Sunday, April 26, 2015

brief review of "The Hobbit Party"

If you're into politics, economics and culture-- and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings-- then Witt and Richards' The Hobbit Party is a must-read book for you. If not, on either category, then just keep on moving! (Update: Here's a lengthy interview through Acton with Witt. And here's a review in The Independent Review by Richard Scott Nokes.) 

In part, their book is a defense against various claims about Tolkien. In part, it's a series of assertions about how to properly interpret Tolkien's work with respect to politics, economics, and culture. 

They rely heavily on TLOTR itself, but at times, seek extra-book sources (such as his letters and other writings). In particular, his experience with war (WWI), family (torn up with the death of his mother), and rural vs. urban (having to the move to the city after his mom's death)-- are all portrayed as crucial to his worldview and writings. 

Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with Tolkien or TLOTR to read their book all that critically. But most of it sounds quite reasonable. 

In the authors' hands, Tolkien...

-valued freedom over power, with its illusions, deceits, and general nastiness

-was critical of crony capitalism and especially "gatherers/sharers"

-was not a distributist (with its attractive general properties, but its internal contradictions-- e.g., looking to the power of government to ethically and practically regulate "power" outside of government)

-was local-oriented, but not provincial

-was certainly ok with technology-- neither to the point of worship of being a Luddite

-small was fine and probably preferable, but big was certainly ok-- as long as it was not for its own sake

-was earthy, valued culture (broadly construed) and fertility; in this sense, he is Wendell Berry-esque

-was critical of those who would try to cheat death and limits-- and the curse and blessings of same

-valued individuals over aggregates, but valued subsidiarity within community

-not fond of war or an advocate of pacifism; his beliefs would be consistent with "Just War" theories

My favorite story: Jonathan Witt's story about trying to have chickens at his three-acre home outside of Grand Rapids, in semi-rural Michigan (27-30). By zoning laws, he is allowed to own a horse, "a pack of large, snarling dogs and half a dozen roaming cats"-- but not a single cow, chicken, or goat. He noted that the subsequent fertilizer and a goat would be friendlier to the environment than the alternatives. They sought a statute, but it eventually failed with a tie vote. He wonders whether the commissioners asked themselves, "What moral right do I have to deny my fellow citizens" this right?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Smith's "Good and Beautiful God"

I finally read The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows, the first of the James Bryan Smith "Apprentice Series". (The good and beautiful "Life" and "Community" follow "God" in the trilogy.) He sees these forming a "curriculum for Christlikeness" (13, 14). This phrase comes from Dallas Willard's awesome book, The Divine Conspiracy, and was one of many inspirations for our Thoroughly Equipped (DC)

As an aside, Smith's goals for multiplication and disciple-making are less direct than ours in DC. In the intro, he mentions leading three groups of 25 people through a 30-week course he developed. I'm confident that his mentees were greatly influenced by this-- often in a life-changing way: "...the results have always been the same: significant life change.") By way of comparison and contrast, DC is longer (21 months) and seemingly more intense; it relies far less on the initial source (Kurt and I have only led 50 of our 2000 "graduates"); and it is more explicitly focused on multiplying disciple-makers. 

First, Smith's overview of his own journey and his amazing set of mentors. He refers to himself as "the Forrest Gump of the Christian world" (10). It's funny and true, with mentors like Willard, Richard Foster, Rich Mullins, Henri Nouwen, and Brennan Manning!

As for the book's structure, there are nine chapters, seven covering a principle about God's character. (The intro chapter asks about the reader's goals; the concluding chapter reminds us that the process of discipleship and sanctification takes a lot of time.) Each chapter concludes with a relevant activity/exercise in "soul training". (These exercises are commonly called "spiritual disciplines", but Smith wants to avoid that term.) Each exercise can be practiced individually, but is ideally done in community for accountability, comparing notes, etc. The seven principles: God is good, trustworthy, generous, love, holy, self-sacrificing, and He transforms.

Another key theme for Smith is "false vs. true narratives" and its application appears in every chapter. We convince ourselves on things about God that aren't true-- and get ourselves in a lot of trouble, theologically and practically (25-26). These should be replaced by true narratives (Rom 12:1-2, Col 3:2, Phil 2:5). 

