, not saved from their sinfulness.

    3. Jesus Christ is savior in the sense of good role model and teacher, not in the sense of died-for-my-sins-on-the-cross savior of the world.

    4. Jesus Christ is unique in that he is super-good, but he is not God.

    5. The Bible is not Divine revelation but a thoroughly human product.

    Fundamentalists, at the time then, were those who disagreed with this liberalization of Christianity.  Those who called themselves fundamentalists at the time were not crazy zealots who had bombs, but people who wanted to maintain the fundamentals of traditional biblical Christianity despite the liberal takeover of seminaries. 

    This is all interesting to us, I think, because especially for those of us who came into this world already standing on the shoulders of all those before us, it is easy to be overly critical of your ‘evangelical roots’ without realizing all the good that that tradition holds, and all the blood sweat and tears that went into establishing what we usually simply take for granted and criticize.

    In the first session we watched, Ken Kantzer talked about the history of evangelicalism– how it was in many ways the dominant view in the 1800s. A couple important points he made: A. Schools going public: until the 1830s most american schools were run by churches, most of whom were run by protestant churches (when those churches were not liberal). But they received tax money, and when the catholic schools started to want tax money, the protestants decided to just make all schools public instead of giving catholics tax money for theirs. B. Most seminaries (except Harvard) were pretty orthodox in their Christian theology in 1880, but by 1939 Princeton was the last remaining major seminary to make a move to ‘liberalism’.

    So the late 1800s and early 1900s were a period of the gradual erosion of traditional Christian beliefs from academia, seminaries, and education in the US. This is what gave rise to the fundamentalist movement, which strove to hold on to the basic fundamentals of Christianity– that Christ was the Son of God, died for humanities sins, humans are in need of a savior, etc.

    Carl FH Henry in the second 1/2 hour discussed more the history of all of this on the academic side– how that in the late 1900s evangelicalism had taken hold and had its own reputable publishing houses, scholars, universities and seminaries, and really had made an impact in politics and society in ways which would have been unthinkable to people who held to the fundamentals of Christianity in the face of liberalism in the early part of the same century, including the fact that all 3 presidential candidates (Ford, Regan and Carter) identified themselves as “born again”.  (see the videos on ‘knowing your roots’ at )

    Its interesting to see how that liberal Christianity, which appeared to be such a threat in the early and middle part of the 1900s, today seems to be fading.  Klinghoffer (Kitsch Religion) writes,

    “When the New York Times wants the opinion of respectable religion on an issue of the day, its reporter inevitably seeks out an Episcopal bishop, a Presbyterian minister, or a Reform rabbi; and so those Americans who rely on the Official Media for news can be forgiven for thinking that th eliberal, “mainline” churches represent the mainstream of religious faith.  At the same time, despite random signs of life…there is a general sense among those who follow such things that liberal religion is on the decline,…This isn’t’ what children growing up in liberal Jesish of Christian homes were told to expect.  These children have long been taught that orthodoxy and fundamentalism are dying anachronisms– that, in the modern world, a “contemporary,” enlightened view of God and man is the only viable stand.  And yet that opinion has itself turned out to be an anachronism” (my italics)

    There are today evangelical Christian universities, book publishers, and even phonebooks, and evangelicals are making people take notice with their social concern for the poor and disadvantaged (consider Rick Warren or Shane Clayborn or Sojourners).  The evangelical churches are among the very largest, and those churches are now begining to start their own seminaries ( )  Yet, at the same time, we discussed in our study group, we don’t really want to call ourselves fundamentalists even if we do agree with the fundamentals because inevitably when that word is used people think you are stupid, or ungracious, or mean spirited, or perhaps that you have a bomb and you want to blow up someone.  But the word evangelical is not much better, in many circles.  As Kantzer says, it depends on who is asking me if I’m an evangelical or fundamentalist.  Even David Wells in his recent book “THe Courage to Be Protestant” has said that he feels that the word has been used by so many he does not agree with that he thinks the term evangelical has run its course and lost its usefulness.  So either the word conveys things to outsiders which I don’t mean by it, or it identifies me with some Christians (whether they be too conservative or too liberal (emergent) to feel comfortable with) that I don’t wish to be identified with, or it has simply lost its meaning so that it is not worth using– at any rate, it is harder and harder to find a term which describes those of us who do want to hold to a Biblical historical Christianity in the protestant tradition. 

    So, kitsch liberal Christianity is in decline, evangelicalism has made a powerful impact and made great strides in American culture in the last 40 years.  Yet now, ironically, no one dares call themself a fundamentalist or in many cases an evangelical.  That is our current predicament…  May God have mercy on us all.   — andy gustafson

    Also check out the JI Packer article if you want at:

    Liquid Times — Postmodernity

    My new favorite author at the moment is Zygmunt Bauman, and not only because he has a super-cool name. I got 7 of his books recently, and have begun reading a couple of them. He is a sociologist who was born in Poland but has lived in Brittain much of his life as a scholar and teacher. In recent years he has written about “liquid modernity” which he uses as a term instead of postmodernity. We live in uncertain times, a time of fear and unknowing, and thats what makes the time “liquid” or without permanent form. We have a difficult time pursuing anything with persistence because things change so quickly that it is difficult to ‘mature’ or ‘complete’ prior to things shifting and altering our goals, purpose, vision. I will quote a few of the passages from the introduction of “Liquid Times” just to give you a taste of where he is going:

    “At least in the ‘developed’ part of the planet, a few seminal and closely interconnected departures have happened, or are happening currently, that create a new and indeed unprecedented setting for individual life pursuits, raising a series of challenges never before encountered.” We can think here of the internet, of cellphone proliferation and global communication, of the rise of multinational corporations, the loss of faith in institutions and ideologies, the multiplication of localized centers of power rather than unified structures.”   

