Book Review: Son of Hamas, by Mosab Hassan Yousef

For ten years, Israeli security had a mole at the highest level of Hamas, helping them stop innumerable bombings and murders by Islamic terrorists.  Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of  Sheikh Hassan Yousef, the head of the West Bank branch of Hamas, converted to Christianity and acted as a spy for Shin Bet.  After ten years of working against terrorists, he applied for asylum in the US and is now living in California.  He has written a memoir of living through the two Intifadas, converting to Christianity, turning against terrorism, and leading a double life as an Israeli agent and in the inner circle of leadership of Hamas.

The book is spellbinding.  The narrative is direct and simple, and that simplicity gives the adventures Yousef lived through even more impact.  Yousef starts with his first arrest during the first Intifada, for throwing rocks at an Israeli car, through his rise in Hamas and the rise of his father, his arrest and torture at the hands of Israel, his decision to act as an Israeli agent, and insider insights into the second Intifada.    The book provides insights at many levels.

First, it provides an insider view of the major events of the second Intifada, into the motivations of Hamas, the practices of Hamas, and the inside stories of many of the terrorist events of that time.  The description of internal politics between the PLO and Hamas, how Hamas turned into a terrorist organization and such are described in a way that no westerner could do.  Yousef’s discussion of why Hamas rejected peace and a Palestinian state are insightful.  He notes that neither Arafat and the PLO *nor* Hamas wanted peace negotiations to succeed.  Arafat did not want them to succeed because an actual state and actual government would mean a decrease in his personal wealth and influence.  Hamas did not want it to succeed because a peaceful Palestinian state would obviate the need for the destruction of Israel and the removal of Jews.  The entire peace process was, and remains, a farce from the side of the Palestinian leadership.

Second, it provides an interesting view of how “moderate” moslems become radicalized.  After his conversion to Christianity, Yousef came to the conclusion that it was a necessary and natural progression of any moslem who became more devout.  As he writes:

“Islamic life is like a ladder, with prayer and praising Allah as the bottom rung.  The higher rungs represent helping the poor and needy, establishing schools, and supporting charities.  This highest rung is jihad.

The ladder is tall.  Few look up to see what is at the top.  And progress is usually gradual, almost imperceptible…   Traditional Moslems stand at the foot of the ladder, living in guilt for not really practicing Islam.  At the top are the fundamentalists, the ones you see in the news killing woman and children for the glory of the god of the Qur’an.  Moderates are somewhere in between.

A moderate Muslim is actually more dangerous than a fundamentalist, however, because he appears to be harmless, and you can never tell when he has taken that next step toward the top.  Most suicide bombers began as moderates.

The day my father first put his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, he could never have imagined how far from his original ideals he would eventually climb.  And thirty-five years later, I would want to ask him: Do you remember where you started?  You saw all those lost people, your heart broke for them, and you wanted them to come to Allah and be safe.  Now suicide bombers and innocent blood?  Is this what you set out to do?  But speaking to one’s father about such things is not done in our culture…”

Third, it provides insight into the minds of those who are dealing in terror — how they justify it to themselves, how they view what they do, etc.

Fourth, it provides a working example of the interactions between an agent and his handler, and how that relationship affects the world view of the agent.

Fifth, it shows the transformational power of Christian conversion — it was that conversion that directed his actions.  It also shows the danger of conversion within the Islamic world, the farce of it’s so-called “tolerance,” and the cost that some people pay for their beliefs.

It is clear that Yousef is sympathetic to Israel, but that does not mean he is blind to atrocities on either side.  He is as cold-blooded in describing the violence, imprisonment, and torture performed by Israel as his is of the atrocities of Hamas.  Yousef spent a great deal of time in prison and was an observer and victim of both sides.  The description of day to day life in occupied Palestine is an eye-opener for any knee-jerk supporter of Israel.  His description of how his decisions affected his family are heart-wrenching.

Because this is a book by a Christian, describing his Christian transformaton and how it played out on the international stage, there is some discussion of Christianity from a believer’s perspective.  For those who are rabid antichristians who hate any description of faith that does not involve ridicule and contempt, the book may be a problem.  However, those parts are really not very intrusive. The book is not a “religious” book per se, and Yousef describes his faith and his conversion with the same simplicity and straightforwardness that makes the rest of the book so compelling.  He does note, however, that the social transformation will not come until there is a personal one:

As long as we continue to search for enemies anywhere but inside ourselves, there will always be a Middle East problem.

Religion is not note solution.  Religion without Jesus is just self-righteousness.  Freedom from oppression will not resolve things either.  Delivered from the oppression of Europe, Israel became the oppressor.  Delivered from persecution, Muslims became persecutors.  Abused spouses and children often go on to abuse spouses and children.  It is a cliche, but it’s still true: hurt people, unless they are healed, hurt people.

The problems in the Middle East exist because the players do not want a solution.  All the summits and all the faux agreements in the world cannot impose a structural solution on people who don’t want one.

The style of the book reflects something I’ve seen many times.  I’ve know a few real heroes in my day — people who were in harm’s way and who did amazing things.  They all had one common characteristic; they did not embellish what they did.  Most of them really didn’t like to talk about what happened to them, but when they did, they tended to do it simply and forthrightly without a lot of flash and bluster.  I’ve read a lot of suspense and action novels, from Tom Clancy to Vince Flynn and everything in between.   All the flash and drama of the novels can’t hold a candle to the simple telling reality of someone who’s been there.

I couldn’t put it down.

Movie Review: Narnia

Night before last, my wife and I went to see The Lion, The Witch,and the Wardrobe. Mr Fuzzle has asked what I think about the movie and about Christian allegories in general.

First, about Christian allegories. I don’t have anything against them, but the mere fact that something expresses some Christian theme doesn’t make it a good tale. Frankly, I get a little tired of the overuse of Christ imagery and cheap use of substitutionary atonement as a deux ex machina. An example of this is the death of Neo in the Matrix trilogy. Nice graphics, crappy ending. On the other hand, Steinbeck’s Eastof Eden is a masterpiece — and his use of the story of Cain and Abel as a framework is brilliant. There’s a truism among writers that there are only 40 (or 7 or 10 or whatever) basic plots, and all novels use variations of these plots. It’s not surprising that some writers take their plots from classic literature that includes the Bible.

There are also allegories, of course, that do not use the Christian themes as a framework for new creation, but are more focused on using a new creation to present the Christian theme. East of Eden was not written, I believe, to introduce young people to the story of Cain and Abel. The Chronicles of Narnia, on the other hand, were not written to provide a new look at substitutionary atonement, it seems to me, but to introduce the ideas to youngsters. That’s a different chore.