The false narrative where Smith brings the most value (alone, worth the price of the book): chapter 6 (esp. p. 115-125) on "God loves sinners but hates sin". Smith observes that we usually err in one of two ways, elevating God's wrath against "sinners" and/or diminishing his passion against sin. Smith quotes Romans 11:22 on the kindness and severity of God". But he notes that "Integrating God's love and his wrath is difficult. Most people don't; they simply decide to go one way or the other." (118) 

Key points: "The cushy, fuzzy god is neither biblical nor truly loving...powerless to stand against this darkness...the wrath of God is a beautiful part of the majesty and love of God...The wrath of God is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil...the wrath of God is pathos not passion...God is never described by Paul as being angry...Wrath is not a permanent attribute of God [but] is contingent upon human sin...Wrath is not something that God is, but something that God does. While it is correct to say that God is holy, it is not correct to say God is wrathful. Wrath is the just act of a holy God toward sin." (116-117, 120-121, 123)

Other stuff:
-Smith is careful to balance God's provision and our participation:  God's grace within justification and here, sanctification-- but also our work within that grace through the disciplines and otherwise. 

-Smith explains the origins of Brennan Manning's first name (142): His original name was Ray but he changed it after his best friend Brennan saved his life by diving on a grenade. Wow!

-Some really good stuff from Smith on Psalm 23: God is present, pure, and powerful; and He provides, pardons, and protects (60-62). "Psalm 23 is a beautiful expression of the kingdom of God, in which God is with us, caring and providing for us, and blessing us, even in trying circumstances...this psalm is not primarily for funerals but for everyday life...Try to recite this psalm before you fall asleep each night and again when you awake...This psalm contains a narrative about the exceedingly generous God. By letting the images wash over your mind, you imbed this true narrative into your soul." (90-91)

-Smith is good on why we should not underestimate what God has done in dealing with the power of sin as well as the guilt of sin (153). This reminds me of Watchman Nee in The Normal Christian Life on God dealing with sin and "the sin factory". Smith compares Christians saying "I'm just a sinner saved by grace." to "I'm just a worm with wings." before asking "Why would a butterfly want to act like a worm?" (156)

-I LOL'ed at this quote on the common idea that we're too busy, choosing the good over the best: "Most of us do not need to eliminate bad things from our lives...Which should I keep? Bible reading or recreational drug use?" (181) And he repeats a funny/telling story of Dallas Willard communicating wisdom to John Ortberg on the occasion of him taking a new, demanding role in ministry. Willard's only counsel: "Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life." (183) Smith concludes "It is possible to act quickly without hurrying...Hurry is an inner condition..." (183)

-Finally, I like Willard's line that God can only bless you where you're at. In contrast, we're often trying to get out of various circumstances. Smith runs with that theme and offers an exercise to help: He tells his son that they can leave a place (where the boy is bored) when he notices five things about the place he hadn't noticed before. After his boy found the first thing, here is "the amazing thing. Instead of wanting to leave right away, he kept looking around." (172) The punch-line: "Stop feeling bored and start enjoying life." (173) Or quoting Robin Myers: "In every waking hour, a sacred theater is in session, played out before an audience that is largely blind." (185)

Laubach's "Game of Minutes"

Awhile back, I picked up an attractive version of a mini-book with excerpts of work by Frank Laubach. Perhaps I had heard of him prior, but Dallas Willard was a big fan and wrote/talked about him intermittently on Laubach's efforts to live out the Spirit-filled life.

This version has two parts. The first three-quarters are excerpts from Laubach's letters to his father on this topic. The last quarter is Laubach's tract, entitled "The Game with Minutes". (I'd recommend reading the latter first; it should make the first part more understandable.) 