     There will not be another Beatles, or U2 because today music is posted on utube by local bands with a camera and internet connection. Traditional TV stations are dying, newspapers are more irrelevant, marriage and traditional families are the minority.

    Zygmunt explains what he means by liquid:
    “First of all, the passage from the ‘solid’ to a ‘liquid; phase of modernity: that is, into a condition in which social forms (*structures that limit individual choicies, instituions that guard repetitions of routines, patterns of acceptable behavior) can not longer (and are not expected) to keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to cast the, and once they ar ecast for them to set. Forms, whether already present or only adumbrated, are unlikely to be given enough time to solidigy, and connot serve as frames of reference for human actions and long-term life strategies because of their short life expectation: indeed, a life expectation shorter than the time it takes to develop a cohesive and consistent strategy, and still shorter than the fulfilment of an individual ‘life project’ requires.”

    Of course this is just two paragraphs into the intro to Zygmunt’s book, but already we feel the earth give way beneath our feet. The very notion of a stable ‘life project’, he is saying, is somewhat out of date. He goes on to say that community as a goal has been undermined:

    “the gradual yet consistent withdrawal or curtailing of communal , state-endorsed insurance against individual failure and ill fortune deprives collective action of much of its past attraction and saps the social foundations of social solidarity; ‘community’, as a way of referring to the totality of the population inhabiting the sovereign territory of the state, sounds increasingly hollow. Interhuman bonds, once woven into a security net worthy of a large and continuous investment of time and effor, and worth the sacrifice of immediate individual interests…become increasingly frail and admitted to be temporary. Individual exposure to the vagaries of commodity-and-labour markets inspires and promotes division, not unity; it puts a premium on competitive attitudes, while degrading collaboraion and team work tothe rank of remporary stratagems that need to be suspended or terminated the moment their benefits have been used up. “Society’ is increasingly viewed and treated as a ‘network’ rather than a ‘structure’ (let alond a solid ‘totality’): it is perceived and treated as a matrix of random connections and diconnections and of an essentially infinite volume of possible permutations.”

    In this world devoid of community, the individual is more and more isolated, and this cycle of self dependence leading to less solidarity eventually leads to a disipation of society.

    Another point from Zygmunt is that in the current time, long term planning becomes senseless, because things change so quickly that its actually more important to forget the past and adjust than to remember the past and stay on course:

    “the collapse of long-term thinking, planning and acting, and the disappearance or weakening of social structures in which thinking, planning and acting could be inscribed for a long time to come, leads to a splicing of bothe political history and individual lives into a series of short-term projects and episodes which are in principle infinite, and do not combine into the kinds of sequences to which concepts like ‘development’, ‘maturation’, ‘career’ or ‘progress’ (all suggesting a preordained oreder of succession) could be meaningfully applied. A life so fragmented stimulates ‘lateral’ rather than ‘vertical’ orientations. Each next step needs to be a response to a different set of opportunities and a different distribution of odds, and so it calls for a differentr set of skills and a different arrangement of assets. Past successes do not necessarily increase the probability of future victories, let alone guarantee them;…A swift and through forgetting of outdated information and fast ageing habits can be more important for the next success than the memorization of past moves and the buidling of strategies on a foundation laid by previous learning”

    It is strange to live in a time when it is an assett to not be held back by the past, an age in which ignorance of the past can be an assett to help one move forward towards future successes. In such a world, it seems that there will necessarily be a dehumanization of life, a loss of selfhood, or societal identity, of common shared interests and values, of tradition, beliefs, mores, and social expectations. Such a world will lack legitimate responses, rationality, or order, and so is a world without boudaries– likely perhaps to lead to a depressive and impotence-inducing lethargy towards a life which seems to have no point.

    Zygmunt Bauman captures the reality of this new existential situation which is rooted not just in the nature of the radical newness of the contemporary predicament, but rather in the constantly changing multiplexed and multilayered complex diasporic errupting of multiplicity and noncongruent diversity which is emblematic of our age (and the very notion of ages expects an order and progression whose reality Zygmunt would certainly question)

    Christians in this age are forced to decide what they will do– stand by the old rugged cross and maintain the ages-old formula of Christian salvation to humanity through the work of Christ Son of God, or leave this unified history as a relic of the past stilted perspective.

    There is no doubt that we do live in a period of rapid multifaceted change, and this is a blessing and a curse, of course. How much tradition do we hold onto, as we adjust to the present? How much counterculturalism should be promote, and what are our motiviations for that type of decision?