The problem with it brings up the second point, for me — that of what I thought about the movie. I firmly believe that there are certain times in a person’s life where certain literature is important, but if read too early or too late, the work will seem stupid. The classic example, to me, is the writing of Herman Hesse. To me, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game, etc. are pretty sophomoric. I remember picking up a copy of The Glass Bead Game when I was a kid, and I thought it was inpenetrable crap. Then I read it when Iwas a senior in high school and I thought it was brilliant. Then I read it when I was an older adult, and I though it was trivial crap. When I was in college and through medical school, I was a *big* fan of science fiction. Now, I think that 90% of the science fiction I pick up is drivel. I don’t think that science fiction has gotten any worse or better; I think that I have changed. It’s even worse for fantasy. I’ve seen way too much real violence in my life to get a kick out of sword and sorcery stuff any more.

And that’s the problem I had with The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. The graphics were incrementally better than the last ILM/Rhythm and Hues/etc. extravaganza. The acting was good. The plot was reasonable. But it was virtually impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Some wimpy early adolescent boy who has never seen real violence in his life is going to become an expert in broadsword in a day and lead an army into battle? Sure. It may be a great kid’s movie. In fact I think it *is* a great kids movie. But I’m not a kid. Halfway through the flick, I was amusing myself looking for errors in continuity. Not a good sign.

I wish the flick had been made when I was twelve. I would have loved it.

Book Review: The War on Christmas

The War on Christmas
John Gibson
ISBN#: 1595230165

There has been a series of books documenting the antichristian agenda of the secular progressives in the US, often using the cover of the so-called “separation of church and state” in order to enforce censorship and suppression. The intrinsic intolerance of atheism was a topic discussed by Alister McGrath in his stunning “The Twilight of Atheism,” and is nowhere better displayed than in the growing intolerance for religious expression in the public square. There is an open war, declared by the secularists, on the acceptibility of religious thought in public discourse. While they wrap themselves in the flags of “inclusiveness” and “tolerance,” they in fact demonstrate profound exclusiveness — by refusing to acknowledge *any* faith, they denigrate all faith; by refusing to allow religious expression, they exhibit intolerance greater than any they pretend to oppose.

The greatest battleground is, of course, the schools, where students are taught to be ashamed of their faith by aggressive secularists, supported by the ACLU. The examples are frighteningly common, but three come immediately to mind. The first two are from David Limbaugh’s “Persecution.”

Following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, school officials gave students and their families an opportunity to paint tiles with images and words above student lockers. But the administrators were apparently surprised that some families chose to mourn the dead with Christian symbols and verses. They removed some ninety of the 2100 painted tiles because they contained “objectionable” phrases like “God is Love” and “4/20/99 Jesus Wept.” The parents of two slain students, Daniel Rohrbough and Kelly Fleming [were among those censored by secularists]…”

And again:

[A teacher at a Houston middle school shouted] “This is garbage,” as she threw two students’ Truth for Youth Bibles in a trash can. …[T]he two sisters were carrying Bibles when they walked into their classroom one morning, where their teacher met them at the classroom door. She noticed the Bibles and promptly escorted the students to the principal’s office. She then paged the girls’ mothers and threatened to call child protective services because Bibles were not allowed on school property. One of the girls became hysterical at the teacher’s bizarre behavior. When the mother arrived, the teacher waved the Bibles at her and exclaimed, “This is garbage,” then threw them into the trash can. She said the girls could not bring Bibles to school. In a separate but similar incident at the same school, officials confronted three students whose books had the Ten Commandments displayed on the covers. They threw the covers in the garbage, claiming the Ten Commandments were hate speech that might offend other students…

And, finally, from Gibson’s book, where Kelly Shackleford describes a case the Liberty Legal Institute got involved in:

These are young kids. They’re in the third grade or fourth grade or fifth grade. And the lesson they learn is that there are words you can’t say. You can’t say these curse words, and then you can’t say your religion. You can’t talk about your religion. And it’s a very powerful message.

We had a case where the kids could draw a tracing of their foot, then put a message on the drawing of their foot, and then put it up on the board in class. And all these kids had all these very innocuous messages, “Jenny loves Johnny” and “Peace” and such. A girl very innocently wrote “Jesus Loves Me.” And the teacher ripped it down, and said to her “Don’t you ever do this again.” The girl went home crying and wondering what she’d done wrong.

[After being confronted and threatened with legal action by a religious rights organization the school backed off and allowed the girl to make another drawing] She redrew her foot. And instead of writing “Jesus Loves Me” in the innocent and pure way she did before, she put up a tiny little cross up in the very top corner that you could just barely see.

And I thought, “There’s the picture of what happens inside to these little kids.” She’s learned the lesson. Don’t be open about your faith. Don’t be honest about your faith. Hide it. You can still be whoever you are as long as you hide it. They taught her self-oppression and self-censorship through this hysterical reaction to her. The robbed her of that innocence and of that purity of being open about her faith.

That is what the ACLU and the rest of the secular antichristians want to insitutionalize. And that is what Christians are beginning to react to.

Christmas, as one of the greatest holy days of Christianity is, of course, one of the greatest targets of this bigotry, hatred, and suppression. Gibson gives a number of the more egregious examples — where the very colors green and red were banned from one school, where all Christmas carols were banned (including instrumental pieces on the grounds that somone might be offended by the tune), where students were monitored to make sure that none of the presents they gave to each other contained anything remotely referring to the Christ, where literature such as Dickens’ Christmas Carol is banned. He provides examples where this assault is directed preferentially at Christians; cases where Jewish, Islamic, and Kwanzaa symbols and rituals are celebrated, but equivalent Christian expression is banned. He notes the amazing hypocrisy of the secularists who find any criticism of *other* expression horrible, but welcome any and all censorship of religious expression. The Cross is welcome only if it is dipped in urine or smeared with feces — any taking of offense to these is to be ignored — but never if viewed with reverence. If viewed in a positive light, then it is, by definition “offensive” and must be banned.

Gibson notes and documents the standard tactics of those who attempt such bans — the ACLU’s use of the offended individual to force censorship and ban expression, and actions of the ACLU, People for the American Way, etc. to enforce censorship that they know is unconstitutional. In particular, he documents examples of the ACLU threatening expensive lawsuits to force censorship in cases they know they would lose, but in which the school district is afraid of the cost of litigation. Outside of the realm of religious censorship, this is called a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) — though the term is not invoked by Gibson. It is a method used by large corporations to squash speech by threatening dissenters with expensive lawsuits. When used by corporations against speech, it is both unethical and illegal. When used by the ACLU to enforce religious censorship, it applauded by the secular left.

Finally, Gibson notes some of the legal resources of Christians who are faced with this kind of oppression. For many years, small governments and school districts were completely at the mercy of SLAPP tactics, and Christian families were unaware of their constitutional rights. A number of religious freedom organizations have risen to oppose SLAPP t.actics by the ACLU and similar organizations, and every Christian should be aware of these resources when attempts are made to censor them.