"Christ has not saved the world from its present terrifying dilemma. The reason is obvious: few people are getting enough of Christ to save either themselves or the world. Take the United States, for example. Only a third of the population belongs to a Christian church. Less than half of this third attend service regularly. Preachers speak about Christ in perhaps one service in four—thirty minutes a month! Good sermons, many of them excellent, but too infrequent in presenting Christ. Less than ten minutes a week given to thinking about Christ by one-sixth of the people is not saving our country or our world; for selfishness, greed, and hate are getting a thousand times that much thought. What a nation thinks about, that it is. We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time..." (87-88)

How to do this? A study hour and "we make him our inseparable chum" by "calling Him to mind at least one second of each minute". (89) Laubach observes that "While these two practices take all our time, yet they do not take it away from any good enterprise." (89)

More specifically, Laubach observes that "Experience has told us that good resolutions are not enough. We need to discipline our lives to an ordered regime. The ‘Game with Minutes’ is a rather lighthearted name for such a regime in the realm of the spirit...a new name for something as old as Enoch, who ‘walked with God.’...We call this a ‘game’ because it is a delightful experience and an exhilarating spiritual exercise; but we soon discover that it is far more than a game. Perhaps a better name for it would be ‘an exploratory expedition’...

Practices that would help (98): have a picture of Christ in your field of view; place an empty chair in settings to remind you that he is present; hum a favorite hymn; pray silently for those around you; and whisper inside asking God to put his thoughts in your mind and his words in your mouth.

Some other good quotes: 
-Laubach (97) also recommends that we learn to "see double", as Christ does-- we see the person as he is and the person Christ longs to make him."

-"One cannot worship God and Mammon for the reason that God slips out and is gone as soon as we try to seat some other unworthy affection besides Him...Not because God is a jealous God but because sincerity and insincerity are contradictions." (26)
-"...pray inwardly for everybody one meets...grows easier as the habit becomes fixed. Yet it transforms life into heaven. Everybody takes on a new richness and all the world seems tinted with glory." (75)
-He divides people into how they would answer these three questions "Do you believe in God?", "Are you acquainted with God?", and "Is God your friend?". (77)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"Tax Day" 2015

This will appear in newspapers across Indiana and on the BIPPS website. Enjoy!

We pay taxes every day. But for many people, April 15th represents “Tax Day”—the day when our income tax forms are due. Many people file their 1040’s sooner, particularly when they’re receiving refunds. They have allowed the government to keep too much of their money all year. So why should they extend the interest-free loan to the government for a few more months?

In terms of taxes on income, payroll (FICA) taxes usually impose a far larger burden on most wage earners. But we rarely think about that tax on income, because it’s not nearly as obvious to us. The taxes are withheld each pay period before we see the money; we don’t file an income tax return for FICA; and we never get a refund or pay more at the end of the year for FICA. 

Beyond the two federal income taxes, most workers deal with state and local income taxes. And of course, we pay all sorts of taxes with our after-tax income—as we spend it on everything from donuts to pants, cars to houses, gasoline to telephones. 

The Tax Foundation has tallied all of these taxes and calculated “Tax Freedom Day” for the average person in each state. If we had to pay all of our taxes first, when would we be free from taxation?

Of course, this number would vary tremendously by individual. It varies by state as well. For example, Louisiana is the first state to “gain its freedom” on March 30, while Connecticut is the last state—on May 9. (Editors, choose the relevant sentence: Indiana is in the middle of the pack with a Tax Freedom Day of April 16. Thanks to its low income and its light federal tax burden, Kentucky is early in the pack with a Tax Freedom Day of April 8.)

Some households reach Tax Freedom Day sooner because they have lower incomes. Our tax system is generally “progressive”, applying higher tax rates to those with higher incomes.

Other households reach Tax Freedom Day sooner because of income tax deductions.

All income is exposed to FICA taxes. But not all income is exposed to income taxes. Some income is excused through “exemptions” (mostly related to household size) and a variety of “deductions”. Taxpayers are offered a “standard deduction”, but can benefit from “itemizing” their deductions (detailing the deductions allowed by law) if that amount is more than the “standard”.

For example, in 2014, the standard deduction for a married couple was $12,400. If a couple had itemized deductions of $13,400, their taxable income would be reduced by another $1,000. If they were in the 15% tax bracket, this would reduce their taxes by 15% of the $1,000, or $150. If their itemized deductions were only $12,000 (less than the “standard”), then their taxable income and their taxes would be unchanged.

