Monthly Archives: January 2014

Pope Francis The Red?

Pope Francis / Agencia Brasil

Pope Francis / Agencia Brasil

Pope Francis recently committed a cardinal sin (I crack me up) by criticizing unfettered capitalism and its effects on the poor. This earned him a bit of ire from conservatives across America. Then an Oxfam report came out claiming that 85 of the richest people have as much wealth as half the world. If true, it is an uncomfortable statistic, to say the least.

Conservative and liberal zealots read stories like these and double down on their preferred worldview. Within Christendom, conservative Christians cite Bible verses that promote personal responsibility, hard work, and freedom. Liberal Christians cite verses that have a socialist feel promoting the sharing of wealth for the benefit of all. For a sample of each, read 2 Thessalonians 3:10 and Acts 4:32-35. (Oh which to choose?)

Conservatives blame our economic and social woes on the ruling class within a growing, intrusive government that impedes free markets which could improve the lives of more people if allowed to function with less government meddling. Liberals decry the greed of big business, the wealthy, and systemic flaws that stack the economy against the little guy. My point is that elements of BOTH of these divergent worldviews—capitalism and socialism—are mentioned in the Bible as having value in the correct context. Therefore it is theologically shaky ground for Christians to embrace one worldview and demonize ALL elements of the other. There is an ethos behind each worldview that the Bible conveys to humanity—personal responsibility AND responsibility for our neighbors is not mutually exclusive in the Bible. Granted, there are good arguments regarding whether government is the best middleman for taking care of our neighbors who can’t care of themselves.

Each worldview has weaknesses because it exists in a corrupted world. Sinful people will take advantage in either of these worldviews. These days, leaders in Washington, business, media, and labor game the system for their own personal enrichment while pandering to followers of these worldviews.

Do I favor one of the two primary worldviews over the other? Yes! I favor capitalism. But the real source of our economic and social problems in America has more to do with deteriorating ethics among the general population and at the highest levels of our formerly venerable institutions. Some forms of unethical behavior in business and politics have become so pervasive that it is now just considered business as usual. We have become sophisticated in our unethical ways. Even if we adopt more of a socialist approach in America, we will still have big problems because our ethics and tolerance for unethical behavior sucks.

Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife recently pled not guilty to corruption charges. (Google “Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell” for some of the details on the case.) According to news reports, McDonnell has steadfastly insisted that he did nothing “illegal” in his dealings with businessman Jonnie Williams. This statement caused me to reflect on the possibility that many of us rely too much on the “legal” versus “illegal” benchmark when evaluating our actions. When making choices, perhaps considering “right” versus “wrong” is healthier and less problematic than leaning on the strict letter of the law. The law can’t lead us to a good heart, though a good heart can help us obey the law.

Of course, healthy ethics won’t prevail unless the majority of people believe pure ethics originate with God. Why? God doesn’t change and the Bible tells us that he is more concerned with the spiritual health of our heart. Without the higher and flawless authority of God, we adjust our ethics to suit ourselves or the culture around us.

Oscars: Not the weenies

360px-ACMI_14When I was a child, our family gathered around the TV (or as my dad called it, “the boob tube”) each year to watch the Oscars. It was a chance to glimpse the glamorous world of actors, actresses, directors, and writers. Either I was too young to know or the media, back then, didn’t do as much reporting on the private lives of movie stars. I don’t recall any stories of paparazzi hounding the mundane activities of celebrities. When a star took the stage to accept their Oscar, we didn’t know much about the star’s private life. It was an opportunity for fans to briefly see their favorite actors in a mostly unscripted setting. These days, celebrities can’t go to the loo without their movements (no pun) photographed and reported. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like to know when Jennifer Lawrence gets her hair cut just as much as the next person (sarcasm alert), but will the information and visuals improve my life? (I know it wouldn’t take much to improve my life, but that’s not the point.)

Are we an overly entertained society? Most likely, yes. It feels like the entertainment industry is everywhere. It certainly feels like an element of entertainment has blossomed in the modern church, as well. Still, entertainment is not necessarily a bad thing even in a church context. Christ often used storytelling to add emphasis to his teachings. Give most of us straight information and we nod off. Insert the message in an entertaining story and we pay more attention. Jesus was and is a celebrity, except he is worthy of adoration for more profound reasons. With Jesus, what you see is what he is. He is the embodiment truth.

Some celebrities may be good people, but we really don’t know them. We connect in some way with their image, style, or the characters they portray for our entertainment. But if we had an opportunity to hang out with them for a long time, I doubt their real personality would be what we project it to be (unless they are capable of acting 24/7). For example, my wife recently spoke several times by phone with a woman she had never met in person. When she finally saw the woman on the other end of the phone, she didn’t look anything like the image my wife had created in her mind.