The basic question is whether or not people should be free to express their religious beliefs without shame, or whether we should be forced to hide and deny our beliefs in the face of atheistic repression. It’s not easy, as any of us who has faced such attempts at censorship can attest. Christians are now like smokers — it’s OK to hate them as far as the secular left is concerned. And any objection to the kinds of tactics mentioned at the beginning of this post is countered with denial and cries of “lunacy” and “whining.”

A good example is found in the post of one of the blogs on my blogroll, where Gibson’s book is ridiculed — but not read of course. Had the writer bothered to read this book or Limbaugh’s Persecution, she might not be so quick to dismiss it out of hand. But one of the greatest weapons of secularists is this kind of dissembling — it doesn’t matter what happens, it will be denied. The *last* thing that such people will do is read what they dismiss with such contempt. They do not argue the fact, but instead their stereotyped projections. Gibson doesn’t like the denial of Christmas? Then he is engaging in “paranoid lunacy.” Tell that to the children who have their Bibles thrown in the trash, who have their basic beliefs publicly ridiculed by teachers as “hate speech,” and who have monitors threatening to punish them for even silent prayer. Who could object to that? Not the “tolerant” secular left, of course. They are too busy telling Christians that Christmas really has nothing to do with Christ.

Gibson’s position is that inclusiveness means acknowledging the religious expression of all the faiths represented by the citizenry, not *supressing* all expression. There is nothing wrong with wishing a Happy Hannukah to a Jew and a Merry Christmas to a Christian and a Happy Kwanzaa to celebrants of it. When I lived in DC, I lived in a community containing a very large Jewish population. Most of my neighbors were Jewish. Did that mean that I didn’t celebrate Easter or Christmas for fear of “offending” them? Did it mean that they did not celebrate Passover for fear of “offending” me? Quite the opposite. My neighbors shared my joy, and I shared theirs — to the point of celebrating Passover Seder with them (though you could easily tell who was and who was not Christian by the decorations). *That* is inclusiveness. *That* is tolerance — not the secular atheistic view of suppressing expression and banning speech.

Gibson’s book is structured as a number of case studies, one per chapter, followed by a discussion of resources for those being censored and a final conclusion section tying the attack on Christmas with the more general attacks on religious expression. It is not as well documented as Limbaugh’s Persecution, and would benefit from an index, but is an easier read and more focused. Those who want to pretend that this isn’t happening would be well served by reading this book and Limbaugh’s Persecution before opining about it. Simple denial is no longer enough. Christians who are open about their faith have likely already faced this kind of thing, but may not be aware of how pervasive it is, or of the resources that are available when they are (inevitably) attacked.

Check it out!

Book Review: The Twilight of Atheism

The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World

By: Alister McGrath
Type: Hardcover
Number of Pages: 306
Vendor: Random House, Inc
Publication Date: 2003
ISBN: 0385500610

Alister McGrath is a prolific author and professor of historical theology at Oxford. His writing style is engaging and entertaing. I first became a fan of his after reading his surveys of general and historical theology. Like me, he was originally trained in the hard sciences. Unlike me, he made his committment to God at a later age in life.

This book provides an historical study of the rise and fall of atheism as a potent social force. He defines an “Age of Atheism” bounded by the fall of the Bastille in 1798 to mark the beginning of the age, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to mark the end of it. While McGrath is an unabashed Christian and writes from a Christian perspective, this is not a defense of theism or an attack on atheism. Instead, McGrath attempts provide a history of atheism as a social movement.

His book starts with a description of atheism in the ancient and classical worlds, not as an exhaustive survey, but simply to note that there is is a long history of atheism as a formal philosophy.

But in the classical world, atheism was more or less a novelty. The thing that forged atheism as a successful doctrine was as a reaction to the oppression of the state church. The paradigm of this was the French Revolution, where God Himself ws seen as the enemy. McGrath contrasts the American and French Revolutions thusly:

[In contrast to French experience, the Americans did not see political republicanism as entailing atheism.] Was not Calvin’s Geneva, that city of God set upon a hill for all to see and imitate, itself a republic? And might not republicanism and the cause of true religion thus be united, where in England they were divided?

Yet the French Revolution was fundamentally different in character. Instead of throwing off the yoke of a colonial power, the Revolutionaries saw themselves as deposing oppressive institutions within their own nation. For American republicans, Christianity — in various forms — motivated and guided their struggle. It was their ally. The French Revolutionaries saw it as their enemy, a power that gave legitimation and support to those who opposed the will of the people and that claimed divine support for the status quo. It was institution that had to be neutralized…

The driving point here is that atheism, or at least anti-religious activity, was seen as a liberating force against oppression. McGrath points out that most of the so-called “atheists” of the time were in fact anticlerics, not really atheists. For instance, Voltaire, who the French Revolutionaries made into a demigod of atheism, was in fact not an atheist. He was an anticleric theist. Atheists like to quote Voltaire’s statement that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.” They do not tend to provide the entire quote:

If the heavens, stripped of their noble imprint,
Could ever cease to reveal Him,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him,
Whom the sage proclaims, an whom kings adore.

In fact, Voltaire “defended the notion of a supreme being, known through intelligent reflection on the natural world, who was hijacked and distorted by the world religions in general and warring Christian sects in particular.”

The intellectual rise of atheism awaited the giants of Feuerbach, Freud, Darwin, and Marx, and the social, scientific, and political constructs they provided. McGrath goes into great length about the effects of these men on the intellectual debate, and the failure of liberal orthodoxy in response. McGrath is very critical, for instance that the orthodox Protestants of this period essentially allowed the atheists to frame the debate. For instance, as the Catholic church has officially noted, there is no necessary conflict between evolution and faith. It was the athiests who asserted that if evolution were true, then God must not exist. People of faith who accepted that assertion were put in the position of arguing the existence of God at an inappropriate level, which lead to such things as so-called “Creationist science.”

McGrath then notes that, just at the time when the atheistic ideals of modernity seemed to be at their zenith, they collapsed. Freud has been generally discredited, as has Marx. The promise of atheism — to form the basis of a new society free of arbitrary taboos and an intellectual life freed from the bounds of superstition — proved hollow.

Atheistic societies proved to be the most oppressive in history. Atheism proved itself to be more intolerant than religious society. It is possible for a theist to believe that other faiths, while wrong, have some part of the truth, but an atheist cannot believe that a theist is correct at all. Atheist societies by themselves, found it impossible to form community, or deal with the spiritual needs of its citizens without formint secular religions — primarily personality cults — that made the auto de fe pale by comparison. The promise of atheism returned dismal failure, from the Nazi holocaust to the Stalinist genocides to the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the cannibalism of North Korea. The hope that enlightened atheism would result in the natural withering of vestigial faith was replaced by pogroms and violent persecution. In fact, atheism formed a poor substitute and even today atheistic societies must keep religion down by jailing and killing people who proclaim their faith.