So, larger deductions and larger tax rates lead to a greater advantage. Wealthier people face higher tax rates and tend to have larger deductions. Thus, they typically gain a lot more from deductions, reducing their taxable income moreso and sheltering their income from higher tax rates. It also follows that wealthier states have much more to gain from deductions.

According to the Treasury Department’s budget for 2016, the five largest tax deductions are: 1.) the subsidy for tax-free health insurance and health care; 2.) retirement savings; 3.) state and local taxes; 4.) mortgage interest; and 5.) charitable contributions.

Subsidies for retirement savings and charitable contributions face little controversy, so let’s focus on the other three. The subsidy for health insurance through the firm results in a loss of $225 billion in revenue for the federal government. (The subsidy is also responsible for most of our problems in health insurance and health care, but that’s another article.) This works out to about $2,900 from the average family of four. The state and local tax deduction leads to $81 billion (more than $1,000 per family). The mortgage interest deduction leads to $54 billion (about $700 per family).

These three subsidies comprise about 20% of all income tax revenues. If we got rid of these loopholes, we could lower income tax rates substantially.

In the coming year, when you hear some politicians talk about a “flat tax”, this is what they’re discussing: getting rid of expensive loopholes that largely benefit the wealthy, while lowering income tax rates for everyone. Which system would you prefer?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

on UK and the NCAA tourney

Two revelations for me (and a lot of other people) from the NCAA tourney:

1.) We came into this, thinking UK was the best team, by far. They were said to be a coin-flip's chance, more or less, to win the whole tourney. In fact, they were a coin-flip's chance, more or less, to win any of the last three games. Three coin flips is only a 10% shot to win the whole thing.

2.) We came into this, thinking that UK was the most talented team, by far. By the end of it, you have to wonder whether they were the most talented. (WI was talented, but probably gained more from a sum-of-its-parts factor-- whether from coaching, teamwork, chemistry, etc.) As for Duke: Who would casually take Harrison * 2, Ulis, and Booker over Jones * 2, Allen and Cook? Who would casually take Towns, WCS, Lyles and Dakari over Okafor, Winslow, Plumlee, and Jefferson? (If I had to pick, I'd take Duke's back court and UK's front court, I guess.)

Bottom line(s): a great, compelling season for UK; they would not have gone undefeated in a tough conference; and although they could have won the whole thing, they should not have been seen as prohibitive favorites-- if the favorite at all.

Monday, April 6, 2015

my RFRA Easter FB blessing (April 3rd)

Whether you're a Christian pizzeria owner, a Muslim baker, or a homosexual who wants to be treated with dignity and respect, 2000 years ago, Christ died for your sins. 

If you haven't already, is there a better day to accept His gift and to get increasingly comfortable in the goodness of God's Kingdom? 


more resources on RFRA (wrapping up, I hope)...

I had blogged on this early-on and then written an op-ed on the topic. The story moved quickly and has largely died out (including the efforts of legislators, the next week, to amend the infamous law). In the reaction to the responses to the initial reaction-- did I say that correctly?-- commentators have had other useful things to say, so let's catalog those for the record...

On various experiments....err, games of "gotcha": homosexual bakers, Muslim bakers, the small-town pizzeria (including the angles that the market punished-- and then later rewarded and more fully, here-- and asks why that's not "enough"). UPDATE: Here's what the pizzeria owners plan to do with the crazy money donated to them. And here's a useful idea from Brent Bozell

On hypocrisy: 1.) Of complaining about Indiana's at-most-semi-issue, while doing business in countries that are brutal on human rights in general or on homosexuals in particular. 2.) Of the Left in wanting to (passionately) defend some forms of religious freedom (thus, their support for the Federal RFRA, back in the day-- yes, even though it's different than Indiana's law), but not others. (See also: the ACLU in many cases.) 3.) And more on the base issue: the surpisingly-and-sadly-standard liberal incoherence about freedom on individual social issues and tolerance.