    But there may also be room for a modified embracing of this unknowing.  We do walk by faith, not by sight.  How to maintain Christian commitment in a meanignful way while also acknowledging human frailty, finitude, and lack of perfection has always been difficult, but is especially relevant today, in the face of many heavy  criticisms sometimes levelled at the church, especially in light of the perspective offered by Zygmunt Bauman.

    Divided Interests, Dilution and Pollution

    I, like a lot of people, feel pulled in many directions. I have work, friends, church, plus family, houses/properties I work on, renters to take care of, community activities, plus all the daily things that take time and energy– bills, working out, personal spiritual life, keeping up on current events and culture, etc. And most all of these are good. But there si sometimes a sense that each of these distracts from the others– choices are made for one which inevitably is a choice against the others… In reality, the economy of time in our lives is limited. In other words, we only have so many hours to spend, and we are constantly faced with decisions as to how we will spend them.

    It is into that situation that Paul speaks in I Corinthians 7 when he says;

    “29What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none; 30those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”

    Time is short– this world is passing away– so don’t get too focused on the short term temporal things and get distracted from what really matters.

    Just after this, Paul writes, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided.” There is some sense, of course, in which our interests will always be divided– among the many things that take up our hours, our days, our years. The constant flow of concerns and interests competing for our attention and life– that is what life is. And in this limited economy we don’t want to waste what we’ve been given.

    I think this is why Scripture also gives us some directives about where to focus our attention, and where to spend our time.   For example, Jesus said that the most important thing is to a. Love God with all our heart mind and soul and b. love our neighbor as ourselves.   Loving God is not so much a solitary act as a way of being in the world– a way of doing what you do.  Paul says “whatever you do, do it with all your strength as unto the Lord”.  That is a good thing to remember when I am doing those things I sometimes do not enjoy very much– like grading quizzes or cleaning the kitchen or fixing a toilet.  So for me, loving God is not about just sitting and somehow loving God through thought, but loving God as I do whatever I do.  Of course prayer and meditation on things of God help me to do this– so that God is up front in my mind.  In a way this way of being might be partially summed up by the verse from I Thessalonians, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

    Its similar when it comes to loving people.  I find that if I pray intentionally and consciously for people, that then thoughts of them and for them come up more frequently throughout the day.  I also find that when I encounter people, I am more conscientious towards them, more thoughtful towards them, if I have been praying, meditating on God’s goodness, grace, and faithfulness to me– when I am in a state of realizing what God has done for me, it makes me more gracious towards others.  Its hard to be hard hearted or callous towards others when you have a strong sense of being loved. 

    I think an important part of loving others and being for others is being encouraging to others.  In Hebrews 3 it says, “encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”  I can easily spend days even weeks being primarily focused on myself.  But it is so simple to encourage others.  It is uncommon for someone to call me just to see how I am doing.  We don’t do this for each other very often.  Yet it is a simple way to show concern and care.  There are simple ways to put others before yourself, and to love them.  I know from the receiving end that those kind acts are very encouraging, and yet I don’t do them nearly enough for others who really do mean a lot to me– people for whom I am very thankful.  So I am lately thinking of ways to try to be more encouraging.

    Again in the book of Hebrews in the New Testament in chapter 10 it is written, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  Getting together is encouraging as well.  Its easy to let our day to day lives and the busy-ness we fill them with simply keep us from getting together with others.  To intentionally seek out others and have our lives oriented around others instead of ourselves takes commitment and thoughtfulness.  It will not just happen accidentally.  I know this because it is easier for me to not make the effort to get together with other people, although almost always I am happy it happened.  Most people are up for getting together– but not so many of us are initiators.  Its good to be an initiator of togetherness.  I think of growing up as a kid, how that almost every Sunday after church we were invited somewhere, or we had people over.  The same went for Sunday night.  That togetherness is so fantastic.  That does happen now– at Chipoltle or Mother India and sometimes at each others houses– for a porch grillout etc.   

    Paul was always talking about living our lives “worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory”.  I can spend my days (and so my life doing a lot of fairly frivolous silly things, but James is always a good wakeup call when he says things like, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”   Of course pollution from the world could be getting involved in activities which may be wrong or harmful to me or others– and those are the kinds of things which probably come to mind first.  But I also think of pollution here in terms of stuff which causes dillution.  I find that I dilute my life with a lot of fairly needless concerns, and I can spend my time in fairly frivolous ways which draw my energy and attentionaway from important things.  Examples for me are TV shows (futurama, arrested development, etc), movies, sports, incessant websurfing or facebooking, and even getting involved in school or rehab projects which are really not very useful or important.  Of course there is a time for relaxing and watching a movie, or doing something without a purpose just to relax, and facebook is a useful social tool for staying connected and it can be fun.  I’m not against taking naps either.  But we can let these things waste a lot of our time if we indulge in them too much, and while these things in themselves are not evil, they dilute, and this kind of pollution from the world is something I also need to be thoughtfully concerned about. 

    May God have mercy on us all.