Thus it has come full circle. In 1789, the spark of atheism brought down a corrupt church and its symbiotic State. In 1989, it was the forces of religious faith such as Polish Catholicism and theistic societies who provided liberation from oppressive atheistic states. Nietcshe’s argument against the existence of God — one of the lack of cultural necessity — has been turned on its head.

And society at large has changed. Postmodernism, with its emphasis on individual truth, is a minor threat to orthodox Christianity but one that Christians can easily adapt to. It is inimical to atheism, which can admit not merely that there is but one truth, but that there is but one way to interpret that truth. It is no surprise, according to McGrath, that Christianity has become the fastest growing religion once again, and that its explosive growth is among those denominations most at home in a postmodern milieu — the evangelical Charismatics and Pentacostals, as described in some detail in Jenkin’s “The Next Christendom.”

As McGrath notes:

The essential difficulty here is that the classic atheist criticisms of the church do not quite ring true any longer, even in the homelands of the much-derided state churches of Western Europe. The repetition of stale cliches from the golden age of atheism sounds increasingly out of touch with postmodern reality. The rise of atheism in the West was undoubtedly a protest against a corrupted and complacent church; yet paradoxically, it has energized Christianity to reform itself, in ways that seriously erode the credibility of those earlier criticisms. Where atheism criticizes, wise Christians move to reform their ways.

The atheist dilemma is that Christianity is a moving target whose trajectory is capable of being redirected without losing its anchor point in the New Testament. And as the theologian John Henry Newman pointed out, Christianity must listen to such criticisms from outside its bounds precisely because listening may be a way of recapturing its vision of the gospel. A static atheism finds a moving Christianity highly inconvenient.

This is, I think, an important observation. I have noted in my discussions with aggressive atheists that the thing they attempt first and foremost is to define theism and Christianity in a particular way that is convenient for them. They find it profoundly difficult to accept the diversity within Christianity. Instead they must instead pretend that all Christianity is the same — a bizarre pastiche of religious caricatures that has little or nothing to do with real practicing faith.

McGrath continues:

Some atheists have argued that the phenomenon of globalization can only advance a secularist agenda, eliminating religion from the public arena. If the world is to have a shared future, it can only be by eliminating what divides its nations and peoples — such as religious beliefs. Yet many have pointed out in response that globalization has resulted in a quite different outcome. Far from being secularized, the West is experiencing a new interest in religion. Patterns of immigration mean that Islam and Hinduism are not major living presences in the cities of Western Europe and North America. Pentacostalism is a rapidly growing force, strengthened by the arrival of many Asian and African Christians in the West. The future looks nothing like the godless and religionless world so confidently predicted forty years ago…

In my opinion, the new stridency of anti-religionists and their increasing intolerance in the US towards the expression of religion, their attempts to remove religion from public discourse, and their increasing evangelism in the form of agressively taking “offense” at everything is not, as many believe, a sign of the increasing secularization of the US. Instead, I believe that these people who hate faith so much are noting that their core beliefs are being proven hollow. They cannot point to the real benefits of their atheistic faith, so they must instead rely on the other tenet of athiesm — an agressive and intrusive intolerance.

McGrath notes that athiesm may be in its twilight, but as a reactive and critical force it is here to stay. How successful atheism continues to be depends on whether or not it can overcome its historical failures and whether or not people of faith can respond in constructive ways to the valid criticisms that atheists make.

Check it out!

Book Review: 1776


By David McCullough
Hardcover: 400 pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 24, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN: 0743226712

This book has been around awhile and it’s been reviewed by everybody, so there’s not too much I can add. I was looking for something that would be a good Saturday read, and this fulfilled that requirement nicely. McCullough is a well-known historian who won a Pulitzer for John Adams. This book is a little like Winick’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America, in that it concentrates on a relatively small slice of time during a much longer conflict and explains the importance of that period to the history of the period.

This book follows the young Continental Army from a rag tag collection of militias under the command of an inexperienced and vacillating General Washington through the first important battles of the American Revolution. It starts with the surprise victory of Washington at Boston, follows through the disasters in New York, and ends with the victories at Trenton and Princeton. The book’s primary value to me was in following the maturation of Washington, who had to suffer the defeats in New York in order to learn the most important lesson of military command — there is nothing worse than vacillation. It is much better to make the wrong decision than to make no decision at all, and Washington did not start to win until he took that lesson to heart. It cost him the support of Nahaniel Lee, one of his most important generals, who wrote to another of Washington’s officers, Joseph Reed:

I received your most obliging, flattering letter — lament with you that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualification than stupidity or even want of personal courage. Accident may put a decisive blunder in the right, but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend the men of the best parts if cursed with indecision.

Had not Lee been captured shortly thereafter, there might well have been a mutiny. Washington was losing the war, and was losing the support of his officers and men. Machiavelli noted centuries before that

Of this, however, I am well persuaded, that it is better to be impetuous than cautious. For Fortune is a woman who to be kept under must be beaten and roughly handled; and we see that she suffers herself to be more readily mastered by those who so treat her than by those who are more timid in their approaches. And always, like a woman, she favours the young, because they are less scrupulous and fiercer, and command her with greater audacity.

While the approval of rough handling of women is not palatable as it was in the 16th century, the importance of audacity has not changed.

McCullough’s writing is not as easily read as Winick’s, and it focuses on command issues a bit to the exclusion of many other important issues of the day. But the book moves quickly enough, and goes deeply enough in its focus to provide interesting nuggets that are missing in broader approaches. One such nugget was scattered mention of the importance of black freemen to the fight, and the consternation that caused among the southern militias.

It is well worth the price. Any book like this is a worthy read in a country that no longer teaches its own history. Of course, the book, relying as it does so heavily on the writings of the persons involveed, cannot help but reveal the religious character of the fight. That will of course annoy those revisionists who insist that the Founding Fathers were secularists. If that offends, it might be better to stick to secularly bowlderized texts provided by the more politically correct revisionists.

Check it out!

Book Review: Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine


Charts of Christian Theology and Doctrine
By H. Wayne House
Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (August 10, 1992)
ISBN: 0310416612

This book is one of a series that take various religious subjects and reduce them to simple charts and tables. This particular volume takes a number of major theologic ideas and presents them diagrammatically. It’s sort of an “Idiot’s guide” to theology, but concentrating on organization rather than explanation.

While it is not a texbook or explanatory text, I have found it very useful for my self-studies in theology. The bottom line for me is that it is difficult to keep track of things sometimes — how, in a nutshell, did the Ebionites differ from the Docetists from the Arians from the Appollinarians from the Nestorians from the Eutychians again? What are the six common variants of feminist theology? What are the prominent tenets of so-called “black” theology? I’ve been reading about church history for many years, but I still have to go back and refresh what is what.