One of the mysteries in this episode is why Governor Pence (and presumably, proponents of the bill) were so ill-prepared to answer basic/obvious questions. One answer is that this isn't really Pence's thing; he was responding to interest groups; and he didn't imagine the firestorm.

More philosophical pieces: Tom Huston in the IPR on who gets to decide about who gets to discriminate; the popular Martin Niemoller quote and Florence King quip-- which beg questions along the same lines; and Judge Napolitano on the slippery slope that is necessarily introduced once we deny Goldwater's approach to this issue in 1964. "Gay rights" supporter Ilya Shapiro. This audio/program from Tom Woods. This from Acton's Jordan Ballor. This from a lesbian couple who supported the pizzaria owners with a donation. Practically, why would you want to do business with someone who doesn't want to do business with you? Steve Chapman and Eric Metaxas on the desire to defend all minority-held rights-- all of them, as best as possible. And John Stossel to top things off: "bake me a cake or go to jail".


-An anecdotal example (although trivializing this reminds one of the quip that "minor surgery" is what happens to other people) that the absence of RFRA can kill.
-By her approach to this issue, it's obvious that Carly Fiorina is entirely too reasonable to be President-- and entirely too grown-up to deal with a nation of children and distracted people. (That said, her emphasis on the "benefits" is too strong.)
-A funny/sad article on "Offendotrons"-- the sort of behavior you'd expect from (caricatures of) conservatives, but ironically, we get it a lot more faux-tolerance fundamentalists of all stripes.

Wilcox on Putnam's Murray-esque book

Bradford Wilcox's WSJ review of Robert Putnam's Murray-esque book on the growth in social, cultural, marital/family, and economic differences-- by class-- over the last 50 years or so. (Putnam is most famous for his work, "Bowling Alone".)

Wilcox is appreciative of another voice on this, but argues that Putnam under-emphasizes the role of welfare policy and social change. 

For my review of Murray's Coming Apart, connecting it to Harrington's classic/seminal book, click here.  

comments on Kruse's NYT piece on Christianity and "capitalism" in the mid-20th century

A few comments on the Kevin Kruse NYT piece on "A Christian Nation", as excerpted from his book h/t: Chris Lang). The article is worth a read-- and is somewhere between provocative and imprecise. (I'll need to do more research on one of his claims!)

Great points:
1.) It's a grandfather thing much more than a Founding Fathers thing.

2.) He's strong on the importance of the American civil religion, esp. post-WWII (including the litany of changes in 1953-56). Hopefully, this is old news to people-- at least those who care about such things.

3.) He's useful in noting the linkage of Christianity (in some circles) with at least lip-service to "capitalism".


Clearly/probably missing or mis-emphasized:
1.) He does not have nearly enough on the post-WWII fears about Communism and the USSR (and its massive contribution to the trends he's describing).

2.) He uses "Libertarianism" in a way that leaves us guessing whether he's chosen the right term. My guess is that he means a.) fiscal conservatives; b.) more likely, anti-New Dealers (at least in its degree); or c.) ironically, crony capitalists. (I'd guess C, given the title of Kruse's book and his description of Graham indicates confusion here on pro-market Libertarianism and pro-business crony capitalism.)

3.) Perhaps he covers it in the book. But it's worth a (big) mention to note the stronger and earlier connection of clergymen to Progressivism (including some of its most repugnant elements), the Social Gospel, and the Christian Left (or Socialists if we're going to use Kruse's approach to terminology).

4.) Were there intellects or prominent writers in the area of "Christian Libertarianism" during this time frame? (Why have I never heard of the people he cites? UPDATE: This is certainly not definitive, but Fifield does not have his own Wikipedia page and Vereide only gets a small page mentioning that he started the "national prayer breakfast".) This would be surprising since Keynesianism and faith in government efficacy were so strong at this time. Even in econ, guys like Hayek and Mises were very much the exception-- and even pariahs.

5.) Eisenhower is a really interesting figure. He brought a "spiritual" emphasis to the White House. But it was, by most accounts, a relatively-tepid *public* spirituality, with a heavy dose of American civil religion to combat the (godless) Communists.