Celebrities may have a talent we enjoy, but it is healthier for us to view them as flawed people with many of the same shortcomings, hang-ups, hurts, and idiosyncrasies that plague the rest of us. Their celebrity status does not immunize them from problems. The greater danger for us is the insidious propensity of our entertainer-worshiping culture’s ability to influence the way we treat people who don’t have much status in our society. For instance, if I always have time to share a story and a laugh with the senior pastor at my mega-church but I don’t have the time of day for the church maintenance staff, then I have misunderstood the teachings of Christ. Everybody wants to hobnob with the well-know.

So when the Oscars air on TV in a few weeks, we can relax and root for our favorite flicks and actors, just so we don’t let the entertainment industry corrupt our soul. Go ‘Captain Phillips!’

The “Wolf” of Wall Street: Really?

Alaska_WeaselThe Wolf of Wall Street, starring Leonardo Dicaprio, should have been called the Weasel of Wall Street (though PETA might not appreciate the defamation of weasels). In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen the movie. But I do know a film enthusiast who saw the movie. She told me the movie overflows with debauchery that pushes the boundary of its R rating in the areas of language, substance abuse, and pornography. In other words, it’s a 5 star flick by Hollywood standards.

The movie is based on a true story in which Dicaprio plays Jordan Belfort, a stock broker who was eventually convicted of fraud for stock market manipulation. Prior to his conviction, Belfort lived a life of unfettered self-indulgence via avarice, prostitutes, substance abuse, materialism, and partying. Basically, Belfort was a sophisticated thief with big appetites. How much of Belfort’s story of debauchery is true and how much is exaggeration remains a matter or speculation.

In a way, Belfort’s story reminds me of the Teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher tried wine, pleasure, work projects, wealth, and folly in an effort to discover something of value to counter the pointlessness of life. One apparent difference between the Teacher and Belfort is that the Teacher sought wisdom. Who knows what need Belfort tried to fulfill in the depths of his soul. Sadly, there were unpleasant consequences for Belfort, though I’m sure his victims would argue they suffered some unpleasant consequences, as well. The loss of investor money can cause a great deal of emotional pain to innocent victims. In a way, I suppose the title “Wolf” is appropriate for Belfort (perhaps he’s more like a cross between a wolf and a weasel). Wolves prey on others. Tragically, our culture often treats theft as a crime less reprehensible than it deserves. The Bible calls Satan himself a thief who comes to “steal, kill, and destroy.” Thievery is more serious and has worse consequences than we often realize. But I digress.

The Teacher in Ecclesiastes discovered that “God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please God.” He also learned God’s gift: “that all people should eat, drink, and enjoy the results of their hard work.” After all his searching and trying different experiences, the Teacher concludes that the best way to live is to worship God and keep His commandments. I wonder if Belfort ever came to the same conclusion. If not, he hasn’t learned much of value, yet.

To Yield or Be Right: An Experiment in Acquiescence

MH900431111The British Medical Journal recently published the results of a pilot study that didn’t go so well. A purpose of the study was to find out if people lead “unnecessarily stressful lives by wanting to be right rather than happy.” The study instructed one husband to “agree with his wife’s every opinion and request without complaint,” and to continue doing so “even if he believed the female participant was wrong.” The man’s wife was not aware that she was participating in the study.

The experiment had to be cancelled after just 12 days because the man descended into a deep depression. During the trial, the man found his wife to be “increasingly critical of everything he did.” Her measure of happiness increased only slightly during the experiment. (I suspect my wife may have signed me up for some sort of secret experiment, but that’s OK with me.)

Granted, the results of an experiment with one couple can’t be taken too seriously. But it does beg the question: do we often harm ourselves and others when we abandon what is right in pursuit of peace? One positive conclusion from the experiment might be that we trigger better mental health through expressing ourselves when we believe strongly that we are right about a given topic or situation. In other words, acquiescence as a mechanism to achieve peace and happiness does not always lead to either in human relationships. Of course heavy-handed approaches when expressing what we believe to be right are wrong. Statements like “You dimwit, how could you believe something that asinine?” do not improve anybody’s mental health (plus they hurt my feelings).

Proverbs 16:13 says, “Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.”
Proverbs 24:26 says, “Whoever gives an honest answer
kisses the lips.”

The Bible encourages the speaking of what is right, but there is a caveat: we are imperfect people and can misconstrue falsehood as truth. That is why stubbornness (aka hardheadedness) must not dominate our lives. And one more thing: acquiescence to God is ALWAYS appropriate and healthy. He is the best teacher of what is right.