The book is a little dated, having been written in 1992. For instance, it does not include my favorite feminist theologian, Sallie McFague, who wrote Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language in 1997. And, of course, it reflects in part the opinions and biases of the author.

It’s not a substitute for actually studying the theology behind these charts, but it is a nice set of mnemonics and graphics to help organize self-study, and is a great starting point for developing your own tables and charts for your own teaching if you teach Sunday School or other devotional services.

It’s also, much like Berry’s book on sex and the church, a dramatic display of the diversity of Christian thought. The MSM tells us Christianity consists primarily of caricatures of a certain kind of fundamentalism. It would behoove a few of the folk from CBS or ABC to take the 10 seconds needed to peruse the table showing six very different major theories of inspiration of scripture, or four disparate evangelical theories on inerrancy (varying from complete inerrance to irrelavancy of inerrancy). On the other hand, the diversity presented *is* limited — it is clearly a Protestant text, and gives short shrift to things like Eastern Orthodox mysticism.

Still, it’s a great book to look over for a few minutes at a time to see if you are familiar with the concepts that are diagrammed or listed, and it provides a quick pointer to places to look if you are not.

Check it out!

Book Review: When I Lay My Isaac Down

When I lay my Isaac down
Author: Carol Kent
Hardcover: 195 pages
Publisher: Navpress Publishing Group (June, 2004)
Language: English
ISBN: 1576834743

I wasn’t going to read this book, but my wife told me it was great. She was right. The author is the mother of a successful young man — married, Naval Academy graduate, Christian — who finds that this perfect son is a murderer. Her son shot his wife’s ex-husband three times in the back, is convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

There is a little exploration of how and why the crime happened, but it is tangential to the book. The book is about the collapse of this woman’s world and her spiritual journey in coming to terms with it. The theme is that of Christian surrender. Many Christian texts make vague promises that things will somehow turn out OK if you put your trust in God. This book points out that things may not turn out well at all. Bad things happen, and there’s no way to sugar coat it. The test of a Christian, then is whether or not one can surrender to God and trust in His will even though it means the ruin of your life.

Hence the reference to Isaac. It hearkens to the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac up Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. The author notes the cost this meant to Abraham — to kill his son at the behest of God. Of course, as most know, God stayed Abraham’s hand and provided a ram in a thicket as a substitute. But sometimes there isn’t a ram in the bushes, and sometimes there is no avoiding that cost. It is a true test of faith to choose to follow a God that allows the destruction of your life.

Many people do not. There are those who believe in God and hate Him for his cruelty. I recently read an interesting article on Holocaust Apologetics that quotes theologian Jakob Jocz as saying “Auschwitz casts a black pall upon the civilized world. Not only… man’s humanity.. but God himself stands accused. Jews are asking incessantly: Where was God when our brothers and sisters were dragged to the gas ovens? …Faith in the God of Israel … is .. a challenge, but after Auschwitz it is an agonizing venture for every thinking Jew.” Elie Weisel, who survived the death camps, notes that the traditional Jewish relationship with God allows protest against God, with examples from Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Job, David, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk, but these “must come from within the covenant context, not from without. Specifically [Weisel stated], ‘The Jew… may rise against God, provided that he remains within God.’ ” (1) The Christian, in contrast, is obligated to believe not merely in the existence of God, but reject any idea of impassability to believe in His goodness.

The same is true on an individual basis. Like Job, it’s through no fault of their own, just a matter of seeming capricious cruelty on the part of the Almighty. Your life is destroyed because of a celestial bar bet. A mature Christian will accept that destruction and surrender gladly to the seeming malevolence of God. We know that life is one small part of our eternal relationship with God, and thus the loss we suffer is small in that larger sense, and we trust the greater plan of God, even if it requires sacrifice on our part.

This book discusses why.

I am not sure I am that strong of a Christian. But the author was, and this book provides an amazing account of how she arrived at a position that allowed her to retain her faith in the love of God even in the face of stunning tragedy.

Check it out!

(1) Barry R. Leventhal, “Undoing the Death of God: Holocaust Aplogetics” Christianity Research Journal 28(4):12-21,2005

Book Review: The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church

The Unauthorized Guide to Sex and the Church
Carmen Renee Berry
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: W Publishing Group (August 23, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN: 0849945445

I picked this book up almost at random. My wife and I were going on a road trip and had stopped at a bookstore to grab something to read on the way. It’s a pleasant surprise. Most Christian books on sex are pretty tedious — somebody has a drum he or she wants to beat, and then spends 300 pages pounding away. So to speak.

Ms Berry, on the other hand, attempts to provide a survey of the broad diversity of historical and current Christian thought on most subjects having to do with sex. It’s informal and a tad superficial; I get the impression that a lot of the hard data for the book was culled from spending a few too many hours on Google. But both of these are strengths as well as weaknesses. The informality makes the book quite readable — it may be informally written, but it is not badly written. It’s a quick read. And while it’s clear that some of the data comes right off the web, it has the advantage of being pretty current. There’s plenty of historical background, but that’s not the focus of the book.

Ms. Berry tries to be evenhanded, and does a pretty good job. She is open about her personal opinions, and presents them clearly, often as a synthesis of the rather extreme positions found in Christian thought about sex. And it’s clear that she is still dealing with some of these issues as she writes about them. Her perspective is clearly from a female perspective, and dwells a great deal on such things as “body ownership,” which is often not a big deal in books like this written by men.

For example, in the discussion about abortion, Ms. Berry lists the denominations and positions of denominations that are strongly pro-life, some that are strongly pro-choice, and provides an excellent discussion of the history of religious thought on the subject. For instance, while many of the church fathers were clearly pro-life, St Augustine (354-430 AD), The Apostolic Constitutions (380 AD), and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) were all relatively pro-choice. Further, she points out that the Roman Catholic Church has also taken different approaches. Pope Innocent III made the distinction between potential life and life that was fully ensouled. In fact, Innocent III ruled that a monk was not guilty of homicide when the monk arranged for his lover to have an abortion based on the fact the fetus had not become animated. Then in 1588 Pope Sixtus V declared that all abortion was worthy of excommunication and death. Then, less than a decade later, Pope Gregory XIV reversed that and reinstated the rule of Innocent III. Then in 1869, Pope Pius IX reversed it again, and the Roman church has been relatively consistent ever since.

Her final discussion is excellent:

As far as I can see, at least three beliefs are shared [by the pro-life and pro-choice] factions in the church. These are:

(1) An individual has the right to self-ownership.

(2) Murder is a sin.

(3) The fewer abortions one has, the better.

In spite of these shared ideals, thse two groups continue to fight one another: one advocating a woman’s right over her body and the other insisting that, once conceived, the unborn has equal rights to the mother and deserves to be born.

It’s my observation that neither side of the debate is proabortion. Christians who are pro-choice are not looking for pregnant women they can drag into abortion clinics. To characterize them as such is to creaet a false enemy. The goal of pro-choice advocates is the protection of a woman’s ownership of her body, not the careless destruction of the life of a child. Pro-life advocates are misunderstood as well. The are often presented as control freaks who want to bring womankind back under domination. Maybe some do, but the heart of the movement is to advocate for the unborn and a world that embraces life.

The best way for pro-choicers to empower women and for pro-lifers to protect the unborn is to give women teh support they need to deal with the demands of pregnancy so they they will have genuine hope that they and their babies will have meaningful lives. Would these efforts put an end to abortion? Of course not. Neither will outlawing abortion. Or demonstrating for women’s rights. Engaging in the argument, as we are presently, isn’t going to decrease the number of abortions. We all need to accept that nothing will keep women from choosing to end their pregnancies if they are determined.

But imagine how many abortions could be prevented if the Christians in pro-life and pro-choice camps combined their financial, spiritual, ministerial, creative, and political resources. We would illustrate that our love for Christ transcends our differences. I think it would change this country. More importantly, I think it would change the church.

One reason I like this book is that it pretty much breaks the stereotype of the “Christian” view on many of these subjects.

One of my pet peeves are petty antichristians who get most of what they know about Christian spirituality from the mainstream media reports, and believe, from that, they know what “Christians” think — or at least what we *should* think. I was recently in a blog discussion with a woman about, of all things, whether or not health insurance should pay for infertility treatments. Now, my personal opinion on this subject has little to do with any particular religious perspective, but more of a medical one. However, she stated that she looked at my blog and thus “knew where I was coming from.” No further discussion was necessary, since she now knew all there was to know about me. It was clear that she had little pigeonholes for people, and “Christian” was one convenient category. She had me categorized and stereotyped, and thus there was no more need for discussion. I don’t know how much it would rock her world view to read this book and find out that her stereotypes are not quite the way Christendom works.

But this book is really for Christians — people who are young in their faith and exploring the variety within the Christian religious experience, or for those who have not wandered far from the church they grew up in and are wondering what other folk think. It is also a good book for those who think they know the “right” answer to some of these questions. Most folk I know who are like that have not really considered why the other side believes the way it does. This book provides a survey-level view of that diversity. I learned a lot from it.

Check it out!

Book Review: The Trial of Gilles de Rais


The Trial of Gilles de Rais
George Bataille (Richard Robinson, translator)
285 pp
Amok books, 1991
ISBN: 1878923021

Gilles de Rais was the Marshal of France and Lieutenant of Joan of Arc in the early and mid 1400s. He was also one of the world’s most powerful predatory sadistic pedophiles, who literally harvested young children from his domain for the purpose of deriving sexual pleasure from their torture and death. He is, some claim, the basis of the story of Bluebeard. In The Trial of Gilles de Rais, George Bataille has collected the transcripts of the ecclesiastical and secular trials of the man, details his crimes, and describes his execution.

The book is fascinating from the perspective of a forensic pathologist. First are the descriptions of the acts of sexual sadism and torture themselves. They do not need to be detailed here, but are important in that they are classic. Change the name to Dahmer or Casey and you would have the very same story with minimally different technology. The evolution of the severity of the acts over time, the appeal to magic, the imagery, and the descriptions are all the same. The sadistic sexual predator has not changed in 600 years.

What is different is how this played out in 15th century French society. De Rais biggest problems came not from his sexual predatory habits, but from his economic ones. He was, as Bataille notes, essentailly a 12th century nobleman caught in the 15th century. Bataille’s discussion of the mindset of the “real” nobleman — above the law and living by conquest — puts de Rais actions into perspective. One of the most interesting things about this book is the description of the psychology of sovereignty, and the position of noblemen above the law:

… Joined to the god of sovereignty by initiatory rights, the young warriors willingly distinguished themselves in particular by a bestial ferocity; they knew neither rules nor limits. In their ecstatic rage, they were taken for wild animals, for furious bears, for wolves. The Harii of Tacitus augmented the fright provoked by their delirium by employing black shields and, wanting to surprise their enemies, to terrify them, rubbed their bodies with soot. This “funereal army,” in order to aubment the terror, chose “pitch black nights.” Often the name of Berserkir (“warriors in bear skins”) was given to them. Like the Centaurs of Greece, the Gandharva of India or the Luperci of Rome, they became animals in their delerium…

There was nothing in the Germans’ religion that would offset this cruelty and these juvenile debaucheries. There was not, as with the Gauls or the Romans, a priesthood to oppose learning and moderation to drunkenness, ferocity, and violence.

During the first centuries of the Middle Ages, we shold at least consider that something remained of these barbarous customs in the education of knights. In the first place, knighthood was apparently nothing but a contuation of the society of young German initiates. The Christian influance on the education of knghts came later. It barely show before the thirteenth century, the twelfth at a pinch, two or three centuries before Gilles de Rais…

… The principles of courtly love only slowly erected a barrier against the coarseness of a world of arms. As with Christianity, courtly love was relatively opposed to violence. The paradox of the Middle Ages was that it did not want men of war to speak the language of force and combat. Their parlance often became saccharine. But we ought not to deceive ourselves: the camaradarie of the old French was a cynical lie. Even the poetry for which nobles of the 14th and 15th centuries affected fondness was in all senses a deceit: the great lords chiefly loved war; their attitude differed little from that of the German Berserkir , who dreamed of terror and butchery. The famous poem by Bertrand de Born is, in other respects, a confession of their violent feelings…. Gilles de Rais, more than anyone, must have had the sensibility of violence harkening back to the fury of the Berserkir … For Gilles, as for the barbarians of the past, the goal was in breaking bounds; it was a question of living sovereignly.

Similarly, de Rais was primarily ruined by the fact he spent his entire family fortune on sumptous living, eventually having to sell off his castles and then attempting to reclaim them by force. The fall of one of his castles resulted in the finding of the bones of some of his victims, and the alienation of the fellow noblemen he had made war against sealed his fate. But his living was dictated by his position as a Berserkir:

In societies different from our own — we ourselves accumulate wealth with a view to continual growth — the principle has prevailed instead to squander or lose wealth, to give it away or destroy it. Accumulated wealth has the same meaning as work; on the other hand, wealth wasted or destroyed in tribal potlaches has the meaning of a game. Accumulated wealth has only a subordinate value; in the eyes of whoever squanders or destroys it, wealth squandered or destroyed has a sovereign value, for it serves nothing else if not this squandering itself, or this fascinating destruction. Its present meaning is in its squandering, or the gift that one makes of it. Its utmost reason for being is on account of that which can suddenly no longer be put of until later, being of that instant . But it is consumed in that instant . It can be with magnificence; those who know how to appreciate consumption are dazzled, but nothing remains.

Also of interest was the faith of Gilles de Rais. Like most sexual sadists, he had an attachment to magic. As a great lord, he had great resources and employed magicians and alchemists in serious attempts to summon the Devil with rites including human sacrifice. Yet, at the same time, he was a rather concrete person of Christian faith. In fact, he initially refused to place himself under the authority of the ecclesiastical court when his world finally fell down around him. The court immediately excommunicated him, and the next day he confessed his crime only on the conditions that he be given confession and allowed last rights before his death:

In this day, excommunication had an overwhelming impact. Gilles de Rais managed, on the surface, to place himself above his judges. But the superstitious devotee — that he had not ceased being in spite of his crimes and satanic pursuits — broke down. Returned to the solitude of his room, he discovered again, more terrible than ever, the nightmare in which he raved…

It is an amazing book, not merely so because of the author, himself known as an unusual combination of atheist and mystic provides a unique approach.

It is not particularly easy reading. Bataille’s style is a bit heavy, and, while forensically fascinating, transcripts and depositions of the 15th century read much like transcripts and depositions today. But it provides a unique view into the mind of a medieval noble, a sexual predator, and of medicolegal investigation in the Middle Ages.

Check it out!

Book Review: The Good of Affluence

Earlier this month, I dealt a little with Wallis’ book “Politics of God: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It.” My primary criticism was not that it was a book written by a Christian liberal about Christian liberalism, but instead that it begged all of the important questions. He didn’t have the courtesy to Christian economic conservatism to even describe it properly.

But the more I thought about it, I have never known a liberal who could. And that is a shame. I live in a country that is founded on some its basic premises, but they are never taught. The great names of failed communalist ideologies are well known, but I challenge any liberal to describe the basis of Christian conservative economic theory without simply dropping into leftist cant.

Well, there are a number of older and more recent theologians who have provided a coherent theology of Christian conservatism, and one of the best I have read is the recent book “The Good of Affluence:Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth” by John R Schneider.

This book points out the fundamental problem of the left’s theology of envy, and asks the question “Why in the world do the Christian liberals believe that it is better for everybody to be poor than for everybody to be rich?”

As Schneider points out:

There are twenty-five societies that have successfully deployed capitalism. These societies have prospered, and as they have done so, they have also developed distinctive cultures — cultures of capitalism. They are cultures of a sort that never existed before on the planet. The astonishing thing about them is not that they contain a lot of affluence, but they are cultures of affluence.

There have always been rich people in the world, and in the church there have always been rich Christian people. But human history has never before known circumstances in which entire societies were affluent and engaged in this sort of constant economic activity. For most ofhuman history, almost everyone was poor; only a few were rich. …We desperately need integrated Christian spiritual and moral theology on what being affluent means in our time.

.. With the help of others (particularly Michael Novak) I have come to believe it is mistaken — greviously so — to interpret the workings of capitalism in terms of exploitation, class warfare, and oppression (as Marx does), and its human vision and habits of economic life as incompatible with true Christianity (as Weber does). As will be clear (in the light of fresh theory) that capitalism (for all its problems) is not just the greatest liberating power in human history, but also that its cultural workings provide an unusually good opportunity for the expression of true Christian faith and virtue…

He quotes Michael Novak:

We are going to see a spiritual revival in this country, and it’s going to be led by rich people. I realize that sounds odd, but it really isn’t. The Bible tells us that man cannot live by bread alone. But you have to have bread to realize that. Rich people are finding that wealth by itself does not bring meaning and fulfillment, and they are starting to search for answers. In the past people came to God because they were suffering, because they were broken. But increasingly, in the West, it’s going to be affluence that leads people to God.

(from D’Souza, Virtue of Prosperity, pp 143-144)

Schneider points out that capitalism has, unlike leftist attempts, achieved what Christian leftists say they want — an almost complete obliteration of classical poverty. Again, quoting D’Souza:

Some people may be surprised to learn that 50% of Americans defined by the government as “poor” have air conditioning, 60% have microwave ovens and VCRs, 70% have one or more cars, 72% have washing machines, 77% have telephones, 93% have at least one color television, and 98% have a refrigerator. Not only are poor Americans today better housed, better clothed, and better fed than average Americans were half a century ago, in many respects they live better than the average western European does today.

Certainly there is still “real” poverty and “real” hunger in the United States, but studies involving actual consumption rather than economic models (which is where most inflated claims about poverty come from), the numbers are quite small. The food problem among the poor is obesity, not hunger. And, in order to keep the number of people in poverty up, the Census Bureau has proposed redefining poverty away from lack of necessities to a cultural definition of relative difference in standard of living. One might think that the left would admire this achievement and believe that it should be spread. Instead it is condemned. The Christianleft would much prefer that we all were poor and shared equal misery rather than all being affluent and unequally rich.

But, in fact, is that what God wants?

Schneider presents a careful analysis of scripture, extending from Genesis through the New Testament that says no. He first points out that God created the world for the purpose of worshipful delight. That was the purpose of the Garden, and a common thread through the Old Testament was the return to that delight as a sign of God’s favor. The theme of the Exodus, the Promised Land, the Jubilee, etc. are all themes both of affluence and of private property. In fact, as Schneider points out, in contrast to the partial description of the Jubilee that Christian leftists use as their paradigm for international debt forgiveness, the Jubilee did not do away with private property, but instead ensured that it would not be lost:

… it is mistaken to picture the jubilee as first and foremost a policy for the execution of just stewardship of the sort that [leftist theologians] have in mind. Writers on the subject almost universally miss the point that its provisions applied only to members of the original Israelite tribes. The poorest people in society were unaffected by it. For aliens, sojourners, non-Israelite debtors and slaves possessed no land in the first place and thus had no share in its repossession on the day of jubilee. Their economic need, however dire, played no role in the redistribution. Strange as it may seem, given the function of these texts in modern theologians’ discourse, the people whom the jubilee helped were not the poor, but the families of original affluence. The jubilee (if practiced) guaranteed that they enduredin their landed affluence regardless of whether they wanted (or deserved) it.

He then moves on to discussions of the prophets, and the Psalms and Wisdom of Solomon to show that, at least in the Old Testament, Jehova did not mean for those he loved to live in poverty.

Is Schneider an apologist for gross materialism, then?

Of course not. What he points out is that God gives those with greater affluence greater responsibility. Throughout the Old Testament (and New) wealth is not criticized as much as the misuse and misapprehension of wealth. The dialectic is not between poverty and wealth, but between the proper use and the misuse of wealth.

Schneider develops this in his analysis of the New Testament, particularly his description of Jesus and the discples and the parables of Luke. He notes that most of the apostles were not poor, but, like Jesus were middle class. He shows that Jesus was a firm believer in his Fathers’s instructions to delight in the world — to the point that Jesus was condemned as a glutton and a drunk. The parable of the rich fool is not one against wealth, but against defining oneself in terms of wealth. He points out that the basic strategy of what the rich fool did was little more than what any person with a 401K or savings plan would do. Is contributing to a 401K a sin? Of course not.
Schneider notes:

…Unless we think that economic planning… is inherently and thus always covetous, then the sin of greed and the eternal foolishness of the man are not inherent in his actions, but rather in the deeper and larger spiritual context of those actions.

The man’s sin and his damnable foolishness are rather in his deeper vision of what life is all about, in what it most essentially consists. The evil and damnation follows from his entire vision of human purpose and the spiritual disposition that grows from it…

… He is not covetous because he desires a secure and pleasant retirement… He is is covetous and foolish becaue he believes the storage of grain (think IRAs, 401ks, and the rest) solves the problem of his human existence…

…Had the story ended with the man’s retirement, and no final judgement, we would still sense his foolishness, the tragedy of his existence. There would still be a strange pathos about his merriment. That is because Jesus pictures him alone, utterly alone — something quite unthinkable for a rich person in that culture. No children run about the house, no wife or friends eat and drink with him. He sits and makes merry all by himself. When he does speak, he speaks to himself. And when God speaks to him, the final question implies that the value of his treasure will perish with him. “Whose will they be?”

Schneider provides a new historical interpretation of the “Dishonest servant” that opened my eyes. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader, however. I will say, though, that it makes sense for the first time, to me. He also provides an excellent discussion of the (failed) communalism of the Jerusalem church in Acts, and a discussion of the Pauline letters and James.

If the dialectic is between good and bad afluence and not between poverty and affluence, then what distinguishes them? Schneider makes a number of points. The first is the proper place of affluence in the Christian life. There is nothing wrong with delight in life, even delight in material things. But it must be placed in proper perspective.

Second, there are moral obligations associated with wealth, though those moral obligations are distinctly different for Schneider than forthe committed leftist. Unlike the leftist who has a rather one-size-fits-all view of obligations — e.g. give it to some centralized office for transfer to friends of the state — Schneider develops a theory of “moral proximity” in which each individual Christian has specific obligations to those around him or her. My obligation is very real, but it does not generalize to everyone else. And I will be judged byGod on my obligation, not anybody else’s. As Schneider relates:

… within the norm, moral proximity will often mean different things to different Christians. The general principle is the same, but it will mean one thing to an unmarried teacher, another to a banker with a large family, and quite another to a professional politician, stay-at-home mother, truck driver, garbage collector, or lonely artist. Moreover, we may each of us have very special senses of proximity that make little or no sense to anyone else. For instance, I grew up in Nebraska on the Great Plains, and for as long as I can remember I have felt a sense of nearness and obligation to Native Americans who lived on that land before the pioneers came and settled there. My wife and I are modest supporters of tribal colleges on the reservations in South Dakota (just across the state line) and this support expresses a spiritual connection we feel with the history and circumstances of these extraordinary people. On the other hand, I think it would be greatly misguided on our part to go around insisting that everyone in our vicinity feel the same way…

If only Wallis displayed the same wisdom!

Finally, Schneider discusses the question of globalism and those nations that have not achieved the affluence inherent in capitalist cultures. Schneider relies heavily on the works of Hernando de Soto, a Peruvian economist and President of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy. One of the major points is that classical leftist views of capital as property misses the boat entirely:

The [major premise of De Soto’s argument] is that almost everyone has misunderstood what capital is. Most people think of it as a synonym for property, or money, or the means of production. De Soto explains that none of these concepts defines the “mystery of capital.” In the context of vast real-world stucy of economies, these are mere “assets.” And the mysterious truth is that the poor nations have more than enough assets to be successful.

Indeed, the statistics he give the net worth of the world’s poor will be eye opening to most readers. Contrary to almost everything we read in economic theology, de Soto makes this stunning claim: “most of the poor already possess the assets they need to make a success of capitalism.” The value of savings slone among the poor of the world “is, in fact, immense — forty times all the foreign aid received throughout the world since 1945.”

… In Egypt, for instance, the wealth that the poor have accumulated is worth fifty times the sum of all direct foreign investment ever recorded there, including the Suez Canal and the Aswan Dam. In Haiti, the poorest nation in Latin America, the total assets of the poor are more than one hundred fifty times greater than all the foreign invstment received since Haiti’s independence from France in 1804. If th United States were to hike it’s foreign aid budget to the level recommended by the United Nations — 0.7 percent of national income — it would take the richest country in the world more than 150 years to transfer to the world’s poor resources equal to those they already posess.

What’s the trick? The trick is that the assets are held in what de Soto calls “defective forms.” “Their assets are dead and they must be brought to life. For assets do not become capital until this happens, and therein lies the ‘mystery’ of which de Soto speaks.” The key is formal propety law and integrated systems that validate private property by binding rules. Capital is the power of assets to change into ” movable shapes” like business and home loans, investment, wages, securities, etc. Schneider contrasts the profound machinery behind a teenager in the US thoughtlessly placing a credit card into a gas pump in the US with the arduous and uncertain process of aquiring title to land in Haiti.

The recognition that the origin of poverty is internal, not external has profound implications for a Christian moral theology.People in developed nations need to change how they think about poverty in the third world. Second, if the problem is an internal one of property rights and the machinery thereof, then the solution must be internal. This is a severe criticism of the standard solution of the Christian left:

… the picture these [leftist] writings give of global poverty is as patronizing as it is economically mistaken in the first place. [The points] also suggest thatthe guilt and sense of responsibility they lay upon people living in the prosperous countries is essentially misplaced. And, likewise, these points suggest that many of the “solutions” they propose — reforming international policies of trade, expanding foreign aid, and especially reducing consumption at home … are at the bottom as misguided as they are well-meaning. If de Soto’s anallysis is correct… then it invalidates a great deal of what has become the almost unquestioned appraoch to world poverty among theologians in the First World.

What then should we do? The machinery of wealth is not something that we can redistribute. There are a few points that can be made. First, we should note that it is a matter of grace and not works that allowed those of us who have been born in countries that create affluence to benefit from it, and the poverty of others worldwide is a matter of “bondage and bad fortune.” It also provides direction for how we should carefully choose how we direct our efforts to help those who are not as lucky as we — we should work to help them change, not to enable those who keep them in bondage.

The bottom line, though is that this idea that the generation of wealth is necessarily explotative is simply wrong. Moreover, a Christianwho really cares about the poor will focus his or her attention on how to create the environment where that person can generate his or herown wealth, not attempt to destroy the machinery that will bring everyone to a position of affluence.

Check it out: The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth by John R. Schneider Hardcover: 243 pages Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (July 1, 2002) ISBN: 0